South African team sets the fair play benchmark in Thailand’s gruelling offshore race
Cops do it all the time. It’s the of any self-respecting guerrilla. But, what’s the connection with an inflatable boat race off the coast of Thailand?
We’re talking about raids, and the Rubson Raid Turquoise in particular – an annual multidisciplinary boating event that takes competitors in 20 teams to some of the most exotic locations on the planet. December 2006 was Thailand’s turn, bringing together competitors from as far afield as China, Russia, the Caribbean, Europe and, for the first time, South Africa, in what must rank as the ultimate boating adventure.
Dubbed the “Dakar Rally on water”, and regarded as one of the last great adventures, the event required four-person teams from around the world to pit their wits and stamina against the Andaman Sea, the local terrain, and each other. They followed the trail of the infamous 19th century Chinese pirate, Cheung Po Tsai, against the majestic backdrop of the south-western Thai coastline for more than 500 nautical miles (926 km).
Heavy hands dominated the throttles as crews extracted as much speed as their identical Capelli Tempest 750 RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) and Yamaha four-stroke F250 motors would deliver. But simply racing from exotic island to exotic island is for sissies. At the end of each leg, competitors took part in jetski races, waterski relays and paddling challenges as well as running and swimming events. It was seriously tough stuff, and there were no concessions for participants of the supposedly frailer sex.
Whereas most crews had an entire year to prepare for the event, South Africa’s Team Pattex weren’t so lucky. In fact, no team existed until Henkel SA’s Niel de Witt received a phone call from “up high” in October asking him to put a local team together. Not knowing where to start, but hoping for the best, he Googled “offshore inflatable boat racing”. His first two significant hits: a Web site devoted to the Trans Agulhas boat race – a gruelling five-day event covering about 600 km of the Cape south coast – and another for Falcon Inflatables.
And that was that. As De Witt said later, the people at Falcon Inflatables believed in building tough boats, and regularly used the Trans Agulhas event to conduct serious research and development the hard way. They certainly understood offshore racing. It got even better: the winners of the Trans Agulhas for the past three consecutive years, pilot Dirk Schlechter and co-pilot Andre Beuster, raced for Falcon! They were also multiple national RIB racing champions.
Although there wasn’t much time left to pull together a five-member team from scratch, let alone train and prepare for the race, De Witt and his associates were undaunted. Marius Heyneman (jnr), Falcon’s production manager, immediately contacted Schlechter and Beuster.
Schlechter, an experienced jetski racing pilot, also holds Western Province and Boland colours in surfing. Beuster is a team leader for the National Sea Rescue Institute’s Air Sea Rescue Unit, the SA Air Force’s 22 Squadron in Cape Town. Highly experienced teammates for 11 years, and veterans of local offshore racing, they had pretty much conquered the local boating scene, and both were champing at the bit for international experience. It made perfect sense for them to form the backbone of the team.
Competing in the Raid Turquoise involves a number of sporting disciplines, and each team member ideally needs to have some kind of speciality to increase the team’s chances of a podium finish. So Schlechter and Beuster did some homework.
“We chose Stefan Lindeque because he’s the world pencil duck champion, and a great all-round athlete.” Super-fit and cricket-mad Ian Combrinck, a sports management student, made it on board because of his all-round sporting prowess. Heyneman, an all-round athlete, 4×4 instructor, waterskier, RIB and Quad racing pilot and qualified lifesaver, was chosen as the reserve. If anything untoward happened, he was more than capable of filling a gap in the group.
The first challenge was to get everyone on to the same page – or chart, in this case – which meant navigation lessons. Beuster, a veteran of endurance races, knew better than most how a tiny navigational error could affect one’s standing in an event. If Team Pattex were to stand a chance of winning, it would be because of their consistent performance throughout the event.
Next, they knuckled down to some intense training, including cycling, running on the beach, gym, swimming and waterskiing. Oh, and they also hit the water in inflatables. Said Beuster: “There’s no better way to prepare for a boat race than off the Cape’s rough southern coast. If you can race here, you can race anywhere. So we concentrated on boat racing… driving the boats as hard as we could.”
Needless to say, rough water conditions suited these guys – but they wouldn’t find much of that in the Andaman Sea. This sheltered stretch of coast, dotted islands, tends to be as flat as the Vaal Dam on a calm day; it just looks and smells better.
Other foreign quirks the team would encounter included an unfamiliar tidal range of about 4 m, sandbanks, areas littered with fish traps, tropical rainstorms, and uncharted coral reefs. Recalls Beuster: “We bought two charts of the area and studied them carefully. We would have hated to lose a prop or a gearbox by running aground.”
On the plus side, the variation between magnetic north (as shown on the boat’s compass) and true north (reflected on the chart) is only 40 minutes (or less than one-degree) in Phuket, unlike Cape Town’s 22 degrees. As a result, calculating and plotting a course became much simpler in Thailand’s waters than at home.
Another concern was the possibility of losing a power cable. Teams were not allowed to work on their own engines or boats; dedicated teams from Yamaha and Capelli would take care of all that. Ergo, if you had a problem, you’d be stuck until help arrived.
However, this rule proved to be of largely academic interest, since Yamaha’s F250 four-stroke engine turned out to be a lot more complex and intimidating than the familiar two-stroke, higher-revving racing outboards. The team decided that the engine was best left alone. Said Beuster: “There was always a chance that one of the other teams would lose their GPS. That would be a great advantage to us, especially if they were unable to navigate by chart using compass and dividers.”
The team’s first priority when presented with their final teammate – boat Number 8 – was to prepare it for racing conditions. For example, the anchor came in a plastic crate, and could rattle around a fair bit, so they stashed it securely in the centre console’s storage compartment.
Their next move was to rig the painter – a line attached to the bow eye (anchor attachment), fed through the fair lead and woven through the grab handles along the side of one pontoon.
Day one of the race was an unmitigated disaster for Team Pattex. On the first speed run, covering 42 nautical miles (78 km), they picked up a rope on their prop that reduced their speed from 50 to 40 knots. Reluctant to lose any more time, they pressed on. It was only when they lifted the engine at the end of the leg that they realised the extent of the rope infestation. The second speed run covering 21 nautical miles (39 km) went well – until the engine began to sputter. This time, the problem was fuel starvation.
Combrinck frantically pumped the ball valve in the fuel line, but it made no difference. A faulty connection between the fuel tank and fuel hose meant the fuel pickup was sucking air, causing the engine to misfire under load.
However, the team’s fortunes changed dramatically for the better on Day Two. The day’s main event, a 130 nautical mile (240 km) controlled navigation run that required competitors to travel each leg of the route at different speeds, then calculate their ETA down to the minute.
their kind of thing. Given the four waypoints they had to pass through en route to their destination, they plotted the course on the chart. Then they calculated the times and required speeds, and punched the co-ordinates into their GPS. Beuster used a blue marker pen to write essential information on the windscreen so that Schlechter could read it easily while piloting the boat.
It was quite an experience. Their first test came in the form of an intense tropical rainstorm that reduced visibility to about 30 m. At one point, while being assaulted by a “pincushion masquerading as rain”, and following a narrow passage between two islands dimly visible through the haze, they were amused to see that the GPS had them planted firmly on a beach.
Eventually, they arrived at the tall ship , end point of the race and their accommodation for the night, exactly as they had predicted, three hours and three minutes after the start. This remarkable accomplishment elevated the South Africans to first place in the overall standings, prompting the other teams to recognise them as serious players.
The team’s strategy – to perform consistently throughout the event – kept them in the money for a podium finish. Although individual team members did not win every challenge, the team average kept pulling them through.
Next up was a raft-building challenge, in which two competitors from each team were given 14 lengths of bamboo and two rolls of duct tape and invited to do their best. After constructing their raft, using life jackets and two paddles, they had to paddle about 50 m out, round a buoy, and return to shore.
Said Schlechter: ” We spent more time on the beach and built a proper raft so that it didn’t fall apart, like some of the others.” This time the South Africans finished in third place.
One of the free-diving challenges involved swimming through a dark labyrinth into the centre of an island. The competitors emerged on to a small hidden beach with a wide, natural chimney open to the sky – a spot where legend says pirates stashed their treasure. Once there, the competitors had to dive 3 m down and travel about 30 m along a line to retrieve five bracelets. Team Pattex finished joint first.
The 35 nautical-mile waterski relay was tough. A typhoon in the China Sea had disrupted local weather patterns and the sea was so ferocious that some competitors snapped their towropes. Heyneman was elected skipper for this leg, while Schlechter and Combrinck skiied. It wasn’t easy. Recalled Schlechter: “It was tough… the wind came up and the water was very rough. We also had to battle sheets of driving rain.” Nevertheless, they managed to finish in fifth place.
The final day was packed with drama. It began with Schlechter and Heyneman having to run about 3 km down a hill, losing the trail in the process (along with most of the other teams), before swimming some 50 m to their boat.
Conditions were distinctly choppy, with a wind-induced swell of about 1,5 m – exactly the conditions for which they’d been hoping. Racing to the next checkpoint, about 35 nautical miles away on Phi Phi Island, they managed to maintain their overall position. (Once there, they were required to retrieve a marker from an anchor set on the sea floor.)
A translation error by the organisers in the penultimate event caused chaos in the race fleet. The idea was for competitors to locate a giant golden statue of Buddha on an island somewhere to the north. Some teams understood the instructions, and headed i