Ishmael? That’s Him Over There …


Don’t call me Ishmael. Not while I’m dangling from a cable too high above the deck of the Dongfeng, which a gasp earlier had been level enough for both my feet to be in cosy contact. A lurch to starboard changed all that, and here I am – all strung up with no place to go except across the steeply heeling boat and into the death grey churn of the Atlantic beyond.

Not two metres from me, a man called Wolf visits the kind of violence on a grinder that would get him arrested in Boksburg. At the helm, Charles Caudrielier stands as tall and grandly French as his name decrees, his eyes slit in concentration, his 1950s movie star’s chin pointed at the prow resolutely. Were I to donner across the deck and splash into the sea, he would not notice. Even if he did notice, he would acknowledge my catastrophe with the merest Gallic shrug and, as they say in Google Maps, “continue straight”.

The bastardly wind refuses to decide which way to blow, but blow like bloody hell it does. The cold has turned my hands to numb pudge. I do not know how I’m managing to cling to that cable, or if I am injuring myself in the process. All I know is that I must hang on …

An age earlier, the sun had beamed down on a picture postcard Cape Town morning. The Mountain was all craggy contours and green gorgeousness. The sea slapped softly against the dock. The very air shimmered with bright wonder.

Knut Frostad, the chief executive of the Volvo Ocean Race, competed with the aroma of espresso and the crunch of croissants as he talked us, our feet firmly on the floor and our hands not having to hold anything but cups and plates, through the day’s programme of in-port racing – part marketing for the race proper, part tiebreaker if and when the race proper becomes too close to call.

Frostad is a veteran of four editions of the race, an Olympic windsurfer, a motivational speaker and utterly, entirely Norwegian. All of which is apparent in his cut-glass cheerfulness.

“Don’t hold onto any ropes when you’re out there,” he says with a smile he could wrap around a mainsail. “They carry a lot of load and they could fly into the sea with your hands still holding onto them.”

And if there is nothing else but the wind to hold onto? What then? That, though, is not Frostad’s concern. Unnerving you with his Clockwork Orange smile is.

“If you think it’s hard to be married … this is hard. You have to perform 24 hours a day.”

Another neon grin, and then: “The only thing you know for sure is that you cannot predict anything about this race. We even have to prepare for pirates.”

Previously, when the boats approached the coast of Somalia, they turned off their tracking signal to prevent detection and proceeded to a secret location where they were plucked out of the ocean and loaded onto a cargo ship – which took them to another secret spot, safely out of the pirates’ path, and plopped them back into the water. That done, they continued racing. All of which happened under armed protection.

This year, “We will be pushing further east so that we are not too close to Somalia.”

Wolf could beat the crap out of any pirate. He is a fury of energy as he bounces from grinder to bow and back, mostly in tune with the barked orders of the navigator, Pascal Bidegorry, a brusque Basque who bristles at his nickname – the Grumpy Smurf.

Brawny and brainy, Wolf, a maths and science whizz, became enchanted with sailing as a university student. Two years ago, he scribbled a Post-it note and stuck it to his bedroom wall. It read, “Volvo Ocean Race, Americas Cup”.

Now, after trials involving hundreds of aspirants, months of gruelling training, 2,500 nautical miles of practice in the Pacific and another 2,500 crossing the Atlantic, Wolf is one of six Chinese members of the 12-strong Dongfeng crew, only eight of whom are on the boat during any of the nine legs and nine months of the race that add up to 38,739 nautical miles.

DongFeng crew
The crew of the DongFeng /

Wolf is not his real name, which is Jiru Yang. But, like his compatriots, he has picked a moniker that fits more easily into the mouths of people like the Grumpy Smurf.

Speaking of mouths, Horace, the youngest member of the crew, lost 6kg during the twenty-five days Dongfeng took to complete the first leg from Alicante in Spain to Cape Town. Freeze dried food is no-one’s idea of a good meal, and least of all a growing Chinese lad’s. “We’re hoping he gets hungry enough to eat more,” a member of the shore crew said.

For the first time, all seven boats are identical. No more than 1mm of difference is permitted in every aspect of their design. That’s a lesson learnt from the past, when, as Frostad said, “If they were light enough, they could be faster – until they broke.”

Or, in the words of the head of the boatyard, Nick Bice, whose team is entrusted with keeping the vessels seaworthy, “The race should not be defined by failure.”

Nor by death. Five lives have been lost since the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race was established in 1973. Was number six twisting in the wind from a cable on the Dongfeng?

Happily, no. The longest seconds of my life oozed past. The deck, a moment ago as far out of reach as Table Mountain must have seemed for Nelson Mandela from Robben Island for all those years, kissed my feet. Calm descended as we glided to port on wet wings.

“Want something to eat?” someone said with a warm smile as he thrust a bag of energy bars between us. It was Wolf. Call him Ishmael.

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