Leaning over the coach roof and looking out at Englishman’s Bay, I ran through the calculations for the umpteenth time. I had planned to do the trip in 3 legs, the last of which, having no possible stops in between, would require more fuel than the tanks could accommodate. But this 80ft Bill Langen design, a carbon fibre racing machine, was no ordinary Maxi. The previous owner found her half buried in a hole in the ground somewhere in Texas. She had lost her rig, and rather than erect a new one, Sam – tired of being at the mercy of the wind – elected to convert her into a long range power vessel. He cut a section off the keel and replaced the motor with a 220hp Cummins. My job was to deliver her from Antigua to Cape Town under power.
It’s a long haul with only one motor, so for safety and to gain a little extra mileage, I flew with a small jib and spinnaker taken off a 25ft Flamenca. We wouldn’t be screaming along with the toe-rail submerged, but in the event of engine failure we could at least pick up the east flowing current south of Rio and drift in the right direction, albeit slowly. Taking a boat from one side of the world to another takes time, but sometimes flying, for all its discomfort – the whining children, hard seats and the desiccating eyeballs – actually seems to take longer. We overnighted in New York, arriving early enough to worm our way through the Big Apple. We flipped the bird at the trump tower and arrived at a hotdog stand. I was wrong in assuming New York was home to the quintessential hotdog. It was awful. Central park is huge. We passed 2hrs strolling down its winding paths and watched men in top hats driving horse drawn carriages. The park in late autumn was awash with the rusty orange of fallen leaves, and the half-naked branches foreshadowed the monolithic buildings surrounding the park.
Later we strolled down Broadway confused by flashing billboards and thousands of pedestrians moving in a restless tide. We wondered into Ripley’s believe it or not and marvelled at the stuffed head of a double trunked elephant. We called a 2 for 1 slice of pizza dinner and made a stop at an Irish pub for a Guinness before heading to our hotel.
We arrived in Antigua during the boat show. We were met by Sam who gave us a quick run through of the boat, and the next day began with removing copious quantities of dog hair and cockroach carcasses. To go with our sails we’d need a stick, and Sam knew just the place. Barbuda was hit badly by hurricane Irma some months prior. Most of the damaged boats were brought to Antigua for insurance assessment. We climbed through piles of masts, their standing rigging locked together in a tangled mess, and with measuring tape in hand we found a 26ft specimen that would work beautifully. A few days later we sailed to the north side of the island to fetch it. This would serve as a test sail and to get a feel for the fuel consumption at various revs. I hadn’t cleaned the bottom yet so I couldn’t get an accurate reading, but assuming the growth was slowing us down by 2kts, we would be able to achieve the speeds as depicted on the boats spec sheet.
We pulled up to the concrete peer. Although we had permission from the marina manager to help ourselves to masts, covertly carrying a bright red bolt cutters, I still felt like a midnight raider, and I thought well, if we could go nuts with the mast then we could also harvest a few blocks that were attached to others and save the owner some coin. We walked the mast an uncomfortable distance, scraped the barnacles off and loaded her onto the starboard side, propping her up with life jackets. Sam’s new boat was a strange and very tall 90ft aluminium cat. On board he had a complete workshop and a large crane that we would use to hoist the mast. First we had to manufacture a mast step, which was really just a 4 sided aluminium box welded onto a base plate, and then bolted to the deck. For standing rigging we used multi-braid lines of various thicknesses and tensioned by running the working end through a series of loops.
For its lack of length the mast looked neat, but quite silly and from that day on we would have to answer many questions from passers-by about how we had “lost our rig”. I suppose some thought that what now stood on deck was what remained of the previous mast (though the original being 140ft long would have to be substantially thicker), or was a very professionally done jury rig using the boom (which also would have been longer).
We spent a night tied up next to Sam, and for the second time had an exquisite oven cooked pizza made by Sam’s wife, Virginia. They told us of their idea to build a very large fibreglass Buddha and by the strength of yak and human back haul it all the way to the Mount Everest base camp. I found this to be the most random and preposterous humanly conceived idea in history, but I loved it and wanted to be a part of it.
Our first leg would take us from Antigua to the town of Natal on the North East tip of Brazil. One of the concerns when preparing for this trip was whether we’d be able to locate suitable moorings that could accommodate a boat of this size, and marinas with fuel docks. Running up and down between the boat, dingy, dock and then taxi to the fuel station and back again with a few jerry cans in the boot was not an option.
This would be the most uncomfortable and slowest leg, almost unthinkable on a sail boat. The wind along the north coast of South America is consistently from an easterly direction, but during November it tends to back a little to the ENE, and that coupled with our south easterly route would keep the wind off our bow. The current which can be 2 knots, would also knock some mileage of our day’s run so for this 1250nm stretch we banked on about 12 days.
We left on the afternoon of the 18th of December with a fresh breeze on the nose. The first day out is usually the busiest as things that haven’t yet found a home tend to take flight and a routine specific to the boat still has to take shape. It didn’t take long before we had water pissing into many of the hatches, and I had a nice puddle forming on the very centre of my bunk. I opted for the fore cabin because it seemed the most private, knowing well enough, that it’s a poor choice for finding restful sleep when beating. Nick, my first mate and only other crew member on board for the first leg, chose the starboard aft cabin. The day was spent in a huff repacking, re-fastening and doing checks on the motor and much of the equipment on board.
We cruised at between 1400 rpm and 1500 rpm on the recommendation of Sam. This seemed to be the most economical fuel consumption to speed ratio, although at times we slowed down the revs to 1250 or 1300 during days when the swell was 2m and upwards to reduce the slamming. On the 4th day we had a reduction in swell size, making life a little more comfortable – a good day to make a loaf of bread. Our diet so far consisted of a very limited and predictable menu. The choices were: chicken curry, pork chops and mash, tuna pasta, and spaghetti bolognaise. The menu would soon achieve less diversity with the depletion of the pork chops and each time it fell upon me to cook I would remind Nick of his growing disdain for my speciality with the same routine questions: “Hey Nick what should I make for dinner? How about a nice chicken curry”?
Nick is not the best cook (sorry Nick). On our last trip together (which features in the first issue of this magazine), I had to painstakingly, over two months, teach him the fundamentals of cooking. First brown the onions with your meat and fry your spices – that sort of thing. A year later he had forgotten everything, so to ensure a decent meal I would have to hover about him while he cooked.
On the 23rd we emptied two of the 200L cockpit drums into the tanks. Unable to find a decent fuel transfer pump in Antigua we sacrificed the spare water pump for this purpose. We attached the barrel end of the hose to a broomstick so we could reliably angle the hose to suck up every drop, and a couple meters back from the barrel end we installed a strainer. The hose then had to run several meters to the filler holes amidships which would be a slight upward journey. Everything went as planned this time.
Christmas arrives, and a present free Christmas it would be, although we did enjoy a lovely chicken curry around a piece of broccoli serving as our tree.
As we rounded the tip of South America we waved at the brave fisherman of Brazil who sail miles offshore on water craft as long as a bath and with the freeboard of a windsurfer. As I write this I’ve just realised why. The regions where you find these awfully wet rides are battered by constant wind and chop, the absence of freeboard permits water to wash over the boat rather than beating a more exposed surface backwards. And yes they are constantly bailing.
The Late Club do Natal was a mile up a river. We passed under a massive bridge and dropped anchor in the afternoon. We spent New Year’s Eve on the beach. The promenade was packed with hundreds of food vendors and beer tents, and moments before the countdown we watched throngs of hypnotic women engage in a ritual of throwing white flowers in the sea.
I’d eventually located the source of a leak in the engine compartment. A fine jet of water was leaking through a pinhole on the copper end of the gear cooler. I took it off and gave it to a worker to be soldered, clearly marking the location of the hole. It was returned a day later with an ugly blob of solder stuck to it, my pilot mark lost in black soot. I reattached it, and lo and behold they had missed the hole. I took it back with the same hole re-marked and again it was soldered. I reattached it, but somehow the single hole had since begotten others. Again it comes off. This time I went with my original idea of using 2 part epoxy steel – sorted!
There was no fuel dock at the marina. Bakkies loaded with containers had to reverse down the slip at high tide and run a long hose to the boat. I had to back the stern meters from the retaining wall that joined the slip, while the strong current coming into the river with the rising tide swept us sideways. We picked up a mooring ball and reversed while paying the bowline out, and pulling the stern lines in. Several mooring lines were tied together to give us the length, and at one point a command was given to a marina employee who had clambered aboard to feed more out from the bow. He bolted forward and I followed, never trusting someone to tie a knot without having first seen him do it. I caught him seconds before his single half hitch left my reach and snapped at him in my annoyance, ordering him with a firm voice to stand aside, for the Captain has arrived!
We left soon after and made it to Rio in 6 days with mellow conditions. As we approached, granite massifs surfaced from the horizon mingling with low lying clouds. I wasn’t sure where in that bulbous terrain the giant baby Jesus stood. I had longed to see it in all its glory. Coming into the deep bay where hundreds of sailing boats lay on swing moorings, he was nowhere to be found.
Although somewhere up there the giant baby Jesus stood with arms outstretched to welcome us, the rest of Rio did not. The marinas cost around 200$ a day, which I could not in good conscious expect a boat owner to pay. The other option was Rio’s version of the Late Club (pronounced “latte”). What we didn’t know, and what their website did not reveal to us is that the Late Club in Rio, unlike the one in Natal, is a private yacht club. Nevermind not being allowed to dock there, we weren’t allowed in by foot or by dingy. But where would we put the dingy when going ashore?
This most unwelcome information disseminated to us through one of the club’s director’s after we had already trespassed upon hallowed ground. I pleaded with him to at least grant us a few days to use their chandler and to come in and out with our dingy while we provisioned the boat. He reluctantly agreed, letting us know that his fellow honchos would not approve, and later we heard that some snooty club members had complained about us. (How they knew we weren’t members I’ll never know).
We spent our day off at the world famous Copacabana beach. Having a beautiful girlfriend back home, I felt slightly guilty taking in the full view of what the beach had to offer. The men are so used to blatant pseudo nudity, that they don’t bother turning their heads. Perhaps over the years they have evolved superior peripheral vision. I did not have the same resolve or vision.
After a long body surfing session, we sat on the beach watching 40 000 people having fun in the sun. A vendor passed by with a huge circular wrack of bikinis. I wanted to buy my girlfriend a gift, and I thought what better symbol could embody the ethos of Brazilian beach life, than a bikini bought on Copacabana beach? I couldn’t figure out what size would fit her, since men have very little understanding of these things, and I was no closer to guessing what colours or patterns she’d like.
A friendly woman came to my assistance, and using my handsspread apart as a measure of my girlfriend’s waste size, she selected a bottompiece. A guy near us, whose view by chance had been selected to be interruptedby a mountain of bikini bottoms now piled on the sand, was watching me “knowingly”,obviously thinking I was in fact buying slinky beachwear not for my girlfriend,but for myself. A couple of days in we woke to find 3 officiallooking tenders drifting around our boat. Receite Federal, Brazil’s custom’sequivalent, came on board to check our papers. The navy were next, concerningthemselves with the safety equipment on board and making sure we were compliantwith their coastal safety regulations. We had jumped through all necessaryhoops in Natal, informing them of our next port of call so we were not underobligation to clear in again in Rio. The chaps were friendly and polite and weconversed freely with them. They told us they had recently busted an Israeliboat with an unnecessarily huge cargo of cocaine on board so they were on the alert.
Our safety gear seemed lacking a flare and a lifejacket, and we were told to go to the navy to obtain a list of the required equipment. Once there, Katerina, a navy officer sat us in a boardroom for an hour and, after much discussion with her colleagues, informed us that we did in fact need one more flare and one more lifejacket. Once procured, we would have to phone the navy who would then come out to us again to inspect. Wary of being sent jumping through bureaucratic hoops I asked Katerina to write this down and sign her name to it. We purchased the goods, made the call and waited most of the day. Three GI Joe’s arrived and we chuckled amongst ourselves when John, our new crew member, whispered under his breath that the one guy looked exactly like ‘The Rock’, only smaller. Barbosa (a.k.a ‘The Rock’) went through our flares, and came to the decision that we needed even more. I then showed the signed note from Katerina to which he replied “they don’t really know, this is not their department, we know best”.
So now we had from Barbosa, the man himself, a list of what we needed and no more, but by pressing him with my complaints he got on the phone with his superiors who then passed us on the flares we had. I then got Barbosa to film a video of himself stating that we had all the safety equipment we needed and that as far as the navy was concerned we were free to leave. All we had to do now was go back to the navy HQ and clear out when ready to depart.
We pulled up to the fuel dock, and spent many hours filling up tanks and drums. John dropped a filler cap over the side, so I handed him a mask and fins and sent him swimming. The visibility was about 30cm and the bottom rocky. Not wanting to disappoint his captain he continued through his shivers and 20 minutes later extracted the cap from Davey Jones’ locker. We returned to our mooring and were soon ready for the big clear out. Back to the navy we go to find Katerina absent, and nobody else there knowing our story. Eventually they pieced it together and decided that even though I had a note from Katerina detailing the items we required and that we had subsequently bought, and a video from the Rock confirming that what we had bought was what was required they told us that… guess what? We did not have the right flares! Oh my god! Seriously! I must admit that at this point in a very commanding tone and in as eloquent Spanish as I could muster, I let them have it. Much pleading and many this-is-unacceptable’s ensued. My whinging worked and they let us go. And THAT was only one of the maritime bodies we had to contend with.
So happy to leave Brazil, we followed our great circle route home. The temperatures dropped as we made our way southeast into familiar cold waters. Our diesel baths and hours in the engine room were rewarded with a safe and quick passage of 17 days. In the early hours of the morning we sat off Cape Town waiting for the sunrise, and the arrival of a film crew that would document our grand entrance. Our trip was only the start of Acharne’s journey. She was specifically chosen as an adventure and marine research vessel bound for the Indian Ocean where she would help Gert Muller and an elite crew of talented individuals carry a message to the world about the plight of plastic pollution in our oceans (oceanswithoutlimits.com). I don’t think this is the last any of us will hear from her!