Hugo Montgomery-Swan reports on 1996’s week long “Rondar os Acores” event . . a challenging single class rally around some of the most stunning scenery in the world – the Azores archipeligo.
The skies cleared as we dropped altitude and descended to the heights of the mountainous island slopes. How green the picture that lay before us. This striking seascape of cliffs and volcanic strata rearing from the unfathomable depths of the vast Atlantic, was seen by none for millenniums, until Columbus discovered the isolated Azorian mid ocean archipeligo for his sponsors, the Portuguese, by chance in 1493. If it had'nt been for the signalling clouds that swirl about its highlands, these fascinating islands of such rare beauty probably would have likely remained unfound for many more years to come, until some other great seafaring nation in its quest to secure wealth and riches drove its flag staff into the black soil.
This is a kingdom of whales and rich seas, full of every sort of marine life you can imagine. Waters deep and clear, which when offshore beneath a midday sun, appear more purple in colour than blue. Imagine the secrets held by a sea so deep between two islands no more than 10 miles apart, that midway, nigh on a full mile separates the surface from the sea floor. What vastness, and what potential challenges too for those wishing to ride the swells that roll their way in from the thousands of miles of ocean all around. For one whole week such an environment was to be our theatre, and it was here the stage was set for the 16 identical craft and their crews from 10 different nations to embark on the ` 1996 Rondar os Acores' RIB Challenge.
The competitors were a varied lot and ranged from traditional yachtsmen to a Breton fisherman. Navigational prowess came in the form of Koji Ikeda, a 747jet airline pilot for Japan Airlines. Koji was a veteran Rondar os Acores racer whose past experience and cool determination was to pay dividends throughout the course of the week. Joseph Papadopoulos, the bearded Greek, (as he was fondly known), himself a very experienced RIBster, was a veteran of many a RIB voyage including the Round Scotland RIB race. Joseph was a good man with a strong sense of fair play and had the ability to drive hard whilst consistently remaining within the top half dozen.
The Spanish and the French were less noble on the water, at least where we were concerned. Those devilish Spaniards sought to cut us up on more than one occasion and the Frenchies, well, thankfully they remained generally at the rear of the pack, though it was their manner ashore that had me perplexed. Though as a nation they may be known far and wide for sharing the delights of their culinary skills, the team here lacked that same degree of generosity when it came to the matter of sharing the island of Santa Maria's sole electric drill.
The first day's debriefing was followed by all the teams being responsible for fitting out and preparing their boats for the water. This included the use of the aforementioned electric drill, made available to all the teams for the purpose of attaching foot straps and compass gimbles etc. The French team, however, seemed overly attached to the drill. Upon asking in my best French flavoured English as to whether they would mind me and half a dozen other people using the thing between their long bouts of drilling inactivity, they simply motioned with their hands and mumbled something to the effect of "buzz off." This enraged all concerned, and immediately hackles rose! But to everyones' delight, due to their over enthusiastic hogging of the Black'n'Decker, they well and truly got their comeuppance as the boat promptly started to sink ... they had drilled right through their hull!
All the boats had been provided by Zodiac, with Yamaha equipping each Bombard Explorer 500 RIB with a Pro75 outboard. The choice of power unit was just right in terms of power to weight, but more of that later. Indeed, it was a pretty sight to see all 16 craft assembled along Vila Do Porto's quay. Village children gathered around to watch our antics, whilst one young boy dived off the quay wall to grab an octopus, which upon turning inside out, he held aloft, henceforth putting pay to its wrigglings.
After the 6 hours of morning boat preparations, a familiarization course had been scheduled for the afternoon. A simple non race coastal event of approximately 30 miles to allow crews and engines to be run in. The sea was slight, possessing an undulation which grew to more lively seas off the headlands and on the weather side of Santa Maria. l never appreciated how well flying fish actually flew. Why, they leapt and glide above the water as well as any bird I've seen. As we dodged their unexpected appearances and took in the panorama of towering cliff faces, much of which were cultivated with vines, we began to get a feel for the craft beneath us. She was light in comparison to the craft I'm used to helming and handled much more like a true inflatable. The sponsons set low to the water line meant she at times had similar characteristics to that of a small catamaran. We pushed her a bit through the overfalls but backed off when we quickly discovered, she like the winged fish, also displayed a gift for flying, though lacked somewhat in terms of predictability when it came to the all important matter of returning to earth.
Whilst we gingerly made our way along, very much at our own pace, I noticed we were quickly being advanced upon by others less cautious, who were about to pass us on their way back. They were gunning it, no holes barred, screaming off the top of these would-be breakers at 36 knots, airborne. It was at this precise point both Paul and I understood, if ever we were going to stand a chance of competing seriously that week, there was only going to be one manner of going about it.
Immediately, I became navigator. My qualification - I had the longer pair of legs. The navigators seat was even higher than the helmsman's, and that was already a tip toe job. Plus, Paul had fewer years left in him than me and his technique behind the wheel seemed to suggest that he didn't have so much to lose in the event of those years being cut short.
That evening, after a civic reception held within the stately confines of the Government Department Buildings, the teams ate in what appeared to resemble someone's front room, digesting what I can only describe as unidentifiable salted objects (local food to the uninitiated).
Sunday I4th July. Santa Maria to Sao Miguel - 65 miles.
Race start was at 2pm. Prior to, we had experienced the first of our pre-race briefings, held on this occasion within the Club Naval in Vilo Do Porto, another fascinating 17th Century building who's bricks and mortar simply oozed history. It surely must have once been the haunt of Sea Captains and Pirates. As we sat with legs crossed on the flagstone floor, (it was cooler that way), the gaggle of foreign tongues was interrupted by Charles Henri and his Race Marshall addressing us in polite but sobering terms. It was made clear that any craft breaking down was not to radio the authorities for help on Channel 16 until a full 24 hours had passed! We were allowed to call Race Control and give our position but should not be surprised if no reply was given in return. We simply were not considered to be in distress if the 24 hour limit had not been reached. Although all boats were to be scrutinized for carrying the correct amount of drinking water and some means of protecting it's occupants against the sun, ie: sheeting or a makeshift cover, I cannot accept that this rule was wise from a safety aspect. The fact was that we were as good as racing in mid ocean and suffering the disadvantage of many an uninhabited volcanic lee shore as well.
Next, we were handed our charts revealing the course for the day. These were provided in the form of plastic coated A4 sheets with no compass rose or even an arrow showing north! All crews had access though to a single Admiralty chart which had been cunningly pinned to the Race Officer's table, this then gave them the means to decipher what was where and where we should be in relation to it. Experience told us pretty quickly that week, that unless you had the ability to dead reckon and hold a good course in relation to it, you didn't have a hope.
Once the T.V. cameras had got their fill and we had gone through the entertaining ritual of drawing lots for our race numbers, we quickly embarked on the hurried business of making ready for the race start.
The waters of the bay surged under the influence of the fretting flotilla. The 6m Committee Boat rose onto the plane as the competitors jostled and swerved for position. It was a rolling start under a raised flag, which when we had all topped 30 knots was dropped to signal the off.
The field rapidly opened up with the lighter boats gaining the lead and maintaining a strong position. Kogi Ikeda, Nuno Pereira, Janine Gramona and Joseph Papadopoulos were amongst those ahead of us. With only eight boats or so astern, we had to make good where we could, and sought to steal a march on the others by locating our check point Committee Boat with minimum fuss before grabbing the all important green card as surely as we could. We found it without a problem 55 miles down the course lying low in the water. Accurate navigation was definitely the key.
Sao Miguel hove into sight but no matter what we did we couldn't work our way any further up the ranks. The teams ahead were there to stay and as we passed the harbour walls of Ponta Delgada, we calculated that on this, our first race, we would have to be content with 7th place.
All raced well that day, with the boats having averaged 36 knots. On the whole, navigation was of a high standard and it was clear that although some teams were not experienced power-boaters, nonetheless they were made up of able enough seamen who were of a mind to learn very quickly.
Ponta Delgada is a fine town with an equally fine Club Naval which to my surprise and interest has connections with the Royal Cornwall Yacht Club of Falmouth, Cornwall, for reason of it's great AZAB race. We fed and watered well that night, knowing tomorrow would potentially be the most testing leg of all.
Monday 15th July Sao Miguel – Island of Terceira - 100 miles.
It was a p.m. start once again but with a very much greater distance to cover than the day before. If any one part of the week's racing was going to feel like an ocean race, this was going to be it.
The lofty peaks of Sao Miguel stood behind us unmoved. The crowds lining the harbour walls were anxious to gain the best vantage point from which to see the parading race flotilla. Again, we throttled onto the plane behind the Committee Boat, but just at the very moment we rammed the throttle fully home, the engine died the most unbelievable death, leaving us motionless in the water with the whole pack streaming off into the distance. I can't remember how or what we did to get her going again, it's all a bit of a blur now, all I can tell you is we did, though the last of them must have been the best part of a mile in front and already round the first turn buoy.
We literally clawed our way back into the frame. Papadopoulos lay close to the coast just as our own course was set. But then without any warning, he stopped dead amidst a flurry of activity from his crewman Christos, who was seen pulling himself to the back of the boat to lean anxiously over it's transom. They hailed us on, but later told us of the damage the lump of wood they'd struck had done!
Several other boats were gradually overreached including two more who appeared to have engine difficulty. To our astonishment, by the time we were 25 miles or so out of Ponta Delgada, we were up with the leaders, or at least according to my calculations, had them in sight.
The sky was vivid blue with just the occasional whispy high cloud. The mountains of Sao Miguel, stretching 2400 mtrs above sea level, were slipping ever into the distance. Ahead, was an unbroken expanse of open sea, and we were having the ride of our lives. This was RI B racing of the noblest kind. The only way to race match racing over a hundred mile course with identical boats and engines. All that was to divide this lot up was to be raw determination and an eye for a true course.
By now the sea had well and truly lost any friendship it had with the land and was throwing up
waves on our weather bow that sent the boat rearing and convulsing which ways. My hands were bleeding and in spite of us both wearing helmets, on one occasion when the boat hit the water twisting and skewing instantly as it did from one sponson cone to the other, I bashed my head so severely on the back of my driver's lifejacket harness that it left me completely dazed. It was at this point also I noticed the handheld Lowrance Global Nav GPS had lost it's battery pack. The force of the blow had sent this lower unit hurtling onto the deck, whereupon it was now my precarious job to recover it.
This was no time to pull back the throttle, if we were to keep pace with the likes of Jose Furtado and Nuno Pereira, we just had to ensure not a single moment, no matter how transitory, saw us backing off. l scrabbled at arms length with outstretched fingers, straining at every muscle in an effort to stay with the boat and lay a hold on my quarry. When at last I did, I soon appreciated how virtually impossible a task it was to reunite the two parts together let alone re-set the commands. This was in spite of the GPS being secured to the back of the helm seat directly in front of my position. The boat's motion was wild!
I next looked up in an effort to restore orientation, only to see 200 metres ahead, the disturbing sight of an empty boat belonging to the Lusitania Seguros team. We at once came off course and ran toward the casualty. Both crew were in the water. We came alongside but found the first swimming toward the boat the kill switch had probably saved both men's lives. On our getting the thumbs up from the first, we motored some twenty metres to the second crewman in the water, he too was alright, though floating on his back he looked happy enough. After waiting for them to re-board and fire up their engine, we quickly got the all clear and endeavoured to make all haste with full steam.
One of the most interesting challenges of this race was to locate the Marshall Committee RIB, positioned on a preset waypoint some 40 miles off the coast of Terceira. This may have appeared to the uninformed as simply a random point in the middle of nowhere, but nothing could have been further from the truth. The boat was stationed exactly over the peak of a vast underwater mountain in less than 20ft of sea. Schools of fish gathered about the boat all brightly coloured, their sides glinting in the sparkling sunlight as it danced on the water.
With no GPS and only the Suunto Compass to steer by, it was somewhat of a pleasant surprise to eyeball the Committee Boat away in the distance. But as we made our final approach on the target, as if out of nowhere, three other boats appeared at the same time, all converging like us at full tilt on the poor defenseless official. As it happened, we managed to get by far the best approach, circling it once, grabbing our card and getting away like two robbers who've just held up a bank! Mind you, it could have been a different story, for it was only by sheer fluke that I managed to stay with the boat when Paul rammed the throttle down to make our escape. The patch of sea here, perhaps due to the peculiar shallowing, caused very steep waves of an irregular pattern which nearly saw me taking an early bath when I Failed to get back into the saddle as quickly as the urgency of the situation necessitated.
But we were now leading the race albeit by a small margin, it was a good feeling, but the pain was increasing wave by wave. Every part of the body groaned and complained, even yelped. Nevertheless, there was a positive side to this ordeal, the fact that our fellow competitors would be feeling it just the same! It was as tough for them as for us, and though we exchanged the occasional thumbs up, it was more a question of psyching the other out of the frame.
If there was one crew I respected more than any other that day, it was the team that finally beat us over the finish line in Praia Da Vitoria. Skippered by Jose Furtado, the Club Naval De Ponta Delgada team were the tops. They had sneaked passed us when the weather turned foul, on the seaward side of the huge brown islets we ran between, which signalled the final 10 mile stretch down the coast. We had duelled and lost to a fine margin that eventually separated our two boats by a mere 10 metres. Perhaps it was the school of dolphins which came leaping towards us that had robbed our attention of the matter in hand, I simply don't know. But, in spite of the injuries and our final placing, it had been a marvellous race and one I'll not forget.
That night at dinner, feelings ran high and opinions were voiced when the day's results were read out by Phillipe, the Race Marshall. "No time allowances awarded for those teams who might go to the rescue of another craft," we were told. In other words, any action on the part of the rescuer would result in him being penalized. Though the race organizers expected common maritime laws to be observed they refused to reward any who ceased racing to go the assistance of another. This might be fine in principle, but how principled are those few who view winning to be had at all costs?
Three boats either retired or suffered serious breakdowns that day, with Jean Yves Wattecamp of the Navico Team withdrawing from the event altogether, complaining of "violent neck pains."
We awoke the next day aching from head to toe. Paul, like Ted Van Linden of the Viking Team, went on the hunt for bandages and dressings to patch up the raw flesh exposed on the inside of his right leg. Mind you, Ted's unsightly sore patch was situated in a slightly more delicate little area than that of Paul's. "Best to let the air get to it Ted," was my advice to our long faced friend. He was a decent chap, and we reassured him by reminding him that all things heal in the end, given enough time!
Tuesday 16th July. De Angra De Heroismo, Terceira – San Jorge - 40 miles.
I remember actually dreading race start that morning, I even confess to feeling a little nervy. We like others, had sustained a broken engine mount during the race the day before. Though we had worked hard on the boat to keep her together, we knew in order to win we had to finish and it was vital therefore to drive her in a manner that would ensure she kept going. But the wind was strong off the headland, you could see the horizon heaving. As the boats milled about awaiting starters orders, we spied a British yacht in the bay, "Rambling Rose of Devon." The sole crew on board was that of a lady, who having sailed all the way down here from Plymouth, had been gored the day before in the streets by a bull which had been traditionally let loose by the local towns folk during the course of their "Festival." She lay in the cockpit with her leg raised, and wished us well as we departed for the committee boat and its fluttering white flag.
We charged as one out toward the headland beyond to be met by a heavy sea. As I glanced back through the helmet visor, I saw two boats stationary in the water, the crews had been thrown clear safely but now appeared in danger of being run down by the mass of boats following behind. We pressed on, forgetting our pains and were again holding second position with the engine trimmed right in and all spare fuel and baggage stowed forward. The rough suited our purposes. Alas, it didn't last long though, for the sea began to flatten as the tide changed, and as the tide changed so did the weather - for the better. In spite of our slipping back eventually to fifth position and the lighter crews on their Mediterranean diets winning the day, we enjoyed every moment of the race.
There were no casualties this day, except for two frightened fish. Just prior to our rounding the island of Topo, the crew of the Committee Boat had been calmly admiring the sleepy sunbathing behaviour of a shark at rest beneath their hull. But upon the roar of the first race boat appearing as it spun round the corner, the poor shark stirred in a most startled fashion. To the amazement of the crew, a chain reaction was unleashed, resulting in the spectacular finale of a Blue Marlin also leaping from the water as it hastened to avoid the shark.
Wednesday 17th July Economy/Speed Run
We enjoyed a variety of accommodation during the course of the week. From en-suite hotel rooms to sleeping on mattresses on the dirty bare floor of a school assembly hall. Tonight was to be the latter.
A new day dawned, and with it the prospect of the teams turning their hand to the challenge of a fuel consumption test over a 20 nautical mile course. Though all the boats were identical, in true match racing, crews are required to change over craft in order to ensure the ultimate winner is the one who unquestionably possesses the greatest skill and expertise. To a great extent this event showed the shortcomings of not regularly changing over craft. It has to be said, that some boats just were 1 or 2 knots faster than others. Such an edge provided them with a noticeable advantage upon the glassy conditions of this day where helming ability was negligible.
Time penalties were given those teams who broke outside the ten minute margin allowed thus ensuring the test involved both speed and consumption. Last years champions, the Juventude team with Mario Medeiros at the wheel, proved this discipline was their forte, by fairly and squarely beating all others, including the Spanish Transinular team skippered by Juame Gromana.
The final straight race to Velas held few excitements except for the fact we ran out of fuel 100 metres from the finish line. Unforgivable, I know!
By this stage of the game, the overall leader was Nuno Pereira aboard Lusitania Seguros, with a total of 77 points under his belt.
Thursday, 18th July. De Velas to the Island of Pico.
The mountain of Pico is the highest in all of Portugal's domain, it lies like a woman's breast adorning the view for miles around. Today, we were to race toward the island bearing its name, crossing a stretch of water renowned for its whales and great subterranean depths.
We had a terrific getaway and secured a first class position on the first turn mark, dinghy racing style, that nearly resulted in our boat making an unexpected appearance on the deck of the Marshall safety boat. This proved to be our best performance that day. To our great frustration the engine kept dying and for no obvious reason as far as we could tell. Our race degenerated into a stop, start, 3 hour episode of fitfully clawing our way over the remains of an Atlantic storm swell toward a lee shore on Pico.
As we closed the island, the volcanic shoreline rebuffed powerful green backed breakers that crashed in plumes of white water upon the rocks, just a small distance off our port bow. An anchor would have been hopeless here, for the depth of water even from this short distance from shore, was in excess of 5OOft. We simply had to hope that the engine would not fail us as we made our final approach to De Madalena. Thankfully it didn't, and though it had been a struggle, it had remained an adventure worth experiencing.
Our engine's ditty tricks had the Yamaha engineers flummoxed. Whilst the likes of Nuno Pereira and Koji Ikeda revelled in the aftermath of a first class race, we crawled about the deck of our boat, tools in hand, endeavouring to rectify the elusive fault. Our inspections found little else besides the alarming evidence that the engine was on its last legs and would not tolerate much more punishment of the sort we were hoping to give it on our final marathon run the next day.
Friday 20th July. Circumnavigation of the island of Pico.
Of all the Azorean islands we had the pleasure of exploring, l found Pico to be one of the most interesting and beautiful. The island's history is bound up in it's former life of whaling and the people that industry supported. It was a cruel existence, not only for the captive but also for the captor. Thankfully, these waters today no longer run with the blood of the mighty leviathan but rather, man seeks to observe and marvel at these creatures which continue to visit Pico's shores.
This final offshore race of 65 nautical miles, though whilst not being a navigational challenge, offered the crews a real opportunity to try their hand at some very testing seas. Short, sharp and horribly steep. Steep enough in fact to stand the boats on their transoms or even worse flip them right over backwards.
The rolling start quickly drew the boats down a short course between the two islets situated off the town of Madelena before a very sharp left handed turn which was undertaken as one by the whole of the pack.
Such a requirement this early in the race and in these unfavourable conditions, presented a potentially very dangerous hazard. All 16 RIBs were gunning it tube to tube at 36knots, leaping and plunging with their props growling and spinning clear of the water just inches from vulnerable limbs and bodies. There were several occasions when I was convinced two boats were going to end up on top of each other. The two Spanish teams had eyeballed us earlier that day when we'd played a practical joke on one of their team mates - now they were seeking their revenge with a pincer movement that sought to cut us up. Signalling to one another, they closed in, but we refused to be intimidated. They tried as hard as they could but we remained undeterred and kept the throttle full down, bouncing off their sponsons in the process. Then the rain came, sent from heaven! These guys had chosen not to wear their helmets, wincing in an effort to shield their eyes from the blinding water, they no longer could manage to maintain their speed or their dastardly antics. We waved a cheery wave, and shouted "Tally Ho!"... they dropped astern.
Papadopoulous was up ahead now, so we set about our usual tactic of tailing astern, watching which seas he backed off or hit badly, so as to take advantage of his advanced lead. We then closed in and willed our way passed him inch by inch, steering out of his wake at the last gasp. Both boats were running at maximum power, the punishment they were suffering was intense. Papadopoulous then caught a wave bang on the nose which sent his RIB skyward. It reared and twisted to the vertical, Christos in the navigator's seat, lunged with outstretched arms toward the flailing lifelines and just managed to keep himself from being flung overboard. That one unlucky wave gave us the advantage and we were now up in the top three. As far as I can recall, upon glancing over my shoulder, at least two crews could be seen clambering back into their boats after being flung out, but our sights were now firmly set on the way ahead, although I couldn't help noticing that the engine appeared slightly askew.
The sea grew fiercer, the waves steeper and the ride more punishing. The boat never landed the same twice, how the ancillary equipment stood it I'll never know. This ride, like the big 100 mile crossing, meant using a small GPS, to monitor speed and distance, was utterly hopeless. Large screen availability and big buttons is the only option to consider when racing.
The mountainous coast to port looked magnificent as the low cloud now swept clear to reveal a brilliant palate of colour. But consideration of the surroundings was interrupted by my ears being alerted to the engine's changing pitch. I once more looked over my shoulder, rudely wiping the spray from my visor, and noticed the engine appeared to be rapidly coming adrift. I shouted to Paul that we had seconds. Within just that, the Yamaha gave a deathly scream, shuddered from skeg to cowl, and we slopped into the trough lifeless.
The engine mounts had gone, the drive shaft had sheared, the gears were smashed and if it hadn't been for the ratchet strap we secured the day before, the engine would have been making it's way to the bottom of the ocean floor. The Spanish roared passed, I tried not to look, but couldn't help smiling to myself, knowing we must have looked like a couple of duds stood there scratching our heads, forced into accepting defeat. No one stopped except for Ted Van Linden. We waved him on as we knew the safety boat had planned to bring up the rear that day.
It was a 5 hour tow. Tacking endlessly from side to side in an effort to make headway against the sea. The scenery was striking though. We passed by turtles which swam with the current down the coast. Paul saw what he thought was a shark, but try as we might we never sighted a whale. The northern tip of the island meant the turning point as regards making headway. Upon rounding its unusually low lying peninsular, we then entered calmer waters and were able to pull both boats up onto the plane.
Having come to terms with our demise, we relaxed into the atmosphere of the social goings on, eating heartily, drinking local wine and swimming in the bay. However on returning to my hotel room later in the day, I inadvertently mistook the correct door to my room. Breezing through the open doorway, disorientated by the change of light, I was thrown into confusion by the appalling scene which there confronted me. A naked woman crossing her legs and clasping her hands to her chest in horror, a dark tanned man fierce and threatening, and a small child who's expression looked as though I meant to beat it. Composing myself in an effort to keep the calm, I merely raised my hat and wished them `Good day' before reversing swiftly out again. I mean, what else could a gentleman do?
Saturday 21st July. Slalom.
A total of three teams failed to make the start line for this last of the races due to engine difficulties, but the idea of a slalom provided an interesting final twist to the show. Koji Ikeda and his South African navigator Duncan Ross, only needed a handful of points to clinch the victory. Nuno Pereira, was there or thereabouts too, so it was a nail biting time for several at the top of the tree.
Most, I have to say, made a bit of a hash of it, spinning out on turns and generally un