The Vasco da Gama Ocean Race is the oldest coastal ocean race on the South African sailing calendar. Organised by Point Yacht Club, the 25th edition of the race took place from Durban to East London. Traditionally sailed from Durban to Maputo, this is the 50th edition of the Race itself, it started a day late on Monday 17th May due to bad weather.
The fleet consisted of both experienced and inexperienced boats and crews. Representing Sail Africa, and new to ocean racing were most of the crew on the L34, Spirit of Anna Wardley, skippered by experienced helmsman Nqoba Mswati. The entire crew are graduates of the Sail Africa program. And not only did they complete the race but they won the Marlow Trophy for finishing as the first L34.
We get a first-hand insight into their race experience below.
Meet the team
Sail Africa started in 2008 with Rossburgh High School as the only school on the program. Three of the boys, skipper Nqoba Mswazi (who was in the very first intake), Thabiso Danca and Praise Baras are products of that initial program. They started at around 13 to 15 years of age. Nqoba was selected by Sapinda Rainbow to do the Clipper Round the World Race, and went on to do his Yacht Masters ticket to make his living as a delivery skipper out of Cape Town. He returned to Durban during the pandemic and offered to help out.
Praise is a Level 2 instructor working part time for Sail Africa, and Thabiso is the bosun who looks after the boats.
Prince came out of the DUT (Durban University of Technology) Maritime Studies program. Prior to COVID Sail Africa was running a sailing program for DUT students. Often these youth stay on to become instructors for example, and Prince was one.
The girls are involved in a project called “Internationally profiled Girls in Sailing” aimed at empowering young women to stretch their limits. The Henkeman girls learned to sail dinghies at the Sea Cadets, but joined Sail Africa to further their sailing as they were offered more opportunities in this sphere. Nicolene skippers the leading Sail Africa L26, a team largely made up of girls. Her sister, Sunita is on the foredeck, and both are instructors for Sail Africa.
Pat and Vuyie are swimming facilitators at Sail Africa. Both would like to be commercial divers, but the course is so expensive and bursary applications have not been successful to date. As Sail Africa students must be water safe they both play a valuable role on the program. Both are very keen sailors. Vuyie came out of the schools programme, whilst Pat just arrived one day to join in, and her keen attitude led to her being offered many opportunities.
Ready, set, go
Getting an ‘around the cans’ boat ready for an ocean race takes a village. “We have been overwhelmed by the kindness of the sailing community and we are incredibly grateful for all the assistance we have received”, said the team.
They continued, “We are very grateful to our Chairman, Nigel Milln and Operations Director, Jackie de Fin, who encouraged the team to take part, and allowed the Non-Profit foundation to allocate the funds to getting the boat ready for this race”.
The team would like to thank; Lloyd Ashwin from Bluff Yacht Club for arranging to courier down a stove from JHB, Clyde Kinloch from Texwise for sewing new hanks onto their sails in super quick time, Craig Miller from Craig Miller Sails for donating a sail repair kit, Rob Bowman for hauling out the boat, doing the anti-fouling in super quick time, and the safety survey for the Certificate of Fitness, Gavin van der Meulen from SA Sailing for re-rigging the entire boat, Dirk Van Daele from Dare to Lead Liyaba Rainbow Project for donating team t-shirts and wet weather gear, Craig Brown for making the wet weather jackets and pants in super quick time at a preferential rate, Point Yacht Club for the discounted entry fees, And Londy Ngcobo for contributing towards the food costs.
Now that the Spirit of Anna Wardley has been refurbished, she will be used to assist upcoming maritime students to obtain their sea miles for their Skippers Tickets.
What the crew said about the race
For first time sailors, doing an overnight ocean race can be very daunting and frightening. Hearing about their experience firsthand is both uplifting and a reminder of what a huge undertaking this was.
Nqoba Mswazi, instructor at Sail Africa, helmsman
Prince Mokoteli, navigator (DUT graduate)
“Four years ago it was just a dream for me to actually participate in such an event. And then when I actually sailed the race it was not only an achievement for me, but for everyone who has contributed to my sailing career. The race was not only a physical race, but also a mental race. As the navigator onboard I had to make sure we were on the correct bearing at all times. I enjoyed the sunrise in the mornings more than anything. A scary moment for me was when the wind was gusting up to 40 knots at night and the swells were huge, but it was just mother nature singing. I would do the race 100 more times if another opportunity comes my way. This is one less thing on my bucket list.”
Sunita Henkeman (age 21), senior instructor and day skipper at Sail Africa
“The Vasco Da Gama Ocean Race was very new for me. Something I thought that I would never achieve until Idid it. This experience was hardwork and tiring. Trying to sail in a straight line at 2 in the morning was not easy, but it was worth it. I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I would love to keep learning and moving forward with future races.”
Thabiso Danca (age 24), assistant instructor and day skipper at Sail Africa
“My best moments were the time when we woke up in the mornings, seeing the sunset and knowing that we were getting closer to where we were going. Night sailing was the scariest moment for me because I had to drive for one of my shifts and it was really dark. Finishing the race meant everything to me because everyone was waiting for us, and they were proud that we had made it all in one piece. I did this race because I wanted to push myself, but I entered an environment thatI’m not used to so I can gain more experience.
I would do it anytime so I can get a step closer to where I’d like to be in regards to my sailing career.”
Vuyi Jaca (age 23) swim instructor
Vuyi is an orphan and is trying to get sponsored to be a commercial diver. Sail Africa is helping her become a swim instructor.
“It was an honour to be part of the Vasco da Gama race, which is celebrating 50 yrs. When I received the news asking me if I would like to be part of the race I couldn’t contain myself because I was telling everyone the exciting news about the race. Being a part of the crew was the greatest highlight. On the start line I was both focused and having fun at the same time. I was looking forward to the race and my watch during our time at sea since we usually do inshore and offshore races but not overnight races”.
“So, it was indeed a great experience for me, all thanks to people who made it possible for us, the sponsors and not forgetting our home, Sail Africa. I am in the cockpit on the boat. I’ve never trimmed the big sails but I managed even though at night it can get hectic when the swells are big, and you can get stuck in the current for hours. But the sunset and sunrise were the best moments. During my watch at night the star’s and moon look amazing and the ocean also sparkles with phosphorus. The big swells can be scary at night but during the day when the boat is surfing it is the nicest feeling you can ever imagine. Getting closer to the land and getting through the finish line was like I was dreaming and was a joy to my heart and happiness to the team. I see my self doing another Vasco if I were to be given another chance.”
Praise Baras, Sail Africa instructor
” Firstly thank you to everyone who made it possible for us to be part of the Vasco Race. To be honest we really learnt a lot as a team through good team work. And we learnt that is it very different sailing the ocean in the day and night. There was a bad moment at the start, we got stuck in current, but we thought “lets get this boat down to East London”, and once we got through it, it really boosted us. We could see the enthusiasm, and all the preparation we had done really helped us. What we liked most about the race was the learning – it wasn’t that easy most of the time, but it was worth it. Learning about the cockpit and trimming the sails of a big boat, and steering a big boat day and night in cool and warm temperatures were our biggest achievements. It wasn’t nice seeing crew getting sea sick, and then we were one or two men down, but we had to learn how to cope in situations where things don’t go according to plan. Definitely I’ll be doing it again and again, as long as as there is an opportunity. I recommend to others who get this opportunity to use it wisely cause you do learn a lot when you are out there. The best feeling ever is seeing the finish line and crossing it. And then coming in with the other boats welcoming us was wonderful too”.
What is Sail Africa?
Sail Africa began in 2008 when founder, Craig Millar successfully skippered the Clipper boat, ‘Durban’ in the 2005/2006 Clipper Round the World Race. After this experience Craig wanted to give something back – and Sail Africa was born. The idea was to introduce youth to development sailing and thus open up opportunities for them. Township youth have little access to the sea and little to no experience of handling boats and they are unaware of water safety.
Sail Africa’s objectives are to grow the number of development sailors to attribute to transformation in sailing. Many more young development sailors are competing at events now and there are many more opportunities for youth development through sailing these days. For example, Sail Africa has created opportunities for sailors to race in Spain, to receive maritime bursaries, to gain employment in various maritime fields, to receive maritime curriculum enhancement, to become water safe and to develop critical soft skills.
This is in line with supporting the National Development Plan’s ‘Operation Phakisa’ by promoting maritime culture. Sail Africa enables access to maritime occupations and runs an effective work readiness program for DUT.
Increasingly more girls are coming into the program through their school’s maritime subjects. In 2019 Sail Africa began a ‘Train to Win Girls’ project with 9 girls, which has now grown to 14. The girls race regularly, and they have even travelled to Spain with Marine Inspirations to compete at the Superyacht Cup. They have earned their Day Skipper’s and Instructor Certificates and have been selected for profiles by World Sailing.
The Sail Africa programs are fully subscribed and paid for through maritime awareness sponsorships – both government and corporate. Email Sail Africa if you’d like to get involved, or for further information.
Sail Africa is a Non-Profit Public Benefit Organisation (063-968-NPO) with a Section 18 A status, registered with the Department of Social Development since September 2008. Operating out of Boatman Lane, Durban Marina, the sailing area is within the Harbour precinct.
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