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Around-the-World Sailboat Race : Fleet Badly Damaged by 55-Knot Winds Off Cape of Good Hope

November 22, 1986|DAN BYRNE | Dan Byrne, a former news editor for The Times, was one of 10 finishers in the first BOC Challenge in 1982-83

NEWPORT, R.I. — Portuguese navigator Bartholmeu Dias called it the Cape of Storms.

In 1487 when he got back to Lisbon, he told King John and Prince Henry the Navigator that the cape marked just about the worst body of water he had ever seen.

Why, Dias told them, he was blown 100 miles out into the Atlantic by a really mean southeaster as he tried to round the rocky promontory at Africa's southern tip.

No one wanted to hear it. Henry had spent years trying to get Portuguese sailors around Africa to the Indies. And now the guy who finally made it was telling scare stories.

Cape of Storms? No way.

In what may have been history's first instance of a PR man's intervention, someone got the royal ear and whispered: "Why not call it the Cape of Good Hope?"

They took Bart aside and got his head on straight for him. It's been the Cape of Good Hope ever since.

But this week the old Portuguese salt picked up 19 votes for his original call.

The damage began in a hurry as the solo around-the-world racers started the second leg of the BOC Challenge last Saturday and headed south out of Cape Town for the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean.

A 20-knot southeaster swept the 19 sailboats out of Table Bay to the sound of horns and whistles from a 300-boat spectator fleet.

At first the wind died to a whisper. The boats rocked and rolled southward in the swell under the towering presence of Cape Town's Table Mountain.

Then, at sunset, the wind began to build. By midnight the southeaster was screaming off the mountain at 55 knots and the fleet was in trouble.

First, skipper Warren Luhrs turned Thursday's Child around and headed back. The intake on his water ballast tanks was clogged, and his autopilot was malfunctioning. He restarted three days later.

Once again, the Floridian, favored by many to win before the race, was forced to sail hard to catch up. He had been delayed at the start here in Newport Aug. 30 by a collision with another racer.

Next, Canadian skipper John Hughes headed back on Joseph Young, reporting rigging problems. He restarted after repairs.

As the fleet struggled for the Cape, the southeaster drove the boats farther and farther west of their course, just as it had done to Dias 500 years before.

Mark Schrader of Stanwood, Wash., reported a ripped mainsail on Lone Star and trouble with a furling headsail. For a time he considered turning back, but after repairing the furling jib, he decided to continue with a spare mainsail in place.

South Africa's Tuna Marine, winner of the first leg, also ripped a mainsail but continued with a spare. The other South African entry, Stabilo Boss, reported a broken jib furling mechanism and a halyard jammed at the masthead. Bertie Reed climbed the 70-foot mast, freed the halyard, repaired the furling gear and continued.

Hal Roth on American Flag, blown well west of the course, radioed that he had electronics problems, and Finland's Colt By Rettig was sailing despite a malfunctioning autopilot.

Jean Van Den Heede of France, aboard Let's Go, third in Class 2--boats 40 to 50 feet--made a grim discovery. The headstay, one of the main cables supporting of the mast, was stranding. One wire in the cable had broken and another appeared about to break. Such stranding is a certain sign of eventual cable failure.

Van Den Heede at first reported he was returning to Cape Town. Later, he decided to continue to Sydney "as a cruiser." He meant that he would sail the boat conservatively and keep the strain off the headstay as much as possible. But observers were dubious. Ahead were more than 5,000 nautical miles of the world's worst seas for a sailboat.

Most of the boats followed the Sailing Directions which advise vessels to get well south of the Cape of Good Hope before starting east for Australia.

The reason is to avoid the treacherous Agulhas Current, which sweeps down the east coast of Africa and turns west at the Cape, colliding with the swift west-setting current of the Southern Ocean.

When a westerly gale is blowing, the conflicting currents cause steep seas to build, seas that have broken the backs of freighters and tankers and sunk them.

Leading the parade south was France's Ecureuil d'Aquitaine, followed by UAP Pour Medicins Sans Frontieres and Biscuits Lu, all Class 1 60-footers. Credit Agricole III was fourth followed by Tuna Marine, which was making a good recovery from its late start.

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