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AllanMossop

Cape to Rio 2017 - The sinking of (Voor)Trekker II

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I don't float. Something to do with percentage body fat. I'm not as skinny as I used to be but I still don't float. Not advantageous if you are a sailor. Not fat enough to float and keep you warm when your boat sinks and you have to spend a lengthily time in the drink. In the Atlantic. The Atlantic is cold. It's the Benguela current that wells up from Antarctica, scoots up the African West coast and makes hoodies and booties standard operating equipment for Capetonian waterfolk . Those that aren't a bit mal in the head that is.

 

So here I lie in the little tepid plunge pool on the roof of a guesthouse in Urca, Rio de Janeiro. My feet resting on the step, keeping my lungs full so I don't slip below the surface and fill my sinuses. Head back staring at the tropical puffiness of the clouds, a massive shooting star blazes across the firmament. I cast my eyes backwards up Sugarloaf Mountain and forwards across the bay to the Christ the Redeemer statue illuminated on its own granite massif. No, the statue does not sit on top of The Sugarloaf. It has its own place. A place that makes the tribute on top of Pappagaaiberg in Stellenbosch seem halfhearted.

 

I didn't want to be here. I felt like I didn't deserve it. I had failed. We had failed.

 

I crewed on WOW, a 45ft "Stealth" catamaran from Phuket in the Cape 2 Rio race that started in Cape Town on January 1st 2017. One of the longest ocean races in the world that doesn't involve a circumnavigation. We had our problems when we broke our daggerboards and although not life threatening, had to make the difficult decision to abandon the race. A difficult decision to make until we heard about "Tekker II". Originally Voortrekker II. A legendary boat in South African sailing circles. Associated with names like Bertie Reid and John Martin. Reverential names all.

 

I didn't want to go to Rio. I couldn't celebrate the achievement of finishing the race but my wife, Claire and I had forgotten what we learned after the tsunami in 2004 when we lived in Phuket. "If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans". Claire had booked a whole itinerary around our expected arrival dates and there was no bailing out. Flights and hotels were booked and paid for. So I shuffled back from Walvis Bay where the boat waited repairs, spent a few days home in Riebeek Kasteel, where I received so much love and support from the close community and booked a flight across the Atlantic. The best way to cross the Atlantic - In a Boeing. Not.

 

Claire convinced me I had to go to the yacht club. After all I had to return the GPS tracker. The guys from Trekker II had just arrived. We drank copious beers and caipirinhas.

 

This is the Trekker II story.

 

I swear I'm not making this up. You couldn't. It involves the words "Pan Pan", "Mayday", death, scuttling and survival. Serious words. Serious situations. Serious guys. Boytjies one and all.

 

Rob Hawley and Shaun Verster heard that Voortrekker II was lying slightly worse for wear in the V&A. A 40 year old legend of a boat and commissioned Mark Wannenburg, a pro sailor and instructor to get her ready for the Cape2Rio. A two year labor of love for Mark who made the boat his home as he and others got her ready for the event.

The crew were not professionals like you would find on fellow competitors like Black Pearl and Runaway. These are just guys. From all walks of life they came together in the name of adventure. Wesley was a bar man at the Saldhana Yacht Club and aspirational sailor who convinced Mark to let him help on the project. Mike project manages in Dubai and Peter sails a Muira in Simon's Town. A quiet spoken man with a big grey bushy beard, a standard 5 education and a degree from the University of Gifted Hands and Creative Minds. They call him "Papa Nuvi", Iranian for Father Christmas. Richard and Sean completed the crew of 8. Some had done this before. Others not but here they were putting their faith in a classic racer with much more pedigree than all of them combined.

 

The start was great and they were flying along from the Sunday start. A flotilla of motor boats followed the fleet, spinnakers coloring the Table Bay sky until the wind and choppy seas denied them any further. They rounded the mark off Table View and started the mad dash across the pond. Sights set on Rio. On Tuesday, 500 nautical miles (900km) out, everyone was settling in. Coming to terms with the nausea and finding their sea legs. Mark was steering at the helm and felt the wheel go stiff. Not good. Definitely not good. A trip below revealed that the post that connected the steering to the rudder had broken off leaving one of the most important 6 feet of the boat useless. Not only useless but now in a position to sink the boat. Freed from its support, it was now waggling about beneath the boat threatening to rip itself out the bottom leaving a big hole. Holes in boats are not a good thing. Water was coming in and there was nothing that could be done. They were not going to be able to McGyver their way out of this one. "Stay Calm and .... what? Calls for rescue reveal that when you are more than 500 km from shore rescue is near impossible. Not if you can stump up the R1,000,000 for the recovery vessel that can't guarantee that the boat won't still sink. Rob and Shaun aren't Bill Gates. They may sell his business software in Mauritius but they don't have that kind of bank balance.

 

Pan pan is the call to let folks know you have a "situation". Almost everyone knows Mayday is when the smelly stuff has reached your chin and you need help fast. But this isn't Adderly Street on a Saturday morning. No quick call to resolve this one.

 

A call on the VHF reveals that there are a couple of vessels in the area. The merchant corn carrier Golafruz, an Iranian flagged and not really meant to be there confirms it's able to help. If you don't believe in time, place, and Dirk Gently's fundamental interconnectedness of things, this will change your mind.

 

They had fortuitously changed their course due to weather. The guys had a hard decision to make. A decision that no sailor or boat owner ever wants to make. They say the happiest days in a boat owners life are the day you buy it and the day you sell it. What does that make the day you have to sink your own boat. That's got to suck. Big time.

 

The Captain has to maneuver his massive ship to intercept a flailing 60ft yacht in a way that he doesn't run over it. The ship is empty which makes it easier but it means that it's almost 60 feet up to the rail. The first attempt fails so he goes around for another go. Mark has the engines on and points the yacht at the side of the ship as it passes in front of him and slams it into the side. The bow glances off and slides down the ships hull. A line is thrown from on high and made fast. It's a problem that the ship can't slow down. Something with the oil system shutting off the engines so it has to keep over 7km/h. Not exactly Keanu Reeves on a bus with a bomb stuff but throw in choppy seas and the discordant size of the vessels and you have a greater predicament.

 

The boat starts to swing round and the line gets caught around the forestay and a winch. This could bring the whole mast and rigging down and the winch threatens to explode under the strain. Harken design their winches for sails not grain carriers.

The guys get the grab bags, the waterproof bags you keep the most essential items for these kind of times and prepare to attempt the rope ladder lowered by the Golafruz crew.

The yacht is being dragged backwards and the deck is heaving over 10 feet against the hull making this an extremely dangerous exercise. The spreaders on the mast are slamming into the hull, acting like big swords threatening to impale the crew as they climb. Sink, stabbed or get crushed. Anyone for crucifixtion? Not a lot of grey area there then.

Richard is first up the ladder and the Golafruz crew throw down lines. They are going to be able to save some of their stuff. Not just the essentials. How to decide. Foul weather gear is damned expensive. Check. A couple bottles of whiskey is essential. Check. For the rest, each to their own.

 

Sean makes a go of it and reaches for the ladder but gets the timing wrong. He hasn't waited for the yacht to reach the apex of the swell and is about to get crushed between the boats. Swift reactions and a yank from Wesley, half Sean's size, slams him back on the deck. Sean is a big boy. 6'4" and no longer 80kg's, he realizes that 40 is not really the new 20 when it comes to this sort of thing. Safety harnesses on and clipped onto a line each makes their way up the ladder.

Peter, the "ou ballie" puts his red Muusto foul weather gear on and climbs up over the top to hear the First Officers son who was on board with his Dad and Mom say, "Look, its Papa Nuvi come to give me a present."

Mark is the last to leave having cut the pipes and opened the seacocks to flood the hull. It's bad enough throwing a chip packet into the sea let alone leaving a whole boat for trash, bobbing around for ages, just below the waterline waiting for someone else to run into.

 

The Captain, Emir, is astounded and tells the crew that he gave about a 70% chance of getting them aboard without someone dying.

 

Emir couldn't have been a more gracious host. So eager to accommodate and dispel the negative media myth about the Iranian people. An invitation is extended to join in their Muslim prayers and an offer to bring a Bible to read from is offered. Radical.

 

The crew are fed and made to feel comfortable, assured not to worry, they always carry enough food on board for 8 extra people. The food is a little strange, involving pomegranate, apricots and other "Iranian delicacies". "Very special and expensive in Iran you know"

They put half a sheep on the braai. Here was rice. Lots of rice.

Emir confides that many years before he lost a few crew who went into an unventilated hold and died. This had weighed heavily on his heart for a long time and he now felt redeemed and would sleep more peacefully from now on. The merchant marine was not what it had been. Iranian ships were rarely welcome these days with all the western propaganda and maybe this would be his last voyage.

He then went to his quarters, had a heart attack and died. There was an "epi pen" in the salvaged first aid kit but it was too late.

The siren sounded and the crew mustered to be told the news. The body, normally buried before sundown in the Muslim tradition has to be strapped to a pallet and put in the freezer to avoid complicated questions. They face a lengthy investigation by both Brazilian and ultimately Iranian authorities.

 

The highs and lows of life at sea. The crew spend the next 11 days dealing with their personal feelings. Papa Nuvi puts on his red foulies and makes a bit of a show. Hauling out Richards stinky socks, "No, that's not for you", and after a couple of other less desirable items he finally takes out Wesley's ukulele and the little boy finally got his present from Father Christmas.

 

Luckily the ship was heading to Vitoria, a couple of hundred km North of Rio. Lucky that.

 

Once ashore some are waiting for wives to arrive and decide to take a few days before heading to Rio. Richard, Peter, Mark and Wesley take a taxi, a ride they describe as being the most terrifying part of their ordeal. Mark only has a bag. Not a big bag. It holds his entire life. He's lost his house of two years and everything else. Sometimes it's good to simplify your life but really, this is ridiculous.

 

So there we sat at the end of the stoep, drinking caipirinhas by the bucket load, welcoming the crew of Weddell and Skimmer as they arrived triumphant in their achievement.

 

I told my slightly less sorry tale of woe and listened to a patchwork of the story from each of these amazing guys. A lump in my throat and the hairs raising on my arms and the back of my neck on many occasions.

 

Having drunk a skin full we wobble around the corner to see the sun setting behind Christ The Redeemer, over the water from the yacht club for a sun downer beer. Richard puts his hands together in a Thai "wai". Under his chin. I share with him that in such an occasion, when such deference is given, it would be appropriate to raise the wai above your head. Thanks given.

 

I can't explain the series of events that brought us together. I appreciate the opportunity to having had these guys share their story with me. A story that I will never forget and one I know they can never share in its entirety. Not to anyone who can really understand. Each has to process in their own way. Wesley went looking for surf. Mark got another tattoo, the latitude and longitude of the boat where she went down. Robs writing his own blog.

 

So if you are ever offered a chance to go on a Cape to Rio boat, just say yes. You don't want to spend the rest of your life saying "I once had the chance to do it but...."

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Normal greeting is fuck off newbie, and show the other halfs tits, but, I think you get a pass after that story!!

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Adventure, shipwrecks, redemption, tragedies - that's a pretty powerful first post!

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The original Voortrekker was 50' IIRC.

 

And - I once had a chance to do Cape to Rio - can't remember now if was Kialoa 3 or the Blue Pig, but I had just shut down the VOR at Darwin airport and had 2 weeks to get the new one up and running, so I couldn't go. Bugger.

 

Thanks Allan for the story!

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And I thought that Allan's post of his WOW story was great... until this one came up. GREAT story, but make no mistake. This Allan guy can write, I think he could make a good story out of watching paint dry.

Thanks Allan

 

And a toast to the Trekker II crew, Emir and the iranian crew

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Wow...!

Awesome story Al.

Hope to catch up at the Reggae bar for a story time and beer or 2 when your back here.

Cheers Muz.

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Normal greeting is fuck off newbie, and show the other halfs tits, but, I think you get a pass after that story!!

 

Agreed.

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That was a helluva story. So this wasn't the original Voortrekker of OSTAR fame?

Good morning,

 

Quite correct. The original Voortrekker was a 50 footer designed by van de Stadt for the 1968 OSTAR and sailed by Bruce Dalling into 2 nd place. Bertie Reed then sailed her in the first BOC round the world race in 1982, ending second.

 

Voortrekker II is (was!) a 60 ft Angelo Lavranos design done for the SA Navy for Bertie Reed as a short hander. She was first monohull in the 1982 Two Man Round Brittain and Ireland Race. Sadly the first BOC race in 1982 had a 56 foot size limit and Bertie therefore had to take the old Voorterkker on the race.

John Martin however sailed Voortrekker II in the 1986 BOC race. He won the first leg as well as the last leg. That boat really had few equals when it came to sailing upwind.

Sadly the navy sold the boat in later years and it fell into disrepair.

At least she went down while sailing.

 

Regards.

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Awesome and epic tale, thanks for that! Having come very close to that situation, on a Golfcart 50, in the cold North Atlantic' of November '79, I can empathize with their feelings....

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Allan Thank you so much for sharing that story. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. We have friends who had to abandon their CS 36 in mid Atlantic, due to rudder failure, a few years ago and many of the challenges related to getting off the boat and onto a ship were very similar for them. I'll toast Emir tonight!

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Judging from the first response to this story I understand that I had entered waters far less contained than those of the Atlantic. Thanx for your support for a newbie. Much appreciated. Obrigado

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Well written. Thanks for sharing. A story that needed to be told to the world.

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Well written. Thanks for sharing. A story that needed to be told to the world.

+10!

Cheers,

Jim B)

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What a thrilling story, so well told, I could almost feel the heat and taste the caipirinha in my hand, whilst looking at Sugar Loaf in the short distance from the club in Rio!!

 

I almost missed the boat in 2011. I went and fetched Nora, a Norwegian owned French built Alubat, on behalf of her 10 owners from Beira in Mozambique in October 2010, together with two young skippers from RCYC. We arrived to a dirty, but beautiful yacht tied to a tanker in Beira's port - no yacht marina in sight, but plenty of sunken masts sticking out of the water all around.

 

The trip to Durban proved to be one of the scariest things I'd ever done, and I decided not to do Cape To Rio 2011, much to these Norwegians dismay. They all wanted a girl from Cape Town, able to help stock her for the race, and navigate Table Bay, to join as none had ever been to Cape Town. They sent me more than R100 000 to fix and buy all that was needed after I told them that they and their families (especially girls with long hair), had used and abused the boat like a prostitute with no maintenance, thus rendering our trip from Beira a hell run with blocked bilges, leaking water tanks, out-dated safety equipment etc.

 

They arrived one by one from early January, and needless to say, I was persuaded to do the trip only 5 days before send-off on 15 January 2011. This after I steered her in to the Waterfront for the display of Rio race yachts the Saturday before the race started. As the public was allowed on deck, a young Afrikaans couple with their two small kiddies climbed on. I was asked what my role was, and when I told them a bit of back-ground, they were amazed that I was now apparently not going to join the crew anymore. The father's words to me were - don't regret the things you did not do in life. Rather regret the things you did do.

 

I left with 5 strangers, all from the opposite side of the globe to my home town, Cape Town, on Saturday 15 January 2011. A few times before I had said farewell to other sailors embarking on the trip, but this time it was me at the helm steering her out of the marina and to the waiting line before we set sail.

 

Everything that could go wrong on the trip did go wrong (but not to the extremes of losing the yacht, masts etc), and when we lost our governor, the guys unpacked half the engine on the table, looking at it for hours and hours until I spoke the fear of God into them if we lost the race- I had told everyone, including John Martin, that we would win. I had done my homework on the possibility with her built and weight and knew we could. Whilst I was asleep on day three, they tore the spinnaker and a day later, the gennaker. I started sewing, with no help initially as they thought it was a waste of time, and ready to give up.

 

With a sewn together gennaker (foot, leech on one side from top to bottom and header), we made it to Rio and went on to win line honors and on handicap for cruising class. On Nora's blog, the no 1 skipper, Jan, wrote one morning - "Suletta got Nora to record speed levels in roaring seas last night on her shift at the helm". Ah, the thrill of it all!

 

I spent my 50th birthday in Rio, accompanied by about 30 yachties the whole day - from YCRG, up to Christ the Redeemer, cocktails at sunset on Sugar Loaf and buffet dinner at the Sacred Heart restaurant. We walked in a throng of happy, healthy people the whole day.

 

I have written a book, available at Amazon.com - My Love Affair with Nora, about the most incredible, amazing experience of my life!

 

So no, if ever you are presented with the opportunity to do the Cape to Rio - don't think twice - grab the opportunity with both hands!!

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This deserves a bump back to page one. And the mythical FP.

 

Terrific story.

+1 Thanks for sharing!

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