Portsmouth - Cape Town - Sydney - Rio de Janeiro - Portsmouth
Winner: Sayula II
There was a feeling of apprehension and nervous exhilaration on September 8, 1973 as 17 race yachts, carrying 167 crew from seven different nations, left Portsmouth on the first leg of a brand new sporting contest.
The yachts, ranging from the 1936-built Peter Von Danzig of Germany, to the UK’s Burton Cutter, which was still being finished during the race, were similar to many of the 3,000 spectator boats that set out to witness the historic start. Crews were mostly adventure-driven novices, with limited experience of offshore sailing and no idea what lay ahead.
Most of the skippers, by contrast, had thousands of sea miles under their belts; skippers like Chay Blyth, a sergeant of the British Army who first achieved notoriety in 1966 when he rowed the Atlantic with Captain John Ridgeway in a six-metre dory. Two years before the start of the Whitbread, he became the first person to sail non-stop westwards around the world, making him a household name. Onboard Great Britain II, Blyth had a crew of ‘Red Berets’ from the parachute regiment, all of them supremely fit and known for withstanding the toughest challenges, but not known for their sailing skills.
Since the idea for the race had grown out of discussions at the Royal Naval Sailing Association, it was no surprise that the British Armed Forces were well represented with three entries, but there were two others from Britain. Ex-naval yachtsman Les Williams headed Burton Cutter, and Roddy Ainslie - father of Ben, the future Great Britain Olympic sailing legend - had put together the Second Life syndicate with his brother-in-law, Ian Butterworth, and found 12 crewmembers willing to pay £3,000 each for the experience. The entire campaign would cost £40,000.
From the French navy there was Eric Tabarly, who was already a national sporting hero. He had bought and restored an old Fife Cutter in the 1960s, naming her Pen Duick, and was now on his sixth upgrade - a powerful 22-metre ketch- but her depleted uranium keel had been outlawed by the race authorities and his qualification at the start was uncertain. Four other French boats lined up at the start along with three from Italy, two from Poland and one each from Germany and South Africa .
All the crewmembers on Peter Von Danzig were either students or graduates from Akademischer-Segler-Verein - a sailing school - and had to pay £500 to compete, also having put in between 3,000 and 4,000 hours to prepare the boat. The old yacht had once been used by the Germans in 1945 to flee from the Soviets in Danzig and now it was set for another adventure.
The crew on Polish entry Otago were workers from a Gdansk shipyard. Skippered by Zdzislaw Pienkawa, the Otago crew also included his daughter, Iwona, who at 19 was the youngest female in the fleet and one of only three women to complete all four legs of the race.
From Mexico came Ramon Carlin, a 50-year-old self-made millionaire who had built up a huge conglomerate manufacturing washing machines and other household goods. His Swan 65, Sayula II, was one of the few yachts to have a freezer and full-time cook on board, allowing his crew to dine on steaks and chicken each day, washed down with beer and fine wine.
Provisions reflected the way each skipper viewed that first race. Ainslie was offered 1,500 cans of Guinness from his sponsor, but took only a few, preferring instead to have the rest shipped out to Cape Town. Blyth insisted on freeze-dried food and allowed one spoon per crewmember, while French boat Grand Louis, like Sayula II, ate fresh meat all race. The sailors on French ketch Kriter drank wine with every meal. On Carlin’s boat, the crew reckoned they got through six bottles of wine each day.
Added to the mattresses, pyjamas, books and stereos, many of the boats did not want for creature comforts. But life in general would be far from comfortable for the next 27,500 nautical miles.
Portsmouth to Cape Town
The reality of offshore sailing’s dangers was shown early on when Great Britain II was hit at night by a ferocious squall just a few days out from Portsmouth. Bernie Hosking was thrown overboard, but after a frenzied search his head was picked out in the searchlight’s beam. The seas were cold and rough, but he was pulled back on deck by the other crewmembers and given a hot, rather than a ‘stiff’ drink. There was no brandy to administer since Blyth was operating a ‘dry’ boat, but that was to change in subsequent legs.
“I decided it would be good for the crew if we had drinks on the boat so from the second leg, I started a ‘happy hour’ every night where every crewmember was given the choice of either two beers or two shots of spirits. We used it as an opportunity to catch up on the day’s event – it was good for team morale.”
There were problems elsewhere. In the rush to get Burton Cutter ready for the race, the outlet pipes for the toilets had not been connected and the stench became unbearable when all the human sewage was dumped directly into the bilge.
If that was unfortunate, a worst fate befell Eric Tabarly’s Pen Duick VI, which became the first boat to suffer a dismasting in the Whitbread Race. There was no possibility of repairs so a jury rig was built and the crew headed to Rio de Janeiro, some 1,200 miles to the south-east. By the time they arrived, a new spar had been flown in from France and after it was fitted Pen Duick VI set off across the Atlantic once more, arriving two days before the restart.
Tracking the boats in those early, pre-GPS editions of the race was somewhat difficult. The boats navigated by sextant and dead reckoning and reported their position by radio once a week.
“Most of time, we had no clue where we were,” admitted Ainslie, the Second Life skipper. “The readings we took using our instruments gave us a rough idea, but it was only when we were 50 miles from a coastline, when we could tune in to the radio direction finder using our receivers that we had any precise information and obviously there weren’t too many times when we were 50 miles from a coastline.”
Despite the lack of accurate tracking software, it was clear that Burton Cutter was a class apart in that first leg. Williams’ crew was the first to cross the finish line in Cape Town, though it was the Royal Navy’s Adventure, skippered by Patrick Bryans, who won overall on handicap after arriving just three hours ahead of Blyth’s GBII.
Cape Town to Sydney
If the first leg was seen as a bit of a blast, the second quickly turned into a reality check as the fleet were subjected to a battering as soon as they hit the Southern Ocean.
Burton Cutter started to break up and was forced into Port Elizabeth for repairs. Re-welding had to be done three times before she could go back in the water and so she had to withdraw from leg 2.
Onboard Tauranga, Paola Chamaz was at the wheel with Paul Waterhouse, a British Army corporal who had sailed the first leg on British Soldier. Waterhouse went below to light a cigarette and as he came back up Tauranga broached violently. The spinnaker boom broke at the mast end causing it to thrash around on the clew of the sail. He rushed forward to get the sails under control and retrieve what was left of the boom, but as he went the boat changed direction once more and the sail suddenly took off. The sheets went taut under Waterhouse and threw him in the air, dumping him back on deck and then overboard.
They searched for almost four hours without success. Since he made no effort to grab a lifeline when he came down, it is likely he was unconscious when he went overboard and would have drowned immediately.
“We all set off knowing that when you are sailing around the world, there would be situations that would be life-threatening or where lives would be lost,” said Ainslie. “But it changed the way we did things on Second Life. The crew became more aware of the dangers and started wearing life lines.”
Three days later, as the fleet battled against gales and heavy seas 350 miles west of the Kerguelen Islands, 33 Export skippers Dominique Guillet and Jean-Pierre Millet decided to replace the foresail with a smaller one. During the manoeuvre, they were hit by a huge breaking wave which slammed the boat over to starboard. Guillet was missing.
They spent 30 minutes looking for him, but deteriorating conditions forced Millet to abandon the search to preserve the safety of boat and crew. They withdrew from the race, the crew traumatised by Guillet’s death.
The passage south, deep into the Southern Ocean, inevitably took its toll on the boats. Adventure suffered problems with her rudder, depriving her crew of a second leg victory, and GBII lost her mizzen mast. Otago also lost the top section of her mizzen mast.
Despite these dramas, Sayula II won the leg on handicap though it was Tabarly who took line honours on Pen Duick VI, setting a new 24 hour record of 305 miles.
It had been a gruesome leg. Two men were dead and the fleet had been given a rude awakening, which changed the mood from one of cavalier excitement to a grim determination to complete their ordeal.
Sydney to Rio de Janeiro
The drama continued into the third leg. Within a few miles of leaving Sydney, Pen Duick VI was dismasted for the second time in the race.
Also, for the second time, Bernie Hocking disappeared overboard GBII. This time, with winds blowing Force 5-6, the crew did not recover him despite a search that lasted more than two hours.
In his log, Blyth wrote: “Other yachts would have taken this harder or more emotionally. The reason it not affecting us so much is that once again the training of the Paras comes out. You’re steeled towards death. All of us in the yacht have seen active service so have seen death before. This is more personal, but we keep our thoughts to ourselves. He will rarely be mentioned now, more out of respect than anything else. Bernie was one of us. He wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Blyth and his crew expressed their loss by sailing the boat hard and fast to Rio, taking line honours for the first time in the race.
The passage through the Southern Ocean provided the crews with their most memorable moments of the race though some claimed it was monotonous and boring. One comes in from the cockpit, little is said, one eats, one sleeps, one goes one degree only further than animal existence,” wrote one crewmember in the Sayula II log.
Indeed, this monotony caused something of a problem. In recalling this first race, Sayula II’s Butch Dalrymple-Smith spoke of mutinies on three boats and the instance on one boat where a crewmember was disarmed after waving a knife at the skipper.
The focal point of the leg was always going to be Cape Horn. The most famous landmark of them all filled many crews with dread. In 1973 the number of sporting yachts that had survived this rounding numbered less than 10. That number would be more than doubled when the Whitbread fleet passed through.
At Cape Horn, HMS Endurance was standing by to ensure a safe passage through some of the most treacherous waters on the planet. The more macho crews felt it was wet nursing gone too far. Others claimed this was progress (presumably not the Naval crew on Adventure, whose headsail was pierced by a wad of a blank round fired by HMS Endurance as a salute to their colleagues).
As it transpired, this was not to be the most ferocious of Horn roundings. The ride there had not been the downwind slide many had expected – though there were sightings of 150-metre tall icebergs – and only Second Life, flattened by a heavy, cold squall, had a horror story to share from the passage.
The Cape behind them, the fleet turned north towards the warmth of Rio de Janeiro. Blyth’s GBII was the first to finish, followed by Second Life and Sayula II, but most arrived in time for Carnival, which was everything the brochure had promised. For the first time in five months, the crews could forget about racing and get down to some heavy partying.
Rio de Janeiro to Portsmouth
The start on the last leg had been staggered. Organisers understood the power of publicity and it was felt this would be maximised if all the boats finished at the same time so the larger boats started later than the smaller ones. This led to major grief among skippers in the larger boats, who felt the measure was unfair, and staggered starts were thereafter scrapped.
In any case, interest at the finish was guaranteed by the proximity of Adventure to the top of the podium. To win the overall race, the British navy entry Adventure had to beat its Mexican rival Sayula II by three and a half days.
With 1,600 miles to go to Portsmouth, Adventure was becalmed for six hours, but then began to make progress in the right direction.
Sayula II was hampered by rigging problems, but kept it quiet from the rest of the fleet. On the approach home, Adventure made good use of local knowledge – off the Isle of Wight she was nearly becalmed and in a foul tide, so dropped anchor with only 37 miles to go to the finish. Then she got some wind to go south of Wight in the darkness and crossed the finish line in third place, which gave them the overall runner-up prize. Sayula II arrived in fourth place to take the first Whitbread Trophy title.
First over the line, five days earlier, was Blyth’s GBII, completing the course in 144 days which was a record for a round-the-world passage at that time. His aim had been to win line honours for each leg, realising that the handicap system did not favour GBII for overall victory. On three of the four legs, she was the fastest boat and on corrected time, she finished sixth.
As one of the only boats with a sponsor (Jack Hayward, the multimillionaire businessman), Blyth was keen for a good show in the media, but arriving home on Maundy Thursday scuppered his plans for a big publicity drive since no newspapers were published on Good Friday.
Completing the circumnavigation placed the crews in an elite group of sailors. Blyth was already a member, but years later he said the race had opened his eyes in more ways than one. “When we came back to Portsmouth, we had a debriefing where we all talked about what had gone right and what had gone wrong in the race. I decided to let someone else take it, but was a bit shocked when I heard the crew talk about my leadership. They said that I dished out the praise when it was needed, but that I was too quick to criticise. I wasn’t happy to hear that, but I have never forgotten it so the whole experience was very useful as well as being a lot of fun.”
In all, some 324 people had taken part in that first race, with three never returning home. Their experiences would shape the future of the event.