Adventure Travel: Yacht racing in Table Bay
Writer Claire Keeton and photographer Marianne Schwankhart get caught up in the on-board excitement of a yacht race
GLAMOUR and clamour collide on the yachts racing each other around Table Bay at twilight on Wednesday nights in the summer.
From a distance, the fleet conjures up images of jet-setters sipping cocktails as the sun sets behind the mountain.
But the reality - at least on the yacht that took Marianne and me on board - was more gritty than glossy, with shouting and ducking and high action among the crew. Not, however, by me.
My primary role as a race newcomer was passive: hanging my weight over the rail to try to keep the boat level. It's a rare sport in which extra kilograms are a bonus.
As for the yacht, the more level it sits in the water, the better its performance and aesthetic appeal.
Both count in sailing, but what counts the most is the wind. When the wind is gentle, sailing is peaceful, but when the wind picks up it can become a wild adventure.
On a yacht, you get a sense of what it means to take on the elements. It's astounding to me that a Dutch schoolgirl called Laura Dekker sailed solo around the world at 16 years old.
We were invited to sail on the Lapwing, owned by skipper Alan Keen and helmsman Jennifer Bur-ger, through a friend and dedicated crew member, Perry Harrison-Hyde.
The last time Marianne and I were out sailing together was on a 16-foot Hobie Cat in Plettenberg Bay, so being on a keelboat was a novel experience and the wind was light, at about 10 knots.
As a kid, I had sailed with my father on a dinghy, so I understood some of the jargon. Most useful was knowing what it means to "gybe" (or jibe in American English). The dictionary tamely defines this as shifting "a fore-and-aft sail from one side of a vessel to the other", when in practice a heavy metal boom swings rapidly across the boat and you must duck.
The last volunteer before us was wounded when the boom hit his head, and one of the crew had an arm injury from a rope burn. But if you follow instructions, you'll be safe.
Perry says competitive sailing demands "tactical decision-making on wind shifts, fleet sizes, currents etcetera, boat speed skills (sail trimming, wave control, rudder drag) and physical strength and stamina".
Most of the crew work flat-out throughout a race, hauling ropes and hoisting sails, and the skipper is constantly issuing commands.
Only when we approached the final buoy near the front of our class (the boats against whom we were matched), and got becalmed along with the rest of the fleet, did the instructions slow down. The last sound was the horn as we crossed the finish line.
Yacht races take place regularly around Cape Town in Table Bay, Hout Bay and Simonstown, and further afield in Gordon's Bay.
The racing spectrum ranges from social racing like the "Twilight" series through to highly competitive events with prizes, up to famous international events, such as the America's Cup.
In Cape Town in summer, the Royal Cape Yacht Club (RCYC) races are held on Wednesday nights and in winter they move to Saturday afternoons. Many of the sailors hone their skills on dinghies on weekends.
If you are keen to join a race, you should go to the clubhouse on Cape Town's Foreshore (this means going through the harbour security gates, so call ahead to the RCYC) and volunteer to join a crew.
All we had to do was sign a logbook at the clubhouse before walking along the jetty and climbing aboard the L34 Lapwing (34 feet in length).
Every boat gets a handicap and a class through a complex system based on the type of keel, size of the sail, whether it has a spinnaker or not and so on.
Monohulls are more agile and the size of keelboats ranges from 19 feet to 140 (for the super wealthy), with most active yachts between 26 to 45 feet long.
The price tag also varies, with most keelboats costing from about R80000 to a few million - up to about R20-million (for a 100-foot boat) - and mooring a yacht at a berth is costly. But the Royal Cape Yacht Club, founded in 1905, has its own old-world charm.
After the race, most of the crews order drinks and compare notes about their tactical decisions and latest adventures on the steps and balcony of the club.
We couldn't contribute much, beyond how our feet looked dangling over the edge.
RUN AWAY TO SEA
Ever dreamed of sailing into the sunset but can't afford a boat of your own? Then learn to crew, get some experience and visit the Royal Cape Yacht Club message board. Among the notices posted on it this year were:
Sailing to Barbados in the Caribbean and looking for crew. Life's A Dream, a 14.4m catamaran, is leaving Cape Town late March for Barbados via Ascension Island. Free trip, pay your own return fare.
Looking for a skipper to sail a 53ft catamaran from Fort Lauderdale in the US to London.
The 22m sailing research vessel Zuza is leaving Cape Town early March for Oban, via St Helena, Cape Verde, Azores. Needs to be in Oban by the last week of April.
For information on the RCYC, call 021 421 1354, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rcyc.co.za.
SEE THE SLIDESHOW HERE: www.timeslive.co.za/incoming/2012/05/08/slideshow-racing-yachts-in-table-bay