I have been a sailor my whole life and knew the moment I accepted a job in Zanzibar that I would need to find my way onto a sailboat and into the sailing community there. This led me to Google, where I started searching for anything sailing-related in the area. Once I made it through the tourist options for evening cruises, I came upon this crazy race called the Ngalawa Cup, or the Kraken Cup as it’s now called: a 312-mile race off Zanzibar and the beautiful coast of Tanzania aboard traditional fishing boats called ngalawa—basically a hollowed-out mango tree with outriggers, a bamboo yard and a lateen sail, all lashed together with a few pieces of cheap line.
It sounded like the craziest thing I had ever considered, as I jokingly asked my husband, Keith, and our adventure-minded friend, Gabe Ayers, if they wanted to join me. I think we all still thought we were joking when we sent in our registration to The Adventurists, the race organizers. It only dawned on us later, well, maybe six months later when we gathered around an actual Kraken Cup ngalawa for the first training day, what exactly it was we were getting ourselves into.
The 2019 race represented the sixth running of the Cup, and as in years past the competition took the fleet from the north of Unguja Island, Zanzibar, to southern Tanzania in a little over a week. The organizers supplied the ngalawas, which they bought or rented from fishermen along the coast, and each of the 21 three-person crews was required to take part in two days of training and a 20-mile practice race to familiarize themselves with the boats.
Since Keith and I live only an hour from the start it was easy for us to organize ourselves after Gabe flew over from Oregon at Christmas. Since we lived in Zanzibar we couldn’t prepare like some of the other teams by buying or finding fancy cleats and trampolines, or picking out the perfect camping gear. However, we felt we could prepare for other things in ways the other teams could not. For example, we learned some of the local language, Kiswahili, which came in handy when we needed to negotiate with local Tanzanian village chairpersons to sleep on their beach for the night, or needed to buy a paddle from a passing fisherman while under sail.
Keith also designed an amazing Red Bull soda-can stove that would burn the only camp stove fuel we could find on the island (80 percent methylated spirits, normally used in hospitals). It boiled enough water for one person’s dehydrated dinner in six minutes with a few drops of the fuel.
We were especially fortunate to be able spend about three hours in a ngalawa before the training started after we made friends with a fisherman who took us out in his own boat a few times. We were grateful for the opportunity and learned a bit about balance and sail trim, although he was nervous having these white people (wazungu) aboard, and we didn’t want to disturb him with too many questions. (I think he thought we would fall out or do something else stupid to hurt the beautiful vessel that was his livelihood!)
We also spent many hours considering rigging options. Knowing the boat had been sailed the same way for centuries, we didn’t want to change too much, especially where loads were placed on the various spars and outriggers. If this had worked this way for the locals for hundreds of years, why change it now? Nonetheless, we did need to make a few modifications so that it would be easier to sail and sail hard, in the conditions we were going to find ourselves in.
One of the things we did was lead the shrouds back to the mast to tie off, rather than secure them on the end of the outrigger. This was also done for safety, so we wouldn’t have to climb out on an outrigger every time we wanted to come about. (The boats don’t gybe, only tack.) We also added a few extra points to clip the main sheet to, so it could be adjusted and trimmed more easily.
Race results were based on the total time between a number of checkpoints. In addition, there were two days when we sailed but our times didn’t count for one reason or another. Everyone took those days seriously, as we had many miles to cover, and as fate would have it, they were also our two fastest! The first was a practice day, the other a 33-mile Zanzibar Channel crossing day when most of the boats had to be towed in after the wind went light and it became apparent they weren’t going to make it to shore by dark. In our case, however, we did not need a tow, as the breeze picked up just in time for us to cross Dar-es-Salaam harbor at sunset, passing through all the container ships there and making it through the breaking waves to shore just as the sun hit the horizon, after 12 hours of sailing.
Racing started at 0630 each morning, whether you were ready or not. This meant getting up at 0400, putting on sunscreen at 0500 under the stars, and then rigging and prepping the boat with headlamps on at 0545 in order to be ready to set sail at 0615. Race times for the day stopped when you hit the beach at the next checkpoint and threw out your anchor. There were a few “shorter” legs—six to seven hours. But most days we were on the water until sunset after 11-plus hours of sailing, pushing hard to get to shore, then quickly setting up camp, devouring some dinner, and getting a few hours of sleep. (We all had SPOT satellite communicators, and a number of safety boats also shadowed the fleet in case of trouble.)
The event was in many ways like a dinghy race, but on the open ocean. You needed to be able to read the wind precisely and adjust your sails to avoid swamping or auto-gybing as well as understand what the boat wanted to do in the big waves, the swell and the chop.
There were also many coral reefs to negotiate, and since a ngalawa, lacking a centerboard, makes up to 20 degrees of leeway going upwind, you had to be on your toes navigating the entire time. Then there were those moments we wanted to stay ahead of a certain competitor, and had to turn on our canoe/canvas sail fine-tuning skills to crank up our boatspeed. I had sewn about a dozen yarn telltales straight through the sail during training (it was canvas after all), and my crew tied some bits of cassette tape to the shrouds and halyard. It was amazing how we were able to improve our boathandling once the rig could “speak” to us a bit! No big surprise, the sail on a ngalawa doesn’t trim like a normal sail, so we had a lot of learning to do underway to get the big heavy canoe gliding through the water. Still, we did end up snagging the top speed record of 10.7 knots surfing down a wave, so I’d say we figured it out eventually.
Something else I hadn’t realized early on: this is a ngalawa race, not a sailing race. If it is light, or even if it is windy, you can paddle. We did try that but soon realized how much energy it was taking out of us. With little opportunity to rest in the shade and rehydrate, and many long days in front of us, we made a decision as a team to only paddle if boatspeed fell below 2 knots, or if a small distance really mattered: for example to edge out another boat at the finish, or to make it around an island or other obstacles.
Our strategy was always to be safe and smart, take safe lines through or around coral reefs, work the boat hard, but not too hard. We broke our mast twice and sailed most of the race with it held together by zip ties and duct tape, which worked pretty well. Needless to say, we were working these boats harder than they were meant to be.
We had many hours of floating and bobbing, doing 4-6 knots, but also had some 12-hour days where we were in 20 knots of breeze all day, surfing and driving through every single wave for hours on end. The boats don’t turn easily, so on these days, I had to use both hands on the tiller to keep the boat upright and avoid getting swamped. We actually installed a handle not unlike a bench press to make this easier. As it was, we narrowly missed seriously damaging the boat in a 35-knot squall when we crash-gybed to make sure it hit us from the right direction. Many others capsized, swamped or broke their rigs.
All things considered, our teamwork was amazingly smooth given the pressure. We learned a lot about ourselves during the race, about our physical and mental limits and how to support each other to make sure we were all safe, not to mention staying sane in what was a challenging competition. It was when we got to shore each night, exhausted, that we all kind of fell apart.
We sailed through water whose color I can’t even begin to describe (so turquoise and crystal clear), with flying fish all around us, and dolphins (even a baby) a few times. We felt very out on our own. We were often out of sight of land and of the other boats, with the safety boats far away and otherwise occupied.
Of the 21 teams that started the race, only 13 officially finished. A few teams dropped out after the first true offshore day when we crossed the Zanzibar Channel to Dar es Salaam. Others mixed and matched crews and got some help from locals. They finished, and we give them huge props for their perseverance, but not within the rules. Only three boats completed the race completely unassisted—no tows, no rescues. We were one of them, finishing in second place overall.
If you are thinking about doing this race, be prepared for the time of your life. At the same time, though, don’t underestimate what you are signing up for. Learn how to navigate and how to sail before you come, or you will end up doing a lot of swimming and, if you’re unlucky, perhaps spending a night on a coral reef!
NGALAWAS AND THE KRAKEN CUP
Ngalawas are 18-20ft outrigger canoes, with hulls carved from a single mango tree and outriggers and crossbeams crafted from smaller trees. They’re capable of speeds up to 10 knots and are the traditional craft of the local fishermen, who build them on the beaches by their villages. The African coast has fallen prey to unscrupulous exploiters of its natural resources; vast stretches of reefs have been dynamited, long-liners and gill-net trawlers sweep the sea clean and fish stocks are at historic lows. Race organizers, The Adventurists, say they buy or rent ngalawas at a fair price from fishermen who are looking for other ways to make a living, and have others built especially for the race. The Kraken Cup race keeps a centuries-old tradition alive and, the organizers say, also promotes a sense of pride in the communities it touches along the route.
The seventh Kraken Cup will take place in June/July 2020 and entries are already open. For more information, contact The Adventurists at theadventurists.com.
Allyson Nelson works for D-Tree International, a digital health NGO in Zanzibar. Raised in a boating family in the Midwest, she grew up sailing everything from Lasers to J/24s.
MHS Winter 2019