The South Atlantic Yacht Race, originally known as the Cape to Rio, is the longest continent-to-continent yacht race in the southern hemisphere.
While Cape Town has always been the starting point, there have been three finishing venues in the 12 editions of the race since its inception in 1971, namely: Rio de Janeiro, Argentina; Punte del Este, Uruguay; and Salvador, Brazil.
The use of different ports for the finish has seen the race distance vary between 3 400 and 4 500 nautical miles.
Origin of the race
The idea for the holding of a continent-to-continent ocean race – from South Africa to either Australia or South America – was borne out of the success of South African sailor Bruce Dalling in the 1968 South Atlantic Single-handed Yacht Race.
Competing in Voortrekker, a yacht purpose-built for the event, Dalling was second across the finishing line and first on handicap. His success turned him into a national hero, and provided sailing in South Africa with a massive boost.
The Springbok Ocean Racing Trust, together with Clube de Rio de Janeiro and in conjunction with the Cruising Association of South Africa, organised the first Cape to Rio Yacht Race. It took place in 1971.
A fleet of 10 to 15 yachts was expected, but sailing fever took hold of South Africa and extended beyond its borders too. A total of 69 entries were received, many of them from abroad, and a good number from South Africans living inland. Ultimately, 59 yachts were on the starting line.
Bruce Dalling was chosen to lead the South African challenge in Jakaranda, which was built especially for the Cape to Rio. She was a hugely expensive yacht for the time; she cost US$12 000 to design and R135 000 to build.
The British Royal Naval Association entered the race with Ocean Spirit, co-skippered by two high-profile men in the world of sailing: Robin Knox-Johnstone, who had become the first man to circumnavigate the globe single-handed in 1968 and 1969, for which he was awarded the CBE, and Leslie Williams, who had finished fourth in the 1968 Atlantic single-handed race. They had teamed up to win the 1970 Round Britain race in Ocean Spirit.
History-making all-women crew
Sprinter was an entry that drew a lot of interest. She had an all-women crew of five; it was the first time that an all-women crew would compete in an ocean race between two continents.
The boats set sail on 16 January from Table Bay, with an estimated crowd of 100 000 in attendance. The fleet and the numerous craft surrounding it made for a breathtaking sight on a sunny day.
Voortrekker, which was already the most famous name in South African sailing, led the fleet on both handicap and distance after the first day’s racing. Jakaranda, meanwhile, had her title challenge ended by a broken rudder.
Ocean Spirit and the big Canadian entry from the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, Graybeard, had moved up to dice for the lead. They continued to push one another but, by the ninth day, Albatros II had taken over the lead on handicap.
Striana then moved into the overall lead, while Albatros II remained at the top of the board on handicap. A week later, Albatros II, after opting for a southerly course, was reduced to a virtual standstill while those boats that had chosen a course further north made good ground.
Ocean Spirit finally opened a small lead over Stormy and went on to reach Rio de Janeiro on 8 February, after 23 days and 42 minutes. Graybeard was second across the line, almost a day later.
Fortuna finished less than two hours behind the Canadian entry, with Pen Duick III, the winner of the 1967 Sydney to Hobart yacht race, skippered by Legion d’Honeur holder Lieutenant Eric Tabarly finishing fourth.
Albatros II was the eighth boat into port, but on corrected time she narrowly pipped Striana for handicap honours.
Sprinter, with her all-women crew, was 44th across the line, and greeted with a special three-gun salute to mark the historic moment.
The second Cape to Rio race took place in 1973. Included in the field was 73-year-old Kees Bruynzeel, who had suffered three heart attacks in the year leading up to the race. So determined was he to take part, he took along a nurse specially trained in heart emergencies as a member of his crew on Stormy.
The race favourite was Ondine, skippered by American Huey Long, while Voortrekker had been re-rigged for the race.
Ondine gambled by sticking close to the rhumb line – the most direct route – while Stormy skirted the South Atlantic high, with Voortrekker electing to race a little north of her.
After a week, Ondine ran into trouble and her daily mileage dropped dramatically. Stormy, meanwhile, was fairly consistent.
By day 21, Huey Long had had enough and he made the decision to retire Ondine from the race so that she could keep her other appointments on the racing calendar.
Stormy took victory in a record time of 21 days, 15 minutes and 31 seconds. On corrected time, she clocked 19 days, 18 hours, 20 minutes and 18 seconds. Jakaranda was second across the line, followed by Omuramba more than three days later.
The 1976 race drew a record entry of 128 yachts, including Huey Long, who returned in his maxi Ondine to have another crack at the title. This time around, Long opted for a more conservative approach.
The winds were never strong enough for the bigger entries, like Ondine, to enjoy any runs at maximum speed, which allowed the smaller boats to compete with them. However, Long took the line honours in 17 days, five hours, 35 minutes and 20 seconds to lop more than four days off the record set by Stormy in 1973.
The handicap honours went to Guia III, while South African yachts filled six of the top 10 positions on corrected time.
In 1979, the finish of the race moved to Punta del Este in Uruguay. The new destination increased the distance of the race considerably, from 3 600 miles to 4 500 miles. A winning time of about 30 days was expected.
Because an extra 10 days was calculated for the finishing time, the number of entries dropped drastically from 128 to only 36.
Spar led the race for the first 13 days before she was passed by Kwa Heri. Voortrekker was not far behind, and the race became a three-boat dice.
It was eventually won by Kwa Heri, who reached Punta del Este in a faster-than-expected 24 days. She was followed into port by Spar and Voortrekker.
Entries for the 1982 race, again to Punta del Este, increased from 36 to 48. The international sporting boycott of South Africa, in protest against its apartheid policies of the time, saw to it that there were only two foreign entries in the fleet.
The race developed into a duel between the South African Navy entry Voortrekker II, skippered by Bertie Reed, and Rampant II, skippered by Alan Tucker.
In light winds, the two yachts, both designed by Angelo Lavranos, fought it out for the lead, but the light winds saw them being passed by smaller boats at times.
Just after rounding Ilha de Trinidade, the race swung in favour of Rampant II, who benefited from running into a number of rain squalls. She reached Punta del Este a day before Voortrekker II, but the Navy entry had the satisfaction of finishing two-and-a-half hours ahead of Rampant II on corrected time.
Suidoos took victory in a tightly-contested battle for handicap honours.
The 1985 edition of the race proved to be a real test of fortitude because of unfavourable light winds, which made for an extremely slow 4 500-mile journey. It meant many crews had to deal with depleted water and food supplies. Many of the entrants had to ask for their leave from work to be extended.
The 35-boat fleet generally made good time to Ilha de Trinidade, the point at which they would turn down the South American coast, but once there they struggled.
Apple Macintosh, Momentum Life and 3CR12 were the yachts in contention for line honours, but they didn’t threaten the record for the route, despite making it to Ilha de Trinidade ahead of the pace Rampant II had set three years earlier.
3CR12 fell out of contention by heading too far west early on, and then heading too far north after that, admitted her skipper Alan Tucker.
It was left to Apple Macintosh and Momentum Life to fight it out for line honours, and their battle became extremely close. “It was like a cross-ocean match race, except that we were never really close enough to sail in the same wind,” said Momentum Life’s Ludde Ingvall.
Apple Macintosh went on to reach Punte del Este first, but only after a great challenge from Momentum Life. She made it into port a day and four hours ahead of her rival, but on corrected time her advantage was reduced to 16 hours.
Bertie Reed, the skipper of Interflora Retrans, echoed the thoughts of many when he said: “I really think the course should be re-examined, and we should try to get Rio back as the finishing point.”
Spirit of CIW III finished over a week later, but she edged out Apple by just three hours to take the handicap win.
With international sanctions against apartheid South Africa taking their toll, it was eight years before the South Atlantic Yacht Race returned. Although the sailors had enjoyed the hospitality of Punta del Este, the race was extremely taxing, and so the finish returned to Rio de Janeiro for the first time since 1976.
Entries surged from 35 to 90, including 13 foreign entries, in the year before South Africa’s first democratic election.
There were some eye-catching entries, including the maxi Parker Pen; Morning Glory – purpose-built for the event for skipper Doctor Hasso Plattner, the future owner of the Fancourt; and Broomstick, the South African Navy’s 70-foot entry.
Broomstick and Parker Pen started strongly, but Morning Glory ran into early problems with her spinnaker. Namsea Challenger, skippered by Padda Kuttell, who had taken line honours in the previous edition of the race, was also in the running.
The three front-runners chose different courses on day two, and Parker Pen benefited most by racking up 308 miles in a day.
When lighter conditions struck two days later, Broomstick began to move clear and opened up a lead of 200 miles before Parker Pen was able to start closing it down.
Broomstick, though, made it to Rio first. Her time of 15 days, three hours, and 10 minutes bettered Ondine’s race record by over two days.
Namsea Challenger, meanwhile, was second into port and took over the race lead on handicap. Two days later, however, Morning Glory made port and took the handicap lead by a mere four hours.
Doctor Hasso Plattner was determined to launch a big challenge for victory in 1996 with Fancourt Morning Glory – a completely new and imposing 80-footer, which was the biggest entry in the 54-boat fleet.
The winner of the 1995 Fastnet, Nicorette, was also in the running, but Fancourt Morning Glory was, no doubt, the favourite.
Daly’s Insurance, a 75-footer, made the early running by heading south, but she soon paid the price for her risky course.
Despite less than ideal conditions, Fancourt Morning Glory was on course to shatter Broomstick’s record, but near Ilha de Trinidade she was reduced to a crawl. Still, she had reached that point 380 miles ahead of Broomstick’s record pace.
Once she found wind again, Plattner’s yacht made good progress and reached Rio in 14 days, 14 hours and 52 minutes to better Broomstick’s record by 12 hours and 18 minutes.
Nicorette was second across the line in Rio, while Renfreight edged out Warrior for the handicap win.
The 2000 Cape to Rio race was the first major ocean event of the new millennium, and entries climbed to 72 boats.
Zephyrus IV, an American entry, skippered by Robert McNeil, was expected to challenge the race record established by Fancourt Morning Glory four years earlier. Sagamore, another American entry, would provide tough opposition.
Russell Chen co-skippered iti Windforce with Tony Read, and became the first paraplegic to skipper a yacht in a major ocean race.
The clash between the two American maxis effectively turned the event into a two-horse race and conditions helped the boats progress far faster than Fancourt Morning Glory had four years earlier.
With the conditions playing along, Zephyrus IV and Sagamore were able to sail the rhumb line to Rio. Inevitably, this led to a new race record.
Zephyrus IV was first to the finish in 12 days, 16 hours and 49 minutes, which lopped almost two days off the previous record. Sagamore finished only 10 hours later.
Doctor Hasso Plattner’s company, software giant SAP, took over the sponsorshop of the race in 2003. Plattner also returned to racing in Morning Glory. She was expected to fight it out for line honours with Nicator, a 60-foot trimaran, and Adrenalina Pura, a 65-foot catamaran.
Nicator started brilliantly, logging a sensational 481 miles in the first 24 hours. She was on course for a record until she gambled on the high breaking into two, and instead had to fight her way north.
She later notched up some excellent 24-hour distances, but the final 30 miles to Rio took her seven hours and she missed the record by seven hours, finishing in 12 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes and 54 seconds.
Adrenalina Pura took second, two days and eight hours behind the Swedish entry, while Morning Glory had to settle for third after becoming becalmed after rounding Ilha de Trinidade.
Baleka, an entry from Gauteng province, with an all-Gauteng crew, won on handicap.
The finish for the 2006 South Atlantic Yacht Race changed to Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil. The race became known as the Cape to Bahia, with Heineken taking over as the sponsor. The distance to Salvador would be 3 380 nautical miles.
For the first time, single-handed and double-handed entries were accepted.
Included in the fleet were Federico and Crean. At six-and-a-half metres in length, they were the smallest boats in the history of the race.
Hi-Fidelity and Adrenalina Pura were the likeliest title challengers but, less than a day out of Cape Town, Hi-Fidelity’s challenge ended when she struck a whale.
Adrenalina Pura, meanwhile, successfully evaded a high that slowed most of the fleet by heading due west and sailing over the top of it. She reached her home port, Salvador, in an astonishing 10 days, eight hours, and one minute.
Both Federico and Crean finished the race, Crean only 18 hours in front of Federico.
The 2009 race brought together two of the fastest yachts in the world, Rambler and ICAP Leopard. But there was no stopping Leopard, rated by many as the fastest yacht in the world. She recorded an incredible 252 miles in the first 12 hours of the race to show what she was capable of.
Maintaining a course close to the rhumb line, Leopard stormed to victory in 10 days, five hours, 45 minutes and 35 seconds to break Adrenalina Pura’s record.
Rambler took an almost direct route to Salvador, sailing only 40 more miles than the direct distance of 3 440 miles. Still, she finished 21 hours behind Leopard.
Hi-Fidelity crossed the finishing line on the sixteenth day in third place, but still claimed the handicap win.
In 2011, the race returned to its roots and was contested between Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro.
Durban-based skipper Chris Frost guided Prodigy to line honours’ victory, reaching the Brazilian city in just under 16 days.
“Line honours was the goal that we set out to do and we achieved it, he said.
Overall victory, however, went to The City of Cape Town, skippered by 25-year-old Gerry Hegie.
“We were not favoured before the race because we didn’t have a track history, but we put a lot of work into the boat, particularly where it would improve its performance.
“We ran the numbers around the IRC to optimise the yacht for this downwind race and also studied weather systems, downloaded weather files each day and worked through optimum courses.
“We took the boat apart and then reassembled it so we had peace of mind that we could push the boat to the very limit,” he said after securing victory.
“Apart from not being able to take a shower this race was fantastic,” Hegie added.
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