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Fast Raft to Brazil

Lodged in my nautical psyche I find indelible images of rafts: a boy and a runaway slave standing proud before a canvas tent aboard a makeshift pontoon of pine planks floating down the muddy Mississippi; a sun-bronzed Viking in a loincloth steering a lashed-up slab of balsa logs across the electric-blue Pacific with a massive oar. Having always wanted to be that boy and that Viking, how could
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Lodged in my nautical psyche I find indelible images of rafts: a boy and a runaway slave standing proud before a canvas tent aboard a makeshift pontoon of pine planks floating down the muddy Mississippi; a sun-bronzed Viking in a loincloth steering a lashed-up slab of balsa logs across the electric-blue Pacific with a massive oar. Having always wanted to be that boy and that Viking, how could I possibly resist when asked if I’d like to help deliver a brand-new open-bridgedeck catamaran all the way from South Africa to the Caribbean?

By modern standards the catamaran in question was a simple craft—two narrow hulls connected by an open platform on which perched a small pod housing a narrow table and two settees. The vessel’s construction was thoroughly contemporary—stitched E-glass fabric vacuum-bagged over PVC foam with carbon reinforcements in the crossbeams—but still it looked primordial. The stark profile of the pod sprouting from the deck echoed those of both Huck Finn’s tent and the bamboo hut on Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki and so seemed steeped in the glow of their adventures.

The boat belonged to a man named Wayne. He commissioned its creation after his wife, Connie, announced she was no longer willing to live aboard the fat “condo cat” that had been their home for over two years. An ex-motorcycle racer, Wayne wanted a lighter, more casual cruiser that was both somewhat habitable and a blast to sail. Together with the Knight brothers, a family of South African boatbuilders doing business as Scape Yachts, he concocted the Scape 39 Sport Cruiser. Wayne’s boat, Doubletime, was based on a design for a fast day-charter cat the Knights were already building for headboat operators sailing the windy waters of Table Bay off Cape Town. One Scape cat had sailed east as far as Mauritius to ply the day-charter trade there, but Doubletime was to be the first to head west across the South Atlantic on the modern-day trade route that links South Africa’s catamaran builders to the big charter fleets in the Caribbean.

(Getting) Out of Africa

For Wayne this was no easy thing. The hired skipper, Hank, and I arrived at Cape Town in the dark of night, jet-lagged nearly to death, only to be greeted with a litany of his woes. The boat, already over six weeks late, was still not finished. Connie, who had flown down with Wayne to preside over the launching, had broken her leg. Shortly afterward, the apartment they were renting was destroyed in a fire. The airline then wanted an extra $10,000 to fly Connie home early. And so on.

The next morning we went down to see Doubletime tied to a pontoon beneath the sculpted form of Table Mountain. She was indeed unfinished and had Knight brothers swarming all over her, painting, drilling, fastening, and fiddling like demons. Each morning for a week we conducted this same inspection, doing our best to act both polite and impatient, and between inspections did battle with other demons intent on keeping Wayne trapped on the African continent.

One of these was the South African Maritime Safety Authority, or SAMSA, which was not impressed with our credentials. We were finally granted an audience with the agency’s director, who calmly informed us he did not consider Hank’s U.S. Coast Guard license a valid qualification for a skipper delivering a small boat across the South Atlantic. After some discussion he admitted there was no other license or certificate he considered valid in such circumstances. In the end, however, he cheerfully granted us permission to leave his jurisdiction.
The immigration office, meanwhile, believed Wayne should not be allowed to leave the country because he no longer had permission to be in it, his visa having expired several weeks before. Remedying the problem involved much waiting to see government officials, who levied a large fine payable upon Wayne’s return to South Africa, an event Wayne vowed would never take place, if only he could escape in the first place.

Finally one morning we provisioned the boat, even as the Knight brothers and their crew rushed about completing several last-minute jobs. Soon afterward we pushed all builders off the boat and headed for open water. Reaching under full working sail on a brisk southerly breeze, we rocketed straight out into a dense fog bank doing a steady 15 to 17 knots. Hank and I were pleased to be away at last, but Wayne was ecstatic, grinning like a pardoned prisoner.
Just three hours into our voyage, we heard a sharp THWACK from beneath the leeward hull, followed by an ominous rumbling noise. Looking astern we saw bits of Doubletime’s starboard daggerboard floating behind us. We checked for ancillary damage, but the daggerboard casing inside the hull, the engine’s saildrive, and the steering gear all seemed fine. A pregnant pause then as Hank and I wondered what Wayne’s response would be. But for Wayne now there could be no turning back.

Life on the Raft

To continue on a 5,300-mile ocean passage in such circumstances might seem foolish, but in fact it was not. Of all the world’s oceans, the South Atlantic is by far the most amiable. It normally suffers no tropical storms at any time of year, contains no portion of the greater Atlantic’s intertropical convergence zone, generally has more-consistent trade winds than the North Atlantic, and carries little commercial traffic. Our only good chance of seeing strong weather or other vessels was within two days of Cape Town, after which we expected nothing but tailwinds, empty water, and fair current all the way to Brazil. As daggerboards on a cat are nearly superfluous in such circumstances, it did not seem unreasonable to carry on as planned.

True, that first afternoon and evening we did see gusts to 27 knots. This at least gave us some sense of how miserable life at sea on a raft might be when conditions are vigorous. For a few short hours
Doubletime had incessant spray flying over her deck, and because of her layout and the lack of shelter between hulls we couldn’t move from galley stove to propane switches to reefer to dinette table to nav station or toilet without first donning foul-weather gear. Every time we opened a hatch, we stood a good chance of shipping a wave aboard. Plus, sleeping below in all the high-speed tumult was something like trying to relax while going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Once well away from shore, however, all such unpleasantness ceased. The only part we missed was the great speed Doubletime developed with a good breeze close to her beam. We’d been warned by one charter skipper sailing a sistership on Table Bay that she was fully capable of flying a hull and that the scariest sound we might hear in a berth below was that of silence as it lifted clear of the water. But with a light wind right aft we stood little chance of experiencing such anxiety. With a true breeze of only 10 knots or better within 15 degrees of her beam, Doubletime was perhaps one of the fastest 30-something-foot sailboats in the world. In apparent winds below 10 knots on a deep broad reach or run, she was little faster than a fast fixed-keel monohull of the same size. As it was, we covered over 225 miles during our first 24 hours, but then our daily runs subsided into the 120-to-170-mile range.

We also had more technical problems. The starboard engine made strange vibrations and developed a prolific oil leak. The fresh-water system started hemorrhaging, such that we lost a third of our supply in one day and had no idea where it had gone. Also, quite suddenly, six days out of Cape Town, about 600 miles from the nearest land, the steering failed completely. This, we divined, was because the master link in the wheel’s chain drive had fallen apart. Most of the link was easily recovered, but the most essential bit, the clip that held it all together, was nowhere to be found. Then I remembered a mysterious bit of metal we found on the cockpit sole the day before we left Cape Town. Fortunately Wayne had saved it, and indeed it proved to be the missing clip.

The fresh-water puzzle was finally solved eight days out from Cape Town when we at last took an interest in bathing and found a massive leak in the transom shower installation at the back of the starboard hull. This was easily fixed, though the mystery of the engine’s oil leak remained just that. Fortunately, we had a spare engine in the port hull we could rely on.

In between solving these riddles we reveled in the Zen of the raft. Wayne, alas, was lost to the paranoia of its maintenance. He worked hard to discover all existing problems and in his spare time invented several more. Hank and I could afford to be more sanguine. Lying prostrate on the pod settees, we consumed a vast mound of books. We played frisbee one afternoon, flipping a disk back and forth between the cockpit and the bow trampoline until (inevitably) it was lost overboard. At night we marveled at the great shotgun blasts of southern-sky starlight overhead. By day we followed the unending narrative of clouds unfolding on the endless rim of horizon that surrounded us.

Pit stop

Nine days out of Cape Town Wayne showed us his chart of St. Helena, which proved to be a tourist map of Ascension Island, 700 miles to the northwest, that he had ripped off the Internet. He explained that it looked similar to one he’d seen of St. Helena and so thought it might prove useful. The following morning we approached the island through a series of beautiful, rainbow-studded squalls. Its coast is composed of high corrugated cliffs, barren and desolate with no evidence of habitation or even plant life. Finally we came to the only port, Jamestown, on the island’s northwest side, a thin scar of greenery and dwellings that runs down to the sea through a deep ravine. Before it lay an open roadstead occupied by a handful of fishing boats, three cruising boats, and a large LNG tanker.

We spent only 28 hours on St. Helena, but wished we’d spent many more. Landing late on a Sunday afternoon at the town dock, which was nothing but a concrete wall with ropes overhead for swinging ashore on, we found all government and financial offices were closed. Wandering inland, however, we were greeted effusively by everyone we met and were immediately offered all the food and drink we wanted on credit at local bars and restaurants. Next morning, having abused our credit as best we could, we cleared both in and out with customs and immigration, changed money and paid our debts, then reprovisioned the boat. Hank and I hired a car in the afternoon and toured the island while Wayne worried over Doubletime. Despite the coast’s very lunar aspect, we found the interior to be a veritable garden. The road, lined with thorn trees and gorgeous purple flowers, wound through small forests of cedar and eucalyptus, stands of tall Norfolk pines, enormous clumps of wild flax, and steep cow pastures.

Landfall in Brazil

Sailing west from St. Helena, we fell to arguing over our route plan. In planning the trip we’d hoped the South Atlantic’s southeast trade winds would blow at least as hard as the northeast trades in the North Atlantic. But here we were crossing the South Atlantic in January, during the height of the southern summer (something you’d never do in the north, for fear of meeting tropical storms), so the trades in fact proved much weaker. To make the most of what we had, Hank and I favored flying both the main and the asymmetric spinnaker while tacking downwind on a series of broad reaches. Wayne wanted to fly just the spinnaker at deeper apparent-wind angles so as to reduce both total mileage and wear on the rig. The latter tactic is in fact favored by crews delivering fat charter cats to the West Indies. We were told they often do not even bother to bend on their mainsails, but instead make the entire passage from Cape Town under headsails alone.

In the end we did a bit of both, and our daily runs were much the same as before. One difference between this leg and the last was that now, as we crawled ever closer to South America and the equator, we saw many more squalls. At first they were small and moderate, with easterly winds briefly spiking only as high as 15 knots. And then, 11 days out of St. Helena, we got hit one afternoon by a huge line squall packing southerly gusts as high as 28 knots. It also brought a great deluge of rain, for which we were grateful, as it turned out the water we’d taken aboard at St. Helena was mostly foul. We’d long since run out of sweet water to drink and were now down to rations of one can of soda a day.

“We’re rich! We’re rich!” we shrieked gleefully as we caught cool, delicious rainwater off the double-reefed mainsail. In all, we filled five half-gallon jugs in less than 40 minutes.

We arrived at Fortaleza, on the northeast coast of Brazil, just two days later, early on a Sunday morning. First we spotted a low wall of high-rise buildings on the horizon, then a line of rolling dunes and a bright stripe of beach to the east. Then, emerging at last from the gray haze, dark hills in the distance behind the city. And finally, all around us, the silhouettes of rafts. Some were just that—mere slabs of wood with piles of cargo and people aboard, powered by long sculling oars. But most were sailing vessels. They flew dark lateen sails on long, elegantly curved spars and looked very much like one-winged butterflies dancing gracefully across the surface of the water.



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