The Helluva Start
That was intense. Knock my socks off and grip my knees intense. Like certain mangrove swamps, it will be a stage never forgotten by the teams who answered the call. The sailing/paddling/snorkelling panic attack.
It started well. All boats heaved to the water’s edge; rudders, sails and skippers ready, the teams gathered in front of the Ebony Mourouk Hotel, on the beach ready for the blast.
Kapow and they were off. Streaming towards us, running through the shallows, the crowd pressing in in their eagerness and curiosity at the spectacle. Teams peeled off to their boats, rushed and heaved and shoved and skedaddled to be the first away.
Wind leapt into the sails, the front boats surged, and they were gone. Fast. We tried to chase in our motorboat but were quickly outdistanced. Instead of staying in hot pursuit, we decided to head them off. Our ignorance of the regatta course combined with atrocious French meant our captain was baffled as to our intent. We watched a team capsize but were too far away to identify them.
Seeing the boats tack east, we changed course to meet them. It worked. Streaking across their bows, we zipped through the field, turning to watch the race as it sped past. Shouts of elation and hoots of joy echoed over the water, the racers not having to lift a finger on this leg.
The pack now rounding the second buoy, it was safe for us to tack again, this time hoping to meet them at the snorkelling start. Another boat was in dire straits as we motored, this time right near us. All the team were in the water, hanging on to the sides, while the skipper frantically bailed, though we doubted he could make headway with water already over the stern. We left them to the rescue vessels patrolling about.
As we neared the snorkel buoy, boats were speeding from all directions, dramatic differences in strategy lending confusion as to their course. They rounded the finish line of their race near the hotel, then steered for our position by the buoy, a kilometre further.
All too quickly, the boats were on top of us. The wind, the current, the unwieldy dropping of the mast to change tack resulted in chaos.
Teams abandoned lifejackets, grabbed snorkel gear and jumped/fell overboard. They knew the first CP was underwater near the buoy.
They didn’t know how strong the current was. They didn’t understand how difficult it is to identify teammates in a sea of bobbing heads. They didn’t appreciate how hard it would be to communicate in windblown chop, snorkels catching crests, choking on seawater.
Look, it wasn’t hellish dangerous. It DID remind me of the final scene from the movie Titanic.
Teams RAF, Anger Management, Blizzard, Merrell and Mountain Mammoth AR were amongst the first to arrive. I saw the Russians jump in, turned my attention to other boats as the skipper kept us clear, heard CastleLite yell about a broken mask, then on looking back at the Russians, they were 50m away. What happened?! I can only assume they’d taken too long to start swimming, drifting on the current.
Heads milled around the buoy, some holding on to the rope, waiting for designated divers to dib. Others were swimming upwind, barely making progress. Our photographers leapt in to capture the confusion, and quickly became lost to our eyes.
We steered away, jockeying with a few other crew vessels, and eventually found Craig Giesle and Bruce Viaene, the latter of whom had been yelling to us unheard.
The front teams were making headway, following a rope that thankfully had been laid on the sea bottom to the next CP, something I’d initially dismissed as too easy a nav, but it quickly become a lifeline. A long curve of bobbing heads arched towards the shore, more than a kilometre distant.
Teams began swimming on a tack to compensate for the wash. They spread out. We made for the beach, to capture the front swimmers emerging from the water.
Greener Adventure Team. Not as a tight unit, Jonas first, Cecelia second, with the other two men stumbling from the shallows. “That was tough!” They ran up the track to great applause, the crowds hooting their appreciation.
Keyhealth Nevarest (16) followed quickly, stripping off wet kit, running over to get checked in, grabbing for food. Hurry, hurry! Their first words were about the currents and the waves. Tough #2.
Irish team Dar Dingle (47) came in third, which surprised me. They are not an elite team, but here they were. Then I learned they’d suffered a capsize, been unable to get a single CP in the crazy conditions, and had been helped to shore by the rescue boats. “Beyond tough!” – that word again.
Fourth was This Ability (12), then RAF (36), who’d managed to stay together, commented on the current but were pleased at their great teamwork, and had dibbed all 3 CPs. Sixth was Plett AR.
So it went. In short order many teams were announced into transition by a bellowing EA crew member, a hint of order in a sea of bedlam.
Most teams were wide-eyed. Jabberwock had gotten all CPs but were already chaffing. Tracey’s pink snorkel turned out to be a secret weapon in keeping the team together.
Merrell’s Tatum Prins was almost in shock. Not physical but a proper mental freakout. A veteran of numerous world championships, a regular on the Merrell team for years, she said that aside from the 2016 caving section of the ARWC, this was her worst stage ever. They “weren’t moving…the chop…(she) couldn’t see anyone…I have a claustrophobia I didn’t know about.” The words tumbled from her mouth, but she was still prepping for the next stage.
Saffy came through the entrance, “I’m alive!!”
Stephan came over. He was grinning. “It was experimental, and it was a shock to those teams who didn’t know about the sea, but there are plenty of rescue boats. They’ll learn for next time.”
His words were vindicated by the next team in, with Team Spot Africa’s Zane Schmahl proclaiming, “What a brilliant start to a race!” to one and all. This has been his first year in AR. He also said it was “f*cking tough, an adrenaline rush, the sailing was insane!” He was the first to mention the need to calm his breathing during the snorkelling, especially with the wind chop.
The Sweaty Betty’s made it intact, despite a mast that fell down and a rudder that broke. They just got it sorted and still grabbed the CPs ahead of others.
Mentored team Merrell Missiles arrived 25 minutes after the leaders, all CPs dibbed, Athina grinning wildly despite someone saying that she “was broken” when they saw her out at sea. People never know what they can handle until they get pushed beyond, right?
Castlelite’s Jo Mackenzie doesn’t enjoy the ocean at the best of times, and in these conditions, only kept going by swimming on her back. Her mask had broken at the start of the snorkelling. Garth and Craig got her through the stage by towing her together, still on her back.
Team Phoenix called the stage “v*kking ver” (very far), one member having lost his mask and forgotten his fins. Heidi’s laughing response was that as he’d made it, it wasn’t far enough. He reckons his 3x Midmar Miles made all the difference.
Elgin Rookies (41) said “What’s kiff is you’re wearing goggles, so you can tell you’re not moving.” This was a comment raised again and again, the horror of swimming like mad, with fins, to no benefit, seeing seaweed flying past on the current.
Erika Bornman, of Anger Management (24) had “just hoped others were suffering as much as she was”, and as a 2x ironman, was used to swimming, “but this was really tough. Waves breaking over my head”, gagging on seawater.
In the craziness, some team members crossed the line without each other. That was hardly surprising, and no case for a penalty. It had been a rude awakening.
The Russians eventually made it in, 45 minutes after the leaders. Not ideal for an elite team. Swimming isn’t their strong suit, they admitted. They didn’t arrive together.
Team Rodrigues, the locals, arrived as three men, and waited for Claudia to be returned by boat. Michael wants to thank Stephan for showing him 20% of the island he didn’t know, after believing his local knowledge already accounted for 90%. This was only the first stage.
Team Costa Rica Pura Vida (5) had their mast break early on, which slowed them down. “That (stage) was hard.”
Israel’s Raiders of The Lost Ark suffered a boat that sank. They got another one, went out and still nabbed them CPs.
Geenhaas (46) had a capsize, and had to empty the boat first.
Ok, you get the idea, and these were only the stories I heard about. This stage must have put a big fear into some of the teams, but they all made it back safely, went on their way drier and fed, and their expectations have all been ratcheted up a notch, without question. It was an incredible start to the race, full of drama, went off successfully, and looks beautiful on screen. But you'll need to get closer to see the fear...
Team Greener Adventure Team arrived back at the TA after the trek and zipline looking very strong, stopping only to swap into cycling gear and reposition their tracker which wasn’t responding low on the pack, before shooting off on their bikes.
The front of the field is moving faster than predicted. I’m sitting on an island in the dark, typing by headtorch, waiting for the first boats to arrive after what could be a crazy paddle. Remember, this time they won’t have rudders or skippers, and if night sailing, it will be in the blackity black, no moon, and just our lantern to guide them to TA4. I’d better pop out to keep watch.