“Talking Sailing” From My Archives. 1984 Vasco. A Personal Account and A Wrap

1984 Vasco. Assegai under bare poles traversing a steep wave as the sun rose after a tough night at sea.
pic by Richard Crockett

By Richard Crockett

It’s a good time now to wrap up the memories of the 1984 Vasco da Gama storm with a personal account from a competitor.

But before that, I would like to pay my respects to the crew of ‘Rubicon’ and their families who were traumatised by their respective losses. Siggie Eicholz had selected a good and competent crew, and I doubt whether it entered anyone’s mind that in the conditions which prevailed, if anyone was to succumb to the conditions that night, it would not be the ‘Rubicon’ crew. In my mind I am sure that whatever happened to them was beyond their control, catastrophic and quick. They will all be remembered, respected and honoured for being wonderful people and fine sailors.

Mark Weimann, a crewman aboard Dave Cox’s ‘Magic Carpet, was inspired by the memories I have posted for the past week that he wrote the report that follows:

Firstly, thanks for keeping the history alive, I find it so interesting to look back on all those times that I remember, sometimes not a vividly as I used to. So too, the ’84 Vasco. This is my personal recollection and there may be a couple of gaps in what I remember.

I did the ‘84 Vasco race on ‘Magic Carpet’, it was my 4th race on the same boat, having done the first in 1979 (beaten to East London by ‘Soundwave’ with Neil Bailey skippering by some 5 hours after falling into a windless hole off the Kei mouth), and then winning line and handicap honours for the next two in 1980 and 1981.

’82 and ’83 I was not able to take part due to being in the army, so when ’84 came around I was really happy to be doing it again.

As you have mentioned in your articles so far, the 30 – 35 knot SW forecast didn’t overly concern us, in fact I think the feeling across the fleet was that we were going to get headwinds at some stage in every Vasco, and it was not if, but when and where you were relative to the finish. When we won the race in ’80 (I think) we got hit by the westerly buster off Bashee river and that “closed the door” on the boats behind us. Besides most SA yachtsmen were brought up in sailing terms, with a solid dose of strong winds, and I think in retrospect, it is this experience across the fleet that was a reason why the outcome was not worse.

So, we set off out of Durban with the rest of the fleet, as I recall a lightish NE that filled in gradually through the day. On board we had Dave Cox as skipper, John Gordon-Thompson, Glyn Buckle, Ian Gordge and I think Gerd Rahmer (if I’m not mistaken) and myself. (ED. G Olivier was also aboard according to the crew list).

Everyone on board had a lot of experience in racing on the coast and heavy weather sailing, and everyone was well qualified, me as the least qualified with just a Pilots Exemption. We were well positioned throughout the day, other than to ‘Assegai’, with Terry Clarence as skipper (and yourself as crew) who simply ran away from the fleet, doing what Angelo had designed her for in those off-wind conditions, and ‘Sensation’ being a 2-ton rating and much larger.

We took a mid-course approach, Dave’s idea was that we would make the most of the current while the NE blew, but be able to get inshore when the SW hit to firstly get out of the waves, but secondly knowing that at night down the east coast from April onwards, the land breeze modifies the prevailing wind and we would get long starboard tacks enabling us to make fast miles, with only short port tacks to get back inshore. Just after sunset, I was on the helm having an absolute blast in 15+ knots of NE wind with a nice following sea, we had the 0.75 spinnaker up with that huge main on Magic Carpet and were about a mile (my recollection, but may be optimistic, certainly not more than 2) behind ‘Rubicon’, and as it got dark, we kept chasing her stern light.

As I recall it, it was around 20h00 when the NE was going soft, and I said to Dave (and this memory is indelibly etched into my mind), “Dave, there’s something going on out there, the sky ahead of us seems to be blacker, than the rest”. It was as if the sky had 2 colours, normal night sky to the side and behind, but this intense blackness ahead.

Dave, looked at it , concurred with me and said “lets just give it 5 minutes and see what it does”. Well probably a minute later the wind abruptly switched from NE straight to SW and hit us at probably 35 knots (again memory is hazy on this point). We got hit flat in the water and I remember seeing the spreaders dip in the water just before the spinnaker shredded. Dave took the helm and Glyn and I went on the foredeck and pulled the spinnaker down, or rather the tapes and the remains of it. We went straight to 3 reefs and set the no.3 jib, which was our standard configuration for this strength of wind upwind.

Most of us had not even put on foul weather gear yet as the conditions had been quite balmy so, we all got into our gear as well as harnesses and started the beat upwind. At this point we could not see ‘Rubicon’ specifically, but could see lights behind us in all directions as other boats following had now been hit and were on various tacks and angles to us. We then did what we would do for any race with these conditions, and sat “birds on a branch” on the weather side while we headed upwind.

I do recall that it was after about an hour that the wind started to increase and by this time that waves were starting to pick up. I cannot remember, but if I had to guess, I think at this stage we were between 8 and 10 miles offshore? Now, Magic Carpet was not a democracy (what racing yacht ever is), but with the wealth of experience aboard, Dave was having regular conversations about options, and made the call to tack and head inshore.

I think at this stage we were somewhere south of Port Shepstone, but not quite at Port Edward – we could see the lights of the North Sand Bluff light, but the tack we took was north of that. I do remember us having a bit of a laugh when a Cruise Ship went past to seaward rolling and pitching and comments about how the food and wine would not be enjoyed tonight. From recall, I do not remember seeing any flares, or hearing any distress calls on the radio at any stage that night.

By now we had changed the jib to the No. 4 which was 1 above the storm jib, and were heeled hard over, the seas were very big and bumpy and unpredictable, sailing on port tack with waves starting to break upwind. We made slow progress, but slowly worked our way inshore, As my memory has it, around 02h00 or maybe 03h00 in the morning Dave made the call that the conditions were too dangerous and that we were no longer racing and would head back to Durban.We had no sea anchor or drogue so our only course was to sail downwind and slow the boat as much as possible. Given the conditions that was easier said that done, and I don’t remember whether we dropped the main for a while and sailed on jib only, but the Photograph that Andrew Haliburton took of us the next morning, shows us running under triple reefed main only.

1984 Vasco. Magic Carpet on a wave the morning following the storm.
pic by Andrew Haliburton

The wind did start abating shortly after dawn, but again looking at Andrew’s photo, that is still a very steep wave, which given ‘Magic Carpet’ was 33 feet long, gives you an idea of it’s size ?

It was sometime early in the morning we got a call on the radio from ‘Reaction’ advising that they had rolled and broken the mast and needed a tow back. Finding them was a real challenge given the state of the sea and the whitecaps, but once we had them under tow, for the first time we started to get an idea on how the rest of the fleet had fared, together now with radio calls and reports coming through.

On a sidenote, Peter Collins , skipper of ‘Reaction’ had a heart attack during their rollover and dismasting, but at this stage he and his crew thought he had broken some ribs !

The cold front passed pretty quickly so that by mid-afternoon we had full sail up again, and when we arrived off the breakwater, it was only about 10 – 15 knots. The seriousness of the situation started to become apparent when Dave was called on the radio to do an interview with one of the local radio stations. By the time we got through the harbour entrance and were bringing them into the Jetty at PYC, it had already got dark. This was when we really got to understand that this was no ordinary race by the presence of TV Crews, and for me, my Dad, who had heard the news on the Radio, and rushed to the yacht club after work to meet us.

Looking back afterwards, I hesitate to use the word “lucky” to describe how we got away with no damage. We had a very strong, well proven ocean boat, we had a very experienced crew who had been through severe storms together before, and a skipper who’s paramount concern was safety, and yes, maybe there is luck or good fortune in all that.

Weimann now owns a Beneteau Oceanis 473 named ‘Cloud Nine’.

In Conclusion
From all the reports and comments made by those on the race there is absolutely no doubt that the boats were completely seaworthy and crews fully competent. In those days Certificates of Competence were voluntary and administered by the Cruising Association of South Africa (CASA). These were simply not pieces of paper collected like stamps and filed away. In those days they were treasured items that people wanted and which had been obtained by spending many miles at sea in all conditions while learning the ropes and seamanship. Then followed a rigorous exam from a CASA examiner before the Certificate of Competence was awarded. These certificates were treasured and obtained because each and every recipient in those days wanted one to prove their competence. Sadly today this is not the case.

Without the above competence, the damage and statistics may have been much worse. Thankfully it was not. All crew on the race know that they survived one of the most viscous storms ever off the East Coast of South Africa. Their competence ensured that.

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