Sail the Indian Ocean
Around the Zanzibar Archipelago, also known as the Spice Islands, the ngalawa is a familiar sight – a local fishing vessel unchanged for centuries. For the competitors of the Ngalawa Cup, it’s something they’ll need to get familiar with, too.
This rickety canoe, made from a hollowed-out mango tree and held together with string, will be their racing vessel and life raft for nine days and 500 miles of perilous Indian Ocean.
“It can’t jibe, only tack. Push too hard and the outriggers dig in and flip you over. Point it in the wrong direction, the wind’s going to dump you.” This is the assessment of the Ngalawa Cup’s namesake vessel by its race chief, Dylan Delahunt.
In 2015, Delahunt conceived this nautical dash through the Zanzibar Archipelago – a picturesque cluster of islands off the Tanzanian coast – in this simple fishing dhow carved from mango trees. Around 5m long with a single sail and pair of outriggers, it is light, manoeuvrable and perfectly suited to chasing fish around the coastline, and uniquely unsuited to long-distance racing on the open sea.
The primitive technology, however, is a great leveller of competition – experience with yachts is of little help. Crew members have to stand on the outriggers to counterbalance swells; sitting so low in the water, bailing is a full-time job, and the absence of pulleys and rigs makes everything physically demanding even in the calmest waters.
Challenging as it is, the bar to entry is surprisingly low. “You have to be able to swim,” says Delahunt. And everyone receives training. If you don’t make the grade, you need to hire a local skipper.
By race day one, crews must be able to read the water, avoid reefs, navigate by sight and GPS, and perform improvised repairs. A crew once broke two masts in a day after selecting poor wood for their ad hoc replacement. And the potential for danger was apparent from the Cup’s first run.
“One crew ended up in the water for six hours. We picked them up in the dark. It would have been an incredibly exhausting and scary ordeal. As we shone the spotlight on them, they started singing Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.”
But the Ngalawa Cup isn’t just an exercise in extreme seat-of-the-pants sailing. Crews plot their own route to the finish, and some forego the competition to pull up in beautiful spots for snorkelling or fishing.
The only rule is they must make landfall by sundown. Where you are when the sun sets is where you stay. Some islands are uninhabited, on others you can stay in a luxury hotel or sleep on the beach.
The race’s challenge fosters a spirit of camaraderie. Crews meet on islands to help with repairs, or share a bottle of rum around a campfire. During the last race of 2016, the crew of Usain Boat even took onboard an unusual crew member.
“They went into a bar in Zanzibar and ordered two beers and a chicken. The guy came back with their two beers and a live hen in a bag. Usain Boat kept the chicken comfortable while they sailed a further day. Then they had their chicken dinner.”