AN inexperienced Wits sailor was one of the crew onboard a yacht that won one of the toughest ocean races in southern Africa last month.

The gruelling Vasco da Gama is an established sailing event and was “a baptism of fire” for Patrick Chappel, who took part in his first ocean race with a crew of seven other members.

Chappel was one of five young, inexperienced sailors on the Skitzo, a South African built and manned yacht that won the race.

Chappel joked about Skitzo being appropriately named, because of the way it “seemed to respond” to the changing weather conditions during the race.

The crew experienced early trouble when the spinnaker halides (the rope used to attach the sail to the mast) came unstuck, causing the yacht to lose ground to its rival competitor, the BMA.

Appointed to climb the mast in winds of roughly 55km/h to untie the spinnaker halides, Chappel said: “It was a harrowing but awesome experience in 30 knots of wind and the mast shaking like a tree in a storm.”

The crew experienced more issues throughout the night as the winds reached up to 50 knots with swells of up to 20 feet and currents reaching 5 knots. According to Chappel, what made the winds even more intense was the winds were just short of being classified hurricanes at 60 knots.

Chappel said having the Skitzo broach (fall on its side) several times throughout the night was a “nerve wrecking” experience.

The crew experienced other difficulties that meant they missed out on a record winning time by just an hour but still managed to claim handicap and line honours.

Chappel said he learned a lot from this experience. “If you are going to do this extremely dangerous stuff, you cannot take enough precautions in terms of safety and expecting the unexpected.”

Another lesson he learned was that one needs to be able to deal with one’s own fears and emotions while not doing something to jeopardise another crew member’s life.


(Appeared in print, May 11, 2012)