Ignorance is often bliss and this was certainly the case on entering the Malawian regatta, I had naively pictured this glamorous setting, very much like a Peter Styvestant advert - leisurely sailing; a kaleidoscope of colours, sparkling sunshine and beautiful people. Well, was my little Utopian fantasy blown out the water! Had I known the waves were so bloody enormous, I certainly would've gone only as ground crew!
The Malawi 500 ' is an annual catamaran race that has taken place over the last I6 years on Lake Malawi. It starts from Club Makakola and proceeds 500 kilometers up to Chiweta in the North. The event is divided into 8 sailing days, where a pre-determined course is set daily. This year 18 boats had entered and only really the top 3 were serious about competing.
Club Mak welcomed us with a bow, salute and accommodation, and we eagerly awaited tree cocktails and cabinet ministers’ speeches. We breathed a big sigh of relief on meeting the other crews, they seemed so normal! We did, however, feel pretty pensive as we watched the rescue team get progressively plastered.
Wake-up call was to be at 5 every morning, We had to break camp; pack, squeeze into a wet-suit and rig the boat by 6; face a full English breakfast and be ready by 6:50 for the start. Hey! -this was supposed to be a holiday!
Butterflies raced and our breakfast churned as we anxiously watched the different coloured flags go up and down. All boats were poised on the beach, waiting for the blare of the horn to indicate the start of the race,
"BaaaaaP!" - Everyone rushes in and disappear into the horizon. We're on open sea; land is miles away; the clouds loom darkly, the wind is howling and the boat is being tossed about like a toy. I am petrified, this is not like the ad I had imagined. I'm a pretty useless crew, holding on with all my might and wishing I'd rather,opted for a relaxing sea-side vacation. Tony is an ever -calm and ever-patient captain, "Heidi, I want you to take l0 deep breaths"
"But, but, I can’t even take one ,..!"
According to legend, captains are supposed to suffer from a Jekyll/ Hyde complex -- on land they may be easy- going and genteel, but once behind the tiller, they become dictatorial and abusive towards their crew. Well, Tony had crewed most of his sailing life and now that he'd initially attained skipper hood, he was met with a crew from hell! Despite this, he never faltered_ With a ,“Please, would you let the jib out" and a "Thank you", it certainly made the sea-sickness a bit bearable. The first day we arrived stone-last and were the blushing recipients of the dreaded 'Yellow hats'(" see Malawi" they said) for being longest on the water.
The first few days were quite a learning curve for both of us. The other crews, thankfully, were always full of good advice and ready to lend a helping hand. We sailed distances ranging from 40 to 85 kms a day and we usually averaged 4~5 hours on the water, so theoretically we had the afternoons OE to explore, snorkel etc, but mostly we slept!
The GPS is an amazing alternative to navigating by compass. We'd enter our daily co-ordinates of the 'gate' (usually a narrow half-way mark you had to pass through) and the end-point, and it would dutifully point us in the right direction, as well as tell you your speed and how far you still had to go
Sailing started to become more second-nature to us and we settled into a rhythm with the Waves and wind. Capsize, however, was still my biggest fear and preyed constantly on my mind. When it finally happened, we didn't achieve it at high seas, but rather in fairly calm weather as we were heading onto a beach for a finish, Recovery is quick if you know what you're doing - "Heidi, I want you to stand on the bow" "What part is that?" "The front pointy bit!" Naturally this all occured in front of a whole crowd of onlookers and naturally we received the yellow hats that night!
Halfway through the race we had a rest day on a beach at Dwangwa Sugar Estates. We were finally able to relax with a clear conscience, only to be psyched out later by 9 meter wave war-stories, Apparently the Lake was now at its deepest (700m) and the angle of the headland caused the water to rebound and crash in the centre with the waves from the Mozambican side Most boats were reputed to have been lost on this section, Luckily, only the stories proved to be tall that day, but we were never quite able to loosen up.
Further North, the landscape became increasingly rugged. The mountains are a moulded, convoluted mass and road access to the Lake is limited. Villages and Baobabs fringe the shore almost the entire way and stalwart locals are often found to be calmly fishing from their tiny makorros as one finds oneself battling to stay upright in ones craft. We pondered on why we didn't see any dhows, but apparently the winds only blow consistently in January and July. '
Most evenings we camped at a resort of sorts. The ground crew were there to ensure the accommodation and meals were sorted, and the multi- course dinners we had, were always excellent. On the 7th day, however, after a beautiful day of sparkling skies and seas, we disembarked on a picturesque beach at Ruarwe Village, where the ground crew could not get to us. That morning we had packed some essentials on our boat and 'Rescue' was to be in charge of feeding us that evening. What a spread, certainly up to ESSA standards ~ We started with Amaroela sundowners and moved onto garlic stokbrood, smoked ribs, baby potatoes and salad, and cheesecake to finish We felt pretty terrible at the end of that!
The last day loomed and we felt heavy-hearted in leaving behind such a simple, satisfying, goal-directed way of life. The day ranged from not having a breath of air, to a raging storm(with dark clouds of lake flies!), to a dead calm. We bobbed for an hour and were relieved to be finally hitched up and towed 'home‘ by Rescue.
Our uncomplicated, little world had come to an end. After dismantling our faithful little craft and waiting to pack it into the container, we set off for the Capital Hotel in Lilongwe for the prize-giving. Several Malawian cabinet ministers and their extended families were there to honour our achievements, "Heeep, heep hoerey!" chanted Rescue
Goodbyes are never easy, thank goodness for email! ESSA, how about a fleet for next year? But hey, sponsorship would do!