The wonderful thing about being a delivery skipper – besides having hours to spend fruitlessly contemplating the meaning of life while looking up at the stars, and never having to buy fish – is that when civilisation starts feeling like a mental hospital we get to run away and restore our hitherto diminishing island of sanity to its original dimensions.
The call I got from Bruce Tedder, the South African Lagoon agent, couldn’t have come at a better time. I was sitting in traffic when he asked me for a quote to deliver two Lagoon cats from France to Cape Town. The concrete madness before me suddenly melted away to reveal fresh sails like the wings of a swan, and with a breeze at my back, I felt myself riding the Northerlies to tropical climes while racing dolphins playing in the bow waves. I imagined mackerel skies, red sunsets and swimming in bath-warm waters of the equator, colourful lunches in the cockpit and freshly caught tuna.
Gary, my most trusted and experienced skipper, would captain the 45 footer and I would be in command of the 42. Our journey would take us nearly 8000 miles across the Atlantic twice. Avoiding the salt water cocktails, headwinds and Benguela current that would define the direct route, we chose instead to ride the Canary current south from Europe, cross the ITCZ and make south along the Brazil coast with the help of the Brazil current, and when just North of Rio, make a turn east for Cape Town.
As my deputy I chose an old friend from school who had done several crossings and for my crew, a young couple already in France and waiting to board. Following much excited flying and a scenic train ride through the Bordeaux region we arrived at our new charges. Like shamefully opening someone else’s present at Christmas our reverence for these new and beautiful machines is not without a little guilt for the entitlement of enjoying them before the owners do. I was on the three cabin owner’s version. The Captain’s quarters, running the entire length of the starboard hull, was like a small New York apartment replete with a sofa, desk, queen size bunk and a stately heads forward, while Gary’s boast on the 45 was a fly bridge with a full control helm station giving an elevated view of the decks and sea ahead, and the swankest cockpit layout I’ve ever seen.
We were met by Bruce, co-owner alongside Dave De Villiers, of Ocean 7, who had flown over as a service to the clients, to take handover of the vessels, ensuring they had been built to the same impeccable standards that Lagoon was known for. During our own inspection we found that the finishing and attention to detail was superb, and we were particularly impressed with the roominess in the saloon area. Going through the guts of the boat we noticed that the plumbing and electrical layout was very sensible, a tribute possibly to the poor folk whose fond sailing memories are beclouded by the horrors of contortionism and awkward spaces.
Several days later, after touring the supermarkets and applying my fair Spanish to the uncomprehending Frenchman of Les Sables d’Olonne, and after meticulously wrapping counter tops, saloon cushions and applying every protective method possible, we set off across the Bay of Biscay. Known for its tricky weather, we had to sit for a couple of days to wait for the passing of a low pressure. Leaving at the tail end of it, we enjoyed a spot of rain and mild squally conditions, arriving in Cascais, Portugal five days later. Here, the motors would have their first service by the local Yanmar dealer. An ancient fishing town that began as a castle fortress which still stands today, Cascais attracts thousands of brown bodies to its gorgeous beaches where winding stone lanes lead from the promenade through a pedestrianized old town alive with throngs of happy people seemingly on eternal holidays.
Our next stop would be an overnight stay in the Portuguese Island of Madeira only 515nm away. Producers of a wine that legend has it will keep you young. I bought 2 bottles of this youthful elixir to give to my girlfriend, which I’m still trying to entice her to open (perhaps I should tell her how old she is looking). I hadn’t been there since I was a toddler “crewing” alongside my mum, dad and brother during our first family voyage in 1984 aboard a Miura called Ocean Gypsy, which was the inspiration behind my business name, “Gypsy Yacht Deliveries”. We anchored in a bay east of Funchal and went ashore for a few fresh veggies and were off again the next morning.
Sao Vicente, Cape Verde Islands, a little over 1000nm away, would be another short leg before the long haul to Brazil. We had a Code 0 Genoa on board which combined the advantage of the massive sail area of a spinnaker with the ease of use of a furling system. Flying the “Big Black Ugly” we were able to catch up with and pass the guys on “Cheers” taking even further pleasure in the fact by ragging them about it over the radio.
Our sail to Sao Vicente was dreamy and without episode, and we arrived at Marina Mindelo early in the day, coming up stern-to alongside Gary (who, yes had taken the lead again). He was already sunning his laundry and knocking some to do’s off his list. Without rest for the wicked we were immediately greeted by the marina manager who had limped a great distance to inform us that we must report to the office and pay. That night team South Africa came out the woodwork to enjoy some of the local jet fuel at a bar upon whose walls were hung musical instruments of every conceivable kind, and Gary and I, each with borrowed guitars in hand, sat out on the pavement jamming with the locals.
The best route to Recife, Brazil would take us over the equator at about 28* west. We aimed to limit the time and fuel spent crossing the ITCZ band which is narrower the further west from Africa one sails, but too wide and you risk putting your course at an uncomfortably close angle to the South East trades once you cross into the South Atlantic high pressure cell. Approaching South America it is vital to stay east of the splitting South Equatorial current, being sure to be swept south with the Brazil current rather than west with the North Brazil current.
Crossing the ITCZ we had only two or three days of calm. It was hotter than a Durban curry, so to “cool” off and to add a little playful release to our routine we swam off the boat in that 30 degree bath like water I had been fantasizing about. Mid oceanic water is soft and velvety, and comes in a shade of blue found nowhere else in nature and unimaginable to anyone but a sailor. Staring down into that vast azure expanse, beams of light illuminate unending pathways to a welcome abyss, and one almost feels like letting go of the world’s noise and returning home to its depths. On the several days we chose to swim, we’d suffer a minor loss of mileage, but for the sake of mirth and morale I believe it was a sacrifice worth making.
I often get asked what we do all day out there. Between boat handling, navigation, maintenance, and cleaning there is still plenty of time for self-indulgence of one sort or another. Eating becomes an enhanced pleasure at sea so we tend to get very creative in the galley. My speciality is pan fried pizza, and as a rule on board everyone has to learn how to make vetkoeke – no exceptions! If you don’t make ‘em, you don’t eat ‘em! Same applies with bread. For dinners a chef could compete for the highly esteemed “Cordon Bleu” if the meal they created was voted superior to the dish cooked by the then current title holder. This accolade would absolve its wearer of all dish duty until the title was lost.
We played a lot of cards, probably more than the combined occupants of a retirement village would in a year. I taught everyone Texas Hold ‘em Poker, but the three boys on board lost interest very quickly when it became obvious that Danielle had an uncanny knack for winning almost every hand and appropriated our macaroni chips quicker than you can say Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon.
Being at sea is a great time to think or learn a skill; to learn to draw, learn a new a language, write a book or read a dozen. We are stripped of so many of the distractions on land: the shopping mall and television, the cell phone ringing and the whatsapp pinging, you really get to enjoy the simple techno-free activities we used to as children. And how lovely it is to develop a different relationship with time, where its only use is in determining when to change watch and when to fill in the log. Otherwise, one is free to forget that it’s a Wednesday or a Sunday, and you might find yourself sleeping at three in the arvie and awake at four in the morning.
We had unbelievable sailing to Recife, and crossed the equator east enough to enjoy some close reach sailing. With the approach of Brazil came the scent of soil, growth, decay, and civilisation. We found a small marina in Recife and tied up for three nights. With coffers long since depleted of greenery, we were eager to locate a fresh produce market that could satiate our craving for fruit. Our taxi driver, Pablo played tourist guide and wheeled us about the whole day for a song and a dance, goading us to try different street foods that were unique to Brazil. We drank the coconut water of the young nuts, skilfully opened at its top end with a few foul swoops of a machete, and marvelled at vegetables we’d never laid eyes on.
We turned east 150 miles north of Rio, making a slightly southerly arc along a great circle route to Cape Town. By this time we had caught our fair share of fish: four dorado, a wahoo, a barracuda, several bonito and skip jacks, and surprisingly a Marlin. But, I still hadn’t caught my all-time favourite yellow fin tuna. On a sunny day in the mid-Atlantic the bungee went taut and I yelled to Nick to furl the genoa to reduce our speed. Hauling her in I could feel she was heavy, and when the line dipped and the fish swam down – the tuna telltale – I knew we had one. Nick and I took turns hauling our trophy to the boat, and when that golden belly surfaced behind the transom, on the count of three we each reached for a gill, and in a single motion hauled all of her 32kg on board.
From Recife to Cape Town took a mere 26 days, seven days faster than my originally projected 33. Always nice finishing with a bang, our last three days were spent pounding into a gale force South Easter thus concluding our trial of the boats in all points of sail. They were impressive to wind, maintaining good momentum through direct swell, and proved to be a very fine balance between luxury, speed and aesthetics.
It was a memorable trip, not like some others before which have been immortalised by their difficulty, but because of the lack of it, and this I’ll put down to good planning, a fantastic crew and a lovely boat.