How SA's Sterna Entered The Ocean Globe Race – Sail+Leisure
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How SA’s Sterna Entered The Ocean Globe Race

by Ingrid Hale
Ocean Globe Race

The Ocean Globe Race bug has bitten! We recently featured South African Vuyi Jaca on Maiden as they head for Cape Town. But another South African entry, Sterna made it to the start line in an unusual way. Golden Globe Race sailor Jeremy Bagshaw spoke to Gerrit Louw and Melissa du Toit in Southampton before the start of the Ocean Globe Race to find out just how they did it.

Ocean Globe Race

Skipper Rufus Brand and first mate Melissa du Toit with Jeremy Bagshaw at the start of the Ocean Globe Race.

It’s in the blood

Gerrit and his father Robbie started All Spice Yachting in 2017, chartering out their catamaran Ronin. They sailed the Governor’s Cup Races to St Helena Island and a Cape to Rio Race. In 2019, Gerrit entered the Ocean Globe Race (OGR), sold Ronin and purchased Sterna, a Swan 53 based in the Caribbean.

With the arrival of Covid, they were unable to fly to the Caribbean to fetch the boat and their skipper at the time had to hitch a lift on a Farr 38 from Simon’s Town. He sailed her back to SA for re-fitting. Melissa du Toit joined in August as first mate. They did the West Coast Race in June to complete the 500 mile qualifier for the Cape to Rio Race. From Rio, Melissa sailed the boat to the Caribbean while Gerrit flew back to SA to deal with all the admin involved in the OGR, crew selections and searching for sponsorship. He later joined the boat in the Caribbean and sailed to Europe with them.

The name Sterna comes from the Latin name for the Arctic Tern. “I liked the connotations of the North to South migration that this bird makes, and the connection between the two hemispheres that our boat will have”, he explains.

Gerrit doesn’t have a defined role but he’s been involved with the refit from the beginning. “I probably know the systems better than anyone else on board, so I naturally lean towards maintenance and engineering”, he explains. Fortunately, skipper Rufus Brand is good with this too. Melissa du Toit takes responsibility for navigation. “So I’m actually just a regular crew member with a disproportionate amount of responsibility”, he adds.

Paying crew – a savvy business plan

Gerrit is upfront that this is a commercial venture. “There is no possibility of funding a campaign like this without finding big sponsorship or paying crew. So I advertised for paying crew, preferably with sailing experience. The criteria were easy – can they pay and do we like them? Crew compatibility was always top of mind as we would be spending the next seven months together”, says Gerrit.

Inevitably there will be personality clashes but that goes with the territory when you put eight people together in a small space for long periods of time in often trying conditions.

“It was really difficult finding crew that could pay the fee we needed. I based the fee on what the Clipper Race charges, believing that we’re offering a more intimate experience for someone who doesn’t want to be involved with such an intense and large scale event. Besides, we also circumnavigate via the Great Capes, including Cape Horn and the Clipper doesn’t do this”, he explains.

Getting to the start line

“A project of this enormity takes on a life of it’s own and the administrative side of things is huge”, says Gerrit. “Trying to collate information on eight crew members – ensuring their health checks, visa compliances, insurance, sourcing the sailing gear etc. is a huge task. It really requires a whole management team to run the admin side of things, and a team to manage the boat side – compliance with safety requirements, crew training, practices etc. It’s a huge management undertaking, and expecting paying crew to do all the preparation work is a bit unfair, although they have been fantastic and have really contributed so much”, he adds.

To qualify, the crew only needed to have around 1500 miles in total or 1000 miles on the actual race boat in the last six months. The skipper needed to have 25,000 miles and a RYA Ocean qualification, plus they had to be able to complete all the first aid courses etc. South African Rufus Brand ticked all the boxes in terms of experience and ability. “He is also a really decent human and a lot of fun to be around, which makes him a natural leader”, says Gerrit.

 From idea to reality

“I don’t remember the moment when the idea to do the race moved to a reality, it just sort of evolved. Maybe I’ll regret it one day, but I don’t think so”, says Gerrit.

“We want to be competitive but we also want to get around in one piece, which is the main goal. Doing it competitively and not being last will be a real bonus”, he adds.

Melissa du Toit sees the OGR as three races in one. “The first is definitely to get to the start line, the second is to get to the finish line and the third race is to get the best ranking possible in the process. All have their challenges. In the beginning we thought is was just about finishing but now that we’ve met some of the other teams we realise we are in with a chance of doing well. Our preparation has been very good”, she says.

“Personally, I see it as an opportunity to learn as much as possible while enjoying the race, enjoying the Southern Ocean and the experience of rounding Cape Horn. We mustn’t forget that we’re also here to have fun and to enjoy ourselves? We have our “Equator outfits” and we hope to braai on the way past Cape Horn – keep it fun while doing as well as we can”, she adds.

Gerrit adds, “We’d like to finish on the podium in our class. A top three finish is possible and I feel we can do that. According to Conny van Rietschoten, 94% of the race is preparation, and if this is the case, I feel we’re in a good position to do well”.

 Melissa’s journey to Sterna

Melissa grew up in landlocked Newcastle, riding horses. Her Dad had a Hobiecat and this became the basis of an interest in sailing. So she traded turf for surf and investigated getting involved in the yachting industry.  “I started as a stewardess to work myself up the ranks. My focus increasingly became sailing yachts. So, in my off time and holidays I did all the courses I could to get qualified and experienced. Eventually I became first mate on a 35m sailing cutter. I did courses like Officer of the Watch and really enjoyed the time working there. Then the boat was sold and I went home, it was COVID time and I really considered whether I wanted to continue in the industry. It was then that I became aware of the OGR and of Team Sterna and I signed up with them.

In terms of racing experience, most of it was gained through local weekend racing and Wednesday nights in Table Bay. “Although I had plenty of passage making miles, my first ocean race was the Cape to Rio Race”, says Melissa.

“My main responsibility on board is navigation and communications. I’m confident with my celestial navigation (which is all the crews are allowed to use) as I used it both ways across the Atlantic. Four of us on board are able to navigate by sextant as we’ve all done the RYA Ocean Yachtmaster theory course. But, like everything, I expect it to get easier as I get more and more familiar with it. We talk about the ‘romance of not knowing exactly where we are. This is part of the excitement I guess”, she adds.

The choice of boat

Gerrit says the Swan is the benchmark. There are several Swan models pre-approved for the OGR, which was a bonus. “I was looking for the best deal and considered various designs like Baltics and some one-off designs, but I kept coming back to the Swan 53. We found one of good value in the Caribbean. Sterna is unique amongst the ’53’s in that she has an aft companionway leading into the aft cockpit, which is much smaller and therefore safer than the standard ’53 layout. I saw this as a good feature given the route that we would be following. We can access the cockpit without climbing over the traveler”, says Gerrit.

We’re sailing with the same eight crew all the way around the world, and we have an extra crew joining for leg three around Cape Horn. “This is quite different from a few of the boats that have a core crew of ’rounders’ and a couple of ‘leggers’ that change at each port. It may also be a real challenge in that we’ll be living closely with each other for the whole seven months, but let’s see? If we finish with the same crew we started with, and we’re all still talking to each other, that will be a win in itself”, he adds.

Crew jobs

“Gerrit is the doctor! (PhD in Economics). One of the crew has extensive experience in mountain rescue and has paramedic skills. Rufus is very experienced and well trained with medical stuff too so we’re well covered in that area”, says Melissa.

Gerrit and Rufus will take care of the engineering systems. “Everyone takes their turn in the galley. We only cook a ‘proper meal’ once a day, in the evening. Usually a pasta or rice and meat/veg dish. The morning meal is a ‘meal replacement powder’ mixed with water like a smoothie, and it’s drinkable. The midday meal is a dehydrated meal, rehydrated with boiling water. We aim to provide the crew with between 2000 and 3000 calories every day. It may be more in the colder waters”, she adds.

Day to day

Storm tactics are always a topic of conversation before heading into the Southern Ocean

“We don’t have a ‘one strategy fits all’ solution. We’ll take each situation as it comes. We have a drogue on board, which we have tested, but there’s no guarantee it’ll be used. We’ll see. We have a fourth reef in our mainsail rather than a storm trysail and our staysail on hanks is reef-able to storm jib size. We rearranged the deck layout so that we can manage all storm sails from the aft cockpit and minimise the time that crew need to spend on deck”, says Gerrit.

One of the biggest challenges can be managing crew dynamics. “Although I am just a crew member, Melissa, Rufus and I work well together and we will always be 100% honest with each other, and talk issues through rather than let them simmer. So I think we will be able to work together and resolve any issues”, says Gerrit.

He adds, “As far as the actual sailing goes, getting to each stopover with enough time to prepare for the next leg and to relax and recover a bit will be a challenge. There’s a mandatory 4 day stopover in every port, even if you arrive the day before the restart, you have to spend four days in port before you can leave again. At this stage, I can only think about getting to Cape Town in time”.

Melissa adds, “There’s no compromising on crew safety, so observing crew dynamics and their readiness for the next leg is important. If they aren’t ready and it’s unsafe to leave, then we will take our time”.

Footnote:

After a very slow start it seems that Sterna has stretched her legs. They are in the middle of the pack bringing up the rear as befits their smaller size and rating. They can only improve from here and will do SA proud this 27000 mile race! Track their race here

How do we have more SA entries in ocean races?

Jeremy says it seems as if there is a renewed interest in ocean racing in South Africa after he and Kirsten Neuschäfer took part in the Golden Globe Race. Kirsten’s astounding success in winning the event is fantastic for South African sailing. And Sterna’s entry in the Ocean Globe Race as the first South African-flagged entry in a crewed round the world race since Xargo III in 1981 – 1982, helps too. He asked Gerrit how he see’s this progressing and how we can encourage more South African participation.

Gerrit says he doesn’t have any specific advice but he thinks that the OGR is only going to get more expensive for future races. “As the teams get more competitive, it’s going to become a bit of a cheque book race and it will lose some of the Corinthian feeling that the current event has, whether we like it or not. It’s going to be difficult to strike a balance between affordability and competitiveness, between it being a business and having crew paying to sail. Ideally a team needs a commercial partner as there is no way that crew will pay €200k each to participate. Sponsorship and support is extremely hard to get. You’re on your own and your team have to be 150% committed”.

He adds, “Without saying what we have spent, and after talking to two thirds of the entrants, one cannot even begin to think about doing the race without access to €500k. This is excluding the boat! Even then you’ll be scraping the barrel and cutting costs wherever possible. This money needs to come from somewhere. If you don’t have a sponsor, it has to come from the boat owner and/or the crew. And if you’re taking money from crew to do an race like this, you need to have a commercially-viable operation to give them the experience they expect for their money”.

Melissa adds, “From my side, all I can say is just enter. Work out the details later and just don’t give up. Persevere. It’s a long road but eventually you will get there”.

Jeremy’s seen that some teams have approached it a bit differently. They effectively form a cooperative venture to buy a boat and refit it to race condition, fund the race and then they hope to sell it afterwards to recover as much of their input as possible.

Gerrit comments, “Yes, I’ve spoken to a few of the skippers operating like this and there are pro’s and con’s. For a start I don’t think any of them anticipated the true costs. Many of them are regularly asking the crew to make further contributions and this all adds up. There are many costs that were hard to establish up front as the race organiser himself couldn’t put numbers to it, mainly communication and safety costs. I suppose for the next race at least there will be some history to go on”.

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