THE CREW’S STORY | Sharon Henry
It’s tradition to throw the skipper (fully clothed) into the water when you’ve won a sailing race. Having taken the flag in 12 days with the ocean crossing from Cape Town to St Helena winning the prestigious Governor’s Cup Yacht Race, the crew of Black Cat grabs a limb each and gleefully toss their captain overboard.
Apart from this playful mutinous act, skipper Dave ‘Wavy’ Immelman of the 20 year old, 40ft cruiser and his hardy four ‘man’ crew, meant serious business right from the boom of the starter’s cannon, maintaining their racing mentality throughout the 1,700 mile challenge. The race, which takes place every two years, started from False Bay Yacht Club in Simon’s Town on 27 December 2014. The crew kept a tight boat, packed light, ate freeze dried ‘astronaut food’ and adhered to strict three hours on, three hours off shift patterns.
We are sitting on the cosy aft deck of Black Cat, moored in James Bay, chatting to the rested winners of the Governor’s Cup as the turquoise sea gently laps against the boat and a light breeze sweeps the harbour. In the warm glow of the afternoon sun the crew excitedly recount the trip.
“It was heavy south easterlies to start with,” says Dave. “For three days we did 200 miles a day and suddenly we came to a big hole in the wind and then did 50 miles a day. The race on a whole was slower than expected, I wanted to average a minimum of 180 miles a day; we managed that, only just.”
All 17 boats were placed in racing class until they use engine power which moves them into the cruising class category.
“It turns out we are the only boat in the mono-hull fleet that actually sailed the entire way. We didn’t motor at all.”
The multi-hull yacht Banjo, also completed the race without motoring, breaking their own line honours record in nine days, 13 hours. But the actual Governor’s Cup goes to the mono-hull fleet.
Adrian Pearson, is a crew member and proud owner of Black Cat. “The biggest thing is for the crew to get on,” he says, “no fights. We’re still talking to each other!”
Nodding in agreement is First Mate, Cathleen Hughes and crew members, Shaun Cooper and Sophie Pages. At just 19, Cathleen has 9 years experience under her belt. “I learnt to sail with the Scouts, started ocean sailing in 2012 and sailed to Rio in 2014,” she tells us.
Adrian has recently invested heavily in renovating the yacht, completely modernising the original 20 year old design. Dave reveals, “It’s paid off! She’s light and she’s very quick.”
The race victory is particularly sweet for three of the gang. For the last GCYR, in 2012/13, Black Cat with Adrian and Dave onboard led the fleet, until diesel contaminated their fresh water supply, forcing a stopover at Luderitz, Namibia.
Reaching St Helena has been a lifelong obsession for French woman Sophie, who had been forced to abandon the previous two races. First time, “We lost our rigging and had to stop in Luderitz,” she tells us. “The second, I was on a super fast boat and so sure we’d win the race. Then we lost the rig, we lost the mast and I ended up in Luderitz – again!”
This voyage wasn’t completely incident free. At the start an open front hatch and big waves meant the crew had to pump out a few hundred litres of sea water.
Two days later they found the water tank had cracked. “So we got a bilge full of water again!” laughs Dave. Hooray for Black Cat’s desalination plant which makes 30 litres of fresh water in 10 hours, quickly restoring supplies.
The water tank mishap did not affect bathing routines, as the crew wash with sea water. Tethered to the back of the boat, they’d lather up and rinse with pots of water.
However, the packets of ‘astronaut’ food require fresh water to transform them into edible meals. “It weighs absolutely nothing,” says Dave. “If you had to make a meal for five people with fresh ingredients, you are adding loads of kilos to the boat.”
“You just add water, and leave for a while,” explains Shaun who unofficially became the onboard chef. Meals include salsa salad wraps that contains vegetable with chick peas and corn, and muesli and yoghurt for breakfast (Sophie’s favourite).
Stashed away in one of the multiple cubby holes was a ‘snack pack’ brimming with chocolate and other goodies, called upon to boost morale during the trip. Recounting a story of ‘stolen’ Smarties in the night has the whole crew roaring with laughter.
Eight days before arrival at St Helena, Black Cat had already made an island connection when the RMS St Helena (the island’s ship) overtook them at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “It was the most memorable part of the trip,” recalls Adrian. “We saw some lights, then Captain Greentree came on the radio and asked, ‘may we sail past you?’ ”
“It was so surreal,” says Cathleen, “they had a party on deck and you could see the flashes and hear them cheering for us.”
The give us the grand Black Cat tour; we climb down a short step ladder into the belly of the boat. About three metres at its widest point, this is the sleeping, cooking, dining, and office area. Every available space is efficiently used. A very compact toilet/shower cubicle is at the front.
The Dudley Dix 38 yacht sleeps five people in confined spaces; two ‘double’ bunks are aft, two slim bunks in the middle require ‘lee cloth’ canvas barriers to prevent toppling out and there is a bunk in the bow which bears the brunt of movement and noise of oncoming waves. Not good if you are claustrophobic.
“There’s no room for modesty and forget about privacy,” smiles Sophie, “especially when the toilet door is faulty.”
Communications at sea is done via satellite phone and email. The team kept tabs on the competition via daily reports giving each yacht’s position. “The GCYR is a major blue water race, in world stakes it’s in the top 40,” Dave tells us.
Black Cat crossed the finish line at 9.14am on 8 January and moored alongside yacht Avanti who had pipped them by 7 hours. “We got in, moored up and they starting clapping, ” says Sophie. The Avanti crew revealed they had motored for 95 miles, thus making them ineligible for the Governor’s Cup.
Once realisation of the win set in, Sophie burst into tears. “Sometimes you take an odd revenge on life!”
“It’s been quite an eventful race,” adds Dave, “I found out I’m getting a new daughter and unfortunately Shaun found out that his dad died whilst he was at sea. So there have been some life changes.”
The gang has been ashore and enjoyed some sightseeing and are now getting ready for a hog roast and night out at Ann’s Place. Whilst Dave is changing below deck, Adrian emerges to show us the skipper’s patchwork shorts and impishly tosses them overboard. As the dutiful first mate, Cathleen jumps in to rescue them.
Black Cat will soon be sailing back to South Africa; the crew has work obligations and family commitments. Shaun runs a business importing coffee from Europe and wants to try the coffee here, “I heard it’s one of the best in the world.”
Sophie will be ‘jumping ship’ and travelling back on the RMS to meet the start date of a new job, and, to finalise her March wedding plans. “I’m doing it at the yacht club in Cape Town because it means so much to me. All this bunch will be there,” she says gesturing at the crew. “Racing without companionship is not racing because we have to support each other.”