Racing traditional Tanzanian fishing boats in tropical waters may sound idyllic, but the Kraken Cup is anything but
“This is probably the most extreme and uncomfortable sailing I’ve ever done,” says Simon Walker. “And I have sailed twice the wrong way around the world, 17 times across the Atlantic. I’ve sailed to the Arctic, the Antarctic – so that’s quite something when you’re in an absolute tropical paradise of clear blue skies and seas.”
Walker is describing the Kraken Cup, formerly known as the Ngalawa Cup, a unique adventure sailing race held off east Africa in the traditional Tanzanian fishing boats called Ngalawa.
The premise of the race is simple, but punishing. Teams of three charter a Ngalawa and race it over seven days and multiple stopovers for about 180 miles across the Zanzibar archipelago, pitching camp at each stop. Crews are banned from sailing past nightfall, but the days are long. At the end of each day’s racing the crews drag their boats up the beach and sleep on the sand or in a hammock slung wherever they can find.
There is very limited support, and the organisers’ website points out: ‘These are not holidays. These are adventures and so by their very nature extremely risky. That’s the whole point.’
Professional sailor Walker skippered Toshiba in the 1996 Global Challenge, before becoming managing director and chief executive of the next two editions of the round the world race. When two former Challenge colleagues set up an extreme travel company, The Adventurists, he joined as a non-executive director.
The Adventurists run a number of what Walker calls “challenging journeys on very unsuitable vehicles”, including a vintage motorbike race across frozen Siberia and a rally across India in a rickshaw.
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The Adventurists then decided to add a sailing based event to their portfolio, so Walker used his yacht racing event experience to help build the Kraken Cup, which is now in its sixth year and in 2019 had grown to an impressive 23 entries. It is billed as: ‘Possibly the most ridiculous ocean race in the world.’
Central to the race are the Ngalawas, which are quite unlike any boat that any participants will ever have sailed before.
“The hull is a hollowed out mango tree – so, literally, a dugout canoe. Beams are lashed on to the hull that support the outriggers. A short, stubby mast with a lateen sail is stepped on a small thwart in the mango tree,” explains Walker.
“If there are any fastenings they are literally crude iron nails. It wouldn’t look out of place a thousand years ago in terms of the materials used. There’s a very short, stubby rudder with forged rudder pins, that you make in a blacksmith’s. The sail is canvas, for want of a better word, which is lashed to a bamboo spar.
“I guess the only nod to modernity is we were using braid on braid line as opposed to manila. But the locals are just using polypropylene and any line they could get their hands on. There are lots of lashings – all beautifully done. And basically, that’s it. It’s a pretty simple thing.”
The Ngalawas raced are near-identical to the ones still used by the East African fishermen. The only modifications are the safety equipment that the Kraken Cup crews take – individual satellite trackers for each crew member, additional buoyancy with blow-up flotation bags, and items like danbuoys.
Otherwise the main difference is that race entrants’ boats are fully loaded with basic camping equipment, clothing, spares, food and water – and sailed with three crew. “And sailing with three was pretty full on, particularly a gybe,” recalls Walker.
“Meanwhile the Ngalawa fishermen were doing it with just two of them, on the littler boats on their own, and they are sailing them beautifully, elegantly balanced with a fishing line out. They usually have a cigarette in the other hand and they’re just making it look effortless.”
Despite their primitive construction, the Ngalawas require both finesse and seamanship skills.
“The bit that really got me excited was actually the seamanship aspect,” explains Walker. “So, in a boat which isn’t particularly close-winded and you can’t tack – you can only wear ship, or go around in a gybe – being aware of the lee shore becomes so important.
“There are countless other examples: bailing, balance, trim – especially trim fore and aft so the rudders are in the water. For a western sailor, it’s very unforgiving and it’s very unfamiliar.
“You can get away with murder sailing amazing modern plastic boats that actually hide a multitude of sins. But suddenly when you sail these boats that don’t hide those mistakes, even the most experienced of us look positively amateurish.
“But then, when you’ve got the balance right, you realise that actually these boats were in many ways very sophisticated. For example, the Ngalawas have outriggers. When you first get on the boat, everyone treats it as if it’s a trimaran but the floats are only very thin planks, they have very little buoyancy. So, they’re not for buoyancy, they’re effectively foils.
“As you power up, you realise that the boards are angled and they’re very subtlety toed in so you get lift to weather. The people of the Arab world where the boats came from had learnt all these hydrodynamics lessons and applied them to something that was built with an axe, which is just one of the elements that I found so fascinating.”
The race appeals to both sailors and adventurers. Some are experienced yachtsmen and women who have sailed around the world, but want to experience something completely different. “Another group are the adventure junkies, who have learnt various other sports and literally just learn to sail for this event,” explains Walker.
Both will be challenged. “The yachtsman often isn’t used to being in the water all the time and dinghy sailing from first principles and that sort of very physical roughing it. Whereas someone who has come from a dinghy background or just learnt to sail would be less comfortable with the passagemaking.”
Teamwork and a willingness to learn are critical to picking up the skills to handle a Ngalawa. “In something that is so unfamiliar, that cycle of continuous improvement is really critical,” says Walker.
In waves, the boats will surf along at near double figures although swamping and capsize are ever-present risks. Crew must use their body weight to hike out, and the mainsheet is wrapped around a crossbeam – there are no winches or fittings – so easing the sheet rapidly can be a challenge.
Floats frequently break off or lashings work loose, requiring the teams to make pit-stop repairs and get help from the locals. This forces the paying western crews to engage with the communities they sail through, which Walker describes as sail-based economies, where boatwork is a part of life.
“Bits on the boat break all the time and you can’t fix them yourselves. Because of the nature of the society you’re in, every village will have a fundi, which means expert in Swahili.
“These guys are the boatbuilders and they’ll come with some really basic tools: an axe, a saw and a drill bit to make holes, and string. And they’ll expertly fix your boat and put caulking in it. And you pay them a really modest fee to do that.
“The whole spirit of all the events The Adventurists do is that you do get lost and you do get stuck and you do break, because that forces you to have conversations with the people who live in those countries.
“You get invited into their homes and you get helped, and it’s a really unusual and sort of spirit-lifting experience to have. The people there are not wealthy but they’ll share half of what they don’t have with you.”
Navigation is by charts and GPS, but largely line of sight, with stages usually ranging from 10-30 miles. “As much as anything, it’s about keeping your wits about you and realising what you’re going to get blown onto or drifted onto,” explains Walker.
“One thing I was worried about are these proper, proper reefs: you just see walls of white water. Remember, in the Indian Ocean you’ve got a fetch of literally thousands and thousands of miles so when the rollers kick in, they’re really big.”
The other challenges are those of survival and discomfort – spending hours out in the tropical heat with no shelter or respite during the day, then limited rest in the evenings.
At each stopover the crews must drag their Ngalawa up the beach, buy fish from the local villagers, cook over a primitive fire, then make camp, usually with just a mosquito net and mat. Occasionally they might be treated to a bed in a villager’s home.
In return, the crews get to visit areas of Zanzibar and Tanzania that are untouched by tourism – lush green islands surrounded by white sand beaches and coral reefs, sailing through warm turquoise waters alongside dolphin and manta rays.
For many crews the racing element is important (there are time penalties and demotion to a non-racing division for any boat that accepts a tow). “You know the old adage that any two boats going in the same direction are racing?” says Walker. “It’s very competitive.
“The starts are sort of semi-Le Mans, so we have someone holding the boat out by their nose, waist deep in water and then another two crew on the beach. At the start everyone is running through the waves to get onto their boats to make sail and get off.
“In the 2019 edition there were very light airs on the first couple of days. But that’s a problem the fishermen have, so every boat comes with a couple of paddles. Some crews rigorously paddled their Ngalawa for hours and hours because there was no breeze, and they had some very competitive paddle racing as well.
“I can’t say it’s a physically easy experience. People are shattered. But then anything worth doing on the water is like that. I think like any challenge, it puts things into perspective. All the crews realise how little they actually need. They all start off at the beginning with all this kit and actually realise you don’t use half of it and the other half broke, and they didn’t need very much other than each other.”
A father-son adventure
In 2016 I signed up to race the Ngalawa Cup, recalls Dieter Rihs. But who would do this crazy thing with me? My son David and his childhood best friend Achim Scheck both agreed immediately. We called our team ‘The Old Man and his Fellas’.
We started working out possible routes with the help of charts and Google Earth and tried to work out where would be the best places to land. For navigation we had a simple compass, handheld GPS and binoculars. Personal equipment was limited to sleeping mats, a light sleeping bag, one tarp to sleep on and some T-shirts and shorts. For provisions we decided on Chinese instant noodle soups, some crackers, energy bars and bottles of water.
On the first day we had a try at sailing the Ngalawa on the lagoon close to Kilwa. The lateen rig was simple but difficult to handle when you tried to gybe; someone had to bring the pole to the other side of the mast. The halyard also served as the running backstay and there was only one shroud, which also had to be brought to the windward side.
Downwind and with wind abeam the Ngalawa was really fast, but to tack was nearly impossible – only when the wind was not too strong and waves not to high could we gain some metres to windward.
On the way to the start from Rukyira we had to cross our first reef: the breaking waves were impressive and we didn’t know how the Ngalawa would behave, but everything went well and we began to trust the boat more and more.
The next day we planned to reach Songo Songo in the afternoon and camp there. We rounded the most western part of the island early afternoon and tried to reach a beach just around the corner, but due to rising winds we couldn’t get to windward so decided to go on to another remote island. This was a bad decision.
About two miles north of Songo Songo, the wind and waves increased, we lost one outrigger and capsized. We weren’t able to right the boat ourselves and decided to ask for help. After about two and a half hours the race committee boat found us and we were towed back to Songo Songo. The sail was ripped, the hull leaking like a sieve, and we lost all our tools, water, charts, GPS and binoculars.
Some other teams were on the beach and helped us out with dry clothes and a lot of hot tea with a little shot of rum.
When early daylight came we walked to a small fishing village on the other side of the island to find some locals who could help repair our boat. Although we didn’t speak Swahili and no one could speak English we managed to find the right people – one repaired the outrigger, one the sail and another did the caulking.
With little confidence we started early the next morning to reach Bwejuu. Without our navigational equipment and without sight of land it was one hell of a trip: lots of wind, 6-9ft high waves we sometimes surfed. David had to balance the boat on the outrigger beam for seven hours, and we had to bail constantly. But we made it.
Just after we passed Cape Ras Kanzi, the most eastern point of mainland Tanzania, the leeward beams broke and again we lost an outrigger. Achim and David reacted unbelievably fast, jumping overboard and holding the boat upright. We lowered the sail and drifted to a sandy beach. They later found the lost beams and outrigger a couple of miles away.
At sunrise we started repairs then sailed out into the Indian Ocean on a course to bring us west of Zanzibar. Over the remaining days we had a close race with a British boat and for the final miles it was a head-to-head race – which ended in a draw.
The next race is in January 2020. Find out more at: theadventurists.com. Teams should aim to raise a minimum of £1,000 for charity, £500 of which is designated for the Official Kraken Cup charity, Cool Earth, the other £500 to be donated to a charity of the team’s choice.