Everyone’s In The Same Boat.
I arrived on-island at about 8pm last night, straight into a meeting that confronted the enormity of the task ahead. It is hectic. Everyone knows that. The Mullers know that. We saw the map with every CP and every TA on at once. It’s not pretty.
Will the teams be dismayed? Fear not. As they transition throughout the race, they’ll receive the same map every time (it is a small island, right?) but each time only with a few stages and associated CPs. This will make it far more manageable mentally, in the haze of the race. No spaghetti junction.
Anton Muller, website and tracking genius, brother to Stephan, has been equally wise in his improvements to the tracking. While the map will always feature the TAs, it will only show the CPs as far back as the tail team, and up to those relevant to the front teams. This will reduce the confusion, especially as the MTB legs crisscross the island in multiple directions.
OK, it will be admitted that this is a test, so we’ll see how well it works late in the race, when there’s usually a substantial distance between the front and back, but the idea is sound.
Today was spent prepping, greeting teams as they trickled in, hanging out with those hanging out for baggage to arrive, and oh, just a LITTLE snorkelling. In a small bay that was too pretty. Seriously. Out to the edge of the encircling reefs to visit the ‘Aquarium’, complete with coral, Picasso trigger fish, cleaner wrasse, other fishy things, followed by grilled fresh fish and octopus prepared just off the beach by the locals on the verandah of their house. We shared our epic sortie with team Sweaty Betty’s, an all-female South African contingent, that includes the bundle of energy that is Nikki Smit (wife of Smelly), Michelle Powell (sister to Bruce Viaene, now on her 3rd EA), Michelle Schlebusch and Janine Linder.
We learned a few things in the name of this serious research: the wind is going to be a factor. The north side of the island, at race base hotel Les Cocotier, is the lee side, so generally smooth and makes for easy sailing. The south side, where we snorkelled, the wind had us in a sidewash which caught us by surprise, and had us swimming properly to make headway, despite using flippers. Any teams navigating swimming stretches at night in such conditions will be challenged. Bruce Viaene reckons the only concern teams should have is if they hear waves breaking. Anything else is inconsequential, but if you do….panic time!
Adrian Saffy has as a solution: the team will sit on a rock to stay stationary and send Garth Peinke swimming hard in one direction. As they watch him drift downwind, they’ll calculate the declination, eventually call him back, then compensate their swim direction accordingly. They’ll even give him a glowstick for when it’s dark. His teammates think it’s a great idea, Garth is…less enthusiastic.
The Sweaty Betty’s met a local manhandling his 600kg boat ashore, complete with a small set of wheels. When he realised this all-female team would be using a similar boat in the race, without rudder, without proper sail, without poles, without motor, without wheels, he gave a look to the heavens and was properly mortified. He didn’t rate their chances. It’s also true he doesn’t know female adventure racers.
There is a challenge even with the tides. High tide will be beneficial for faster movement to the islands, but then teams will find it difficult to proceed on foot to visit CPs. At low tide, boats will struggle to make headway across shallow reefs, but in turn those teams will be quicker on foot. There is no perfect formula.
Teams aren’t allowed to hire or build sails on the island. Everything must be imported by them. We already spotted one team chancing their luck, using plastic conduit from a hardware store, and we’ll see if they get caught. Team Merrell are strong contenders for the podium, and elected to leave the item behind - Smelly said there wouldn’t be enough wind. Nikki snickered when she said, “How’s that working out for you?” She reckons her husband will now try to buy or borrow hers from the Sweaty Betty’s, seeing as his team is proper competitive, and he thinks hers isn’t. When I asked her if she’d agree to this, her reply wasn’t printable, but it involved an expression of glee.
By the way, the annual regatta is a very serious local event. They consider it as the British do Ascot. Bets are placed. Prestige is on the line. There is a huge crowd turnout. For Expedition Africa, each boat will be prepped by its owner and inspected for seaworthiness. The two sailors for each boat are selected by drawing straws, which makes it fair, and the teams are also chosen for each boat by the same method. With great fanfare, they will set sail for the outer reefs on Sunday, and on reaching the same, will drop off the teams in the deep to swim back to shore. It’s not a short distance.
Team Lickety Split figure the race won’t benefit the fastest team, but the cleverest. Timings are going to be crucial. For example, a team that lacks the confidence to swim at night is not only dark-zoning themselves, but potentially putting themselves many stages behind. How would you feel to snorkel between islands, in the dark, across the deep, with mighty monsters of the ocean just waiting to gnash and tear at your footsies?
Mark Dickson hasn’t done an expedition race in 5 years and wasn’t feeling fit enough for proper expedition stages. He agreed to Rodrigues because of the short sections, which felt far more achievable. This might be a false assumption, since the island is very hilly. Is anywhere actually flat? One trek recce took 20 minutes to make 20m of height, such is the technical nature of the terrain, and most of the ravines and gullies feature impenetrable, thorny scrub that shreds legs.
A concern is the lack of hot water, and electricity to power batteries. Stephan’s solution for the latter is that most ascents are on tarmac, which means street lighting, which means extinguish torches whenever possible. Those teams that only have rechargeables will have to be the most savvy.
Lastly, those aforementioned baggage issues: South African teams were told not to put CO2 cartridges in their bike boxes, as they were being shipped en-masse in a cargo plane. Some did. Customs found a few cartridges, and then proceeded to open and inspect every single box, which delayed the arrival of that cargo plane.
The second issue has been the transfer of luggage from Mauritius to Rodrigues, which involves small propeller-driven planes. Some staff and crew have been waiting close to 48hrs by now.
Both of these issues mean a final cargo plane will bring everything that’s missing across by midday Friday. This clashes with the scheduled gear check (9am), and boat sailing practice (3:30pm). The result is that the gear check is pushed to midday, and the sailing practice is cancelled. Yup, no testing out of techniques, strategies, or skills. There are sure to be grumblings about this critical element of the race, but to quote Stephan, everyone’s in the same boat. They will be allowed to test-fit their sail solutions on land, but nothing will enter the water until the actual regatta on Sunday. So, more fun for the spectators as teams discover just how well, or terribly, they have prepared.
The live tracking begins on Sunday on http://expafrica.live