Caught in a Storm of Racing Passion

Extract from the Sunday Tribune 14th February 2016.

Mervyn Naidoo speaks to a yachtsman whose multimillion-rand boat is to sail the Vasco da Gama Ocean race.

IN SAILING culture, experienced yachtsman Stuart Ritchie sees himself as a “cruising” type, one who loves nothing more than  to sail the oceans at a leisurely pace. However, every now and then, Ritchie’s need for speed drowns his usually placid nature and he responds by throwing caution to the wind and entering a regatta.


That speed “bug” bit Ritchie recently, and navigated him towards the Vasco Da Gama Ocean Race, which starts in Durban on April 23 and finishes 740kms (400 nautical miles) later in Port Elizabeth. But Ritchie’s brand new sailing machine for the 45th edition of what is widely regarded as South Africa’s premier yachting event, has caused a stir in local sailing circles.


In the next week, the 59-year-old businessman is set to take delivery of a multi-million rand yacht, which has been “built especially for racing”, and just in time for the Vasco. Ritchie’s MAT 1180 has come straight off the boat-building company ‘s production line in Turkey and is being ferried to Durban on a container ship. The yacht, which has been fashioned by Mark Mills, a respected IRC designer, sports asymmetrical spinnakers that span 165m2, is approximately 39 feet long and weighs 4 300kg. “Boats produced by the Turkish company are in big demand and I was given a two-year waiting period. After much persuasion I got my boat,” said the La Lucia resident about landing his latest sailing toy.


It’s the third time  he’s imported a yacht, his other notable acquisi­tion was the Beneteau, which he bought in 2011. With sound advice from his friend Roy Dunster, Ritchie got Beneteau, the vessel that won Vasco in 2011.


“My whole life I have been a cruising ‘yachtie’.


“When the guys at Royal Natal Yacht Club  teased me about  not winning races, I said to Roy, let’s buy a decent boat and show them what we can do, and we got Beneteau,” he said. Ritchie also won the MSC Regatta with that boat, but after keeping the yacht for a year, he sold it and went back into cruise mode.


The Vasco started in the 1960s as a race from Maputo to Durban but has changed direction and destina­tion a few a times over the years, mainly because of the political cli­mate in Mozambique. When Vasco’s finish line shifted south to PE last year, Ritchie’s desire to race swelled again. “I got hit by the bug again and it was a very expensive bug. The boat cost R5 mil­lion, the rand to dollar exchange hasn’t helped,” Ritchie said. Once the boat arrives in Durban, Ritchie and the rest of his crew of nine will go into weeks of training, so that they can learn the boat’s “character” before the race, which is expected to last nearly two days. He fancies his MAT 1180’s chances  of  taking  top  honours, but like any seasoned sailor, he knows there are no sure bets when you take on the might of the wind and ocean. “I like to believe that we have a good chance to claim line and the overall honours with this yacht and we have a fantastic crew. “However, winning is about how well you conserve the boat over the course and distance, so it is not always about how fast you go,” Ritchie advised.


Richard Crockett, race organiser and a former winner of the Vasco, also rates highly Ritchie’s chances. “Ritchie’s boat is no doubt a fast one – it will be the newest in the country. To have it in our race is a huge bonus. “The boat’s design is completely different   from   anything   we’ve seen  and  it has  been  made taking the latest design philosophies into account. “It will have every chance of winning, provided they don’t have trouble at sea,” Crockett said. He said the Vasco was a tough race, which provided a thorough test of participants’ sailing skills, and it had lots of history. Each team would map out their own path to PE, but  those  plans are often rehashed in a flash because of unpredictable sea and wind conditions. The south-westerly winds are usually  dreaded  by  all boat crews because they are known to brew trouble, as they did in the 1984 race. “We had the biggest tragedy in the 1984 when a strong, unforecasted south-westerly, blowing at hurricane force (64 knots), hit the fleet of 40 boats. /md the Agulhas current was also pumping. “Massive seas were created. One boat, the Unicorn, with a crew of four was never seen again. It was a bad night,” remembered Crockett, who was also in that race. Such incidents were rare in this race, “but it can happen”, he said. “We all know the issues and dangers at sea, but we are generally good enough seamen to bring ourselves out without too much trouble.” Still, the Vasco is a drawcard and it remains the longest-running ocean race in the country, Crockett said. “If you’ve done a Vasco, its a feather in your cap, its similar to running the Comrades Marathon. “Once you complete one Vasco, you keep coming back for more.”

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