Thanks to perseverance and sheer dogged determination the crew of the Ullman Challenger realised their dream despite a major calamity on the way.
“I have a dream,” said Martin Luther King.
“I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself,” said Nelson Mandela.
“We are Following a Dream,” said the crew of the Ullman Challenger and they declared their intent to sail around 3 500 nautical miles (6 482 kilometres) in the longest continent to continent sailing race in the Southern Hemisphere from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro.
Seven determined Hout Bay Yacht Club (HBYC) sailors set off to accomplish this first time feat in their yacht named ‘The Ullman Challenge Gryphon’ an ILC 40 modified built by Robertson & Caine in 1993. Onboard Gryphon were: Skipper – Theodore Yon, Navigator – Nick Legatt, Crew – Marco Tobin, Andre Julius, Leroy Rudolfe, Lorenzo Yon, Clarence Hendricks and Daniel Agulhas.
With a first place in the Cape Town to Mossel Bay Race in October 2016 the team set out to accomplish the best part of their dream – the Cape to Rio Race starting on 1 January 2017.
A successful Cape to Rio campaign is not a cheap exercise and a generous sponsor is the goal of any contender.
For Yon and his crew that sponsor came in the form of Cape Town based Ullman Sails – established by Jannie Reuvers decades ago. In the classic style Reuvers landed in Cape Town with little money and a grand dream to build a very successful sail loft – Jannie Reuvers Sails – which joined with Ullman Sails in 2013. “Following a Dream” was almost tailor made for Reuvers and his company to support which evolved into the Ullman Challenge.
In a portend of things to come the Brand Ambassador of Ullman Sails, Skip Novak – an extremely accomplished international sailor – took on the role of mentoring the team. Skip has faced major breakage problem’s of his own, one of which occurred just before the start of the round the world 1985/86 Whitbread Challenge with the keel breaking off the maxi-boat Drum just weeks before the start. Crossing the Atlantic is challenging and lonely as, if disaster strikes, one has to ‘make a plan’ as there are no corner shops to stop at to re-victual, get water or hardware for repairs. Yacht racing over long distances teaches sailors that ‘Shit happens’ and that they need to deal with it calmly and creatively.
For the Ullman Challenger “Shit Happened” in a big way on 17 January as they reported to race control; “Please be advised that The Ullman Challenge lost her rudder at 18H00 Z in position 22 50.5 S 040 15.7 W (approximately 158 miles E of Rio de Janiero). All crew are safe and OK. Rudder stock is intact and the vessel is NOT taking on water. We will jury rig a rudder and continue towards Rio as best we can. We do not require assistance but would just like to keep everybody informed.”
The 2017 Cape to Rio had already seen three retirements (one of them sinking – Trekker II) and thoughts turned to the safety of all on board as they jury rigged a rudder for the Ullman Challenger Gryphon.
The Ullman Challenger’s first version of an emergency rudder was the classic one of a spinnaker pole and floorboard which did not work quite to their liking so they reverted to towing two buckets on a long line with a carefully trimmed storm jib and tri-sail resulting in them sailing at around 5 knots in the right direction again.
But the worry about sailing in the fickle light winds around Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay got the guys thinking about a ‘new improved’ version of the classic spinnaker pole/floorboard solution. Crewman Mark Tobin explains; “In the light of day we re-assessed our steering solution and decided that the buckets and small sails worked well in strong breeze, but that we might need to rethink the spinnaker pole / floorboard concept for the lighter winds we anticipate closer to Rio. 100 years ago the Wright brothers invented the aeroplane, this year it seems the wrong brothers have invented some weird sort of hydroplane. Andre, Clarence and Nick had a long discussion about hydrodynamics, fluid mechanics and other arcane subjects, which Leroy and Theo translated into the construction of a rather bizarre looking winged monster. Adapted, with slight variations, from the concepts used on the foiling IMOCA 60s, our two intrepid boat-builders have ensured us that this super-light weight carbon contraption will actually lift the boat clear of the water and fly us to Rio like a magic carpet. Failing that, they think it will work as a sort of steering device in lighter winds.”
This contraption was named “The Thing”, not a nightmare of a thing but enough of a dream of a thing to point the Ullman Challenger in the right direction and for them to complete the race under their own steam and cross the finish line at 19:24:39 UTC on 19 January 2017.
A final word from Marco Tobin as he describes their finish; “Emerging from the channel between the islands we entered the main channel into Guanabara Bay, in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain. Two oil rig tenders were steaming out of the harbour, obstructing our run into the finish line, but with a confidence built from working as a team for nearly three weeks, we powered up the boat and cut across the bows of the ship, heading directly towards Ilha Laje, which marked the southern end of the finishing line. Reaching in towards the looming rock, The Ullman Challenge was as powered up as we could manage and at the last minute we had to back the jib in order to bring the bow around to starboard to avoid the rock. By then a small fleet of spectator boats had gathered around us cheering us on. A final flick of the jib to the other side of the boat caused the bow to veer to port and cross the finishing line at 17:24 local time. We immediately dropped the sails and accepted a tow from the ICRJ launch while supporters plied us with cold beers. The launch towed us directly to the marina travel lift, and within minutes of arriving the boat was lifted out of the water and settled in a cradle. It was the first occasion we had to really assess the situation with the rudder, which had broken cleanly off in line with the hull. The Cape to Rio race was a fantastic experience for all the crew aboard The Ullman Challenge despite the challenges at the end and we would all like to thank our supporters and enthusiastic followers, and particularly Ullman Sails, Xtra-link, Radio Holland, Sailing Anarchy and LTC who made it happen for us!”