An introduction to offshore ocean racing!
By: Pieter van Niekerk
It started innocently enough. A small ad on Facebook for Pindar Sailing Abu Dhabi offering an afternoon of racing on-board a Volvo Ocean 60. Actually, it started almost exactly one year ago, while listening to the radio on my way to work. The Volvo Ocean Race was in town and Radio2 held a drawing for an afternoon sail aboard Azzam, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing Volvo Ocean Racing Yacht, while they were in port in Abu Dhabi. As luck and fate would have it, I won that drawing and joined the team for an afternoon sail! From the moment I felt the grace and power of that boat, I was hooked.
Then comes the Facebook ad, and I grab at the opportunity to sail on one of these amazing yachts once more. My first race with Pindar was an inshore race “around the cans” as they say. Only a few hours on an uncharacteristically windy afternoon where we reached speeds of 11-12 knots and spray reached the back of the cockpit. I spent the entire time smiling from ear-to-ear, even as my arms burned and my endurance quickly faded with every “grind” and tack. Sailing these boats take a lot of work – a lot of teamwork!
This is where the Pindar really shines! Within minutes the skipper and his team had a group of people, most who have never sailed, working together and feeling like we were all part of the team. They even invited us out afterward to “celebrate.” This is where I was really introduced to the world of offshore racing. The skipper, innocently mentioned that they were looking forward to the next offshore race and that I should try to join. I quickly checked my schedule and confirmed that I was free.
The Offshore Race
A month or so later, the day finally arrived, and I was so excited, I could hardly sleep. I’ve never been on a sailboat at night, never been out of sight of land, and I really had no idea what to expect.
I arrived at the dock, almost an hour early, you know, just to be sure I didn’t miss the boat! The Pindar Team welcomed me aboard and we went to work prepping the boat for the race. The safety briefing starts with “this is a fully involved event, you can do as much or as little as you like” or something along those lines. Well I took it as “do as much as I can!” I was fascinated with everything and so curious, that I tried to volunteer for everything! And they were happy to let me try just about all of it.
With preparations completed and the last couple on board, we slowly motored away from the dock and into a pretty calm, overcast evening. Mild winds at around 7 kts and a small swell greeted us as we entered the bay. We started by raising the main – always a fun way to get the adrenalin pumping as 4 people grind together to raise the gigantic sail! Before we knew it, we were tacking back and forth near the start line.
The Skipper, along with the more experienced crew, were expertly coaching us newbies through the various maneuvers to get the boat to go where the skipper wanted it to go, when he wanted it to go there. We crossed the starting line and tacked a few times to get on the right line to make the island on one long tack. Under the watchful eye of the skipper we trimmed the sails and crawled out to the rail to provide ballast. As the wind picked up, so did our speed and soon we were making 9 knots. The sun set and day turned to night as the skyline of Abu Dhabi faded into the distance.
The crew served us a delicious dinner of chicken biryani. The vigorous exercise and the sea air made the meal that much better! After dinner we divided into 2 watches, one group going to rest in the bunks below and the other staying on deck as the “on-watch” crew. I was way too excited to sleep, so I volunteered to remain on deck for the first watch – I ended up staying on deck the entire night! There was too much fun to be had that would be missed if I slept!
The clouds started clearing and the first stars became visible. It was remarkable bright with a half-moon and stars coming out. Sitting on the rail, conversation flowed freely, stories shared, and dreams built.
Somewhere around midnight we tacked towards the island to make our rounding and head back towards Abu Dhabi. With great excitement, we prepped the spinnaker for the downwind leg. We knew the motion would become easier and a couple of the crew would soon find some relief from their bouts of seasickness.
The Race Home
With a woosh and pop, the spinnaker filled as we turned around the island. Watching that enormous white billowy sail fill is a beautiful sight. It almost looked like a huge cloud was pulling us home! We soon learned another lesson: Running a spinnaker, or “kite”, or “chute,” is hard work! No more just sitting on the rail! We were sailing now! The skipper directed us to trim and ease the “chute” and the main, “pumping” the sails as we surfed waves, ultimately hitting speeds of 15.9 kts. We were FLYING!
In the early morning hours, as we were discussing the amazing feeling of sailing downwind at night, the most magical thing happened. The ocean lit up. We were sailing through a patch of bioluminescent plankton that glowed as the wind, waves, and boat stirred them. It looked like the ocean came alive. Our wake glowed green and then these green ghostly shapes appeared all around. A pod of dolphins joined our race, and they were glowing green, streaks of green marking their path as they cut through the water under and around us. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. There is no denying, there is definitely magic in the ocean at night!
All too soon, the magic light display was over and we were back to sailing. Between discussions of UFO’s tracking us, (probably just planes combined with lack of sleep) we had to make sure to avoid a dangerous area near another small island and then watch out for the ships and oil-rigs in our path.
As the eastern sky started to brighten, we caught glimpses of the Abu Dhabi skyline once again. We were on the home stretch now. Exhausted, hungry, and dying for the coffee the skipper promised us at the marina, we rallied for the last push home. A couple more gybes and we headed straight for the finish line.
Almost exactly 13 hours after we left the dock, we tied back up. The skipper cooked some breakfast and, most importantly, a cup of strong coffee, as the sun rose over Abu Dhabi. We were all tired and sore, but we were all smiling. The race was over, but for me at least, this was just a first taste of many more to come! I’m already dreaming of sailing farther and faster! There is already talk of the Dubai-Muscat Race in November.
I want to give a special thank you to the whole Pindar Team for making sailing in Abu Dhabi so accessible and introducing us to the wonders and excitement of offshore sailing!