Release the kraken
A tree trunk, a bedsheet and the Indian Ocean. These compiled our vessel for The Kraken Cup.
Staring out at the turquoise waters and white sand beaches of Zanzibar, the Indian Ocean looked calm, inviting and beautiful. We were soon to find out that it was anything but. I had somehow been convinced by my two friends, Ollie and Daniel, to take part in the wackiest sailing race around: The Kraken Cup. This 500km race takes place over 10 days and traces the length of the Tanzanian coast.
But what makes it interesting is the vessel that’s supposed to get you there: the ngalawa. This boat is unlike any other. Fishermen here have been using them for thousands of years. The hull consists of the hollowed-out trunk of a mango tree and is just wide enough for three crouched sailors and all their worldly possessions. Two outriggers are tied on to either side for balance and a large canvas sail at the front means you can properly fly when the wind and waves are with you. It’s all held together entirely by rope, a mildly terrifying thought considering the distance we are expected to sail.
There were 22 teams of three taking part in the Kraken Cup, and what was troubling us even more than the state of the boat was the fact that the other crews were made up of expert sailors; tough seadogs looking for an adventure. Our sailing resumes were dismal in comparison to the feats of our competitors. One team normally spent the year sailing a traditional Viking ship across the Atlantic. Another had circumnavigated the globe and many of them regularly crewed racing yachts. In contrast we had a few weeks’ worth of amateur dinghy courses under our belts.
After a night tucked up in our hammocks, bellies full of beans and rice, we woke up at 4:30am. As the sun rose, a klaxon sounded and we ran along the beach, swam through the water and hoisted our sails. We were off – a ragtag armada of floating trees.
In order to man this ancient craft all crew members must be adept at three specific roles. Firstly, there is the helmsman, in charge of sailing, steering and keeping as straight a course as possible. Then comes the bucket boy. Sitting in the middle of the trunk he is responsible for navigation, snack distribution and morale maintenance. His most important duties involve the use of a bucket. As the ngalawa sits only 40cm above the water even the smallest wave can easily breach the side and start to flood the boat so he has to frantically bail out the water faster than the waves can crash on to us. The third position is the monkey. Although the outriggers are supposed to offer stability; the lack of any kind of daggerboard means that the pull exerted by a full sail can send us over in an instance. The monkey acts as a counterweight, constantly tightrope-walking along the beam of wood attaching boat to outrigger whilst holding on to a thin rope. If the monkey fails, we go over, and it’s at least an hour’s hard work using a floatation device to right the boat and bail the water.
The Kraken Cup gods were kind to us on those first few days and blessed us with a gentle breeze and calm seas. But late on day three, as we were cruising close to shore, we learnt never to be complacent. A noise whistled over our heads and something landed with a huge splash just in front of our boat. Then another whistle and another explosion, this time just behind. Terrified that we were being shot at by pirates we cowered below the gunwale. Later on, we found out we had in fact strayed too close to the Presidential Palace and had been warned off by the mortars of the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force.
After these early days of smooth sailing we were starting to get the hang of the boat, but our next leg was over 60km and would take us past the busiest shipping port on the East African coast, Dar Es Salaam. At daybreak, we drifted out through the small islands of the Zanzibar archipelago and said our goodbyes to the idyll of the Spice Islands. As the day wore on and the heat pounded down the wind showed no signs of picking up. Mission Control worried that we’d all be stranded in the shipping lanes so started picking up boats to tow them forward. I drew the short straw and had to stay in our ngalawa while my crewmates abandoned ship and enjoyed a few blissful hours on the speedboat. As they napped, I was forced to wrestle with the tiller to try and surf the wake of the speedboat. But the ngalawa’s ancient design was not built to be towed along at these speeds. The trunk soon became more of a floating bathtub than a seaworthy vessel. I screamed out when the water starting lapping at my thighs; but by the time they heard me our sturdy craft had collapsed and started to sink. Luckily with the support crew nearby we were able to bail her and grab our floating bags before they disappeared. It was a timely reminder that anything not tied down would quickly be sacrificed to the sea.
Having helped us across the busiest shipping lanes we were let loose once more, with the Kraken Cup in our sights. On this side of the strait we came bow to bow with supertankers who made us feel like plankton in the presence of a whale. Their magnitude is hard to comprehend until you realise that every one of those thousands of Lego brick containers is in fact the size of an 18-wheeler truck. Tossing in their wake and seeing the black, slick oil splashing onto our feet brought home the beautiful simplicity of the ngalawa. One mango tree and a bedsheet would do us nicely. We reached the long stretch of beach we would be staying on and were told to drag our boats 100 metres inland because of the rising tides that would come in overnight. It seemed an arduous and unnecessary requirement, but we woke the next day to find a broiling sea had swallowed up the beach and was threatening to do the same to our boats.
The waves were so powerful and the onshore wind so strong that all the teams had to band together to help push the boats out one at a time. With five sailors holding on to either side we charged into the surf and tried to force the boats through the breakers. As I looked down the line, we saw some boats who had made it and were now unfurling their sails just past the crashing waves. The rest lay smashed in the surf; surrounded by other sodden Kraken Cup sailors. My mouth was dry with fear. We rammed our boat forward through the waves and once we could barely stand, we heaved into the hull and attacked the water with our oars. For 20 minutes straight we clawed against the waves and barely moved an inch, but just as it felt like our arms were going to fall off one last push saw us break through the crash zone. We were already exhausted before our sail had been hoisted but it was just an appetiser for what would be the toughest day of our lives.
Once we rounded the small headland, we were immediately hit by force six winds of up to 30 knots and rocked about by three metre swells. There was no time for food, or talking, or changing positions. For three hours straight I was stuck out on the outrigger; reeling along as the waves smashed into us, my hands raw with rope-burn. Our bucket boy Ollie was on constant bailing duty, pausing only to vomit into his bucket and send that over the side as well. Then came the real waves: 10-foot tall breakers crashing onto a reef that would turn our boat into splinters. The wind and tide were pushing us ever closer to them. Thirty metres away, then 20, then 10. When the foam from these monsters started to fly into our faces, we knew we had to abandon our course and tack around, losing out on miles worth of ground gained through taking this risky line.
Disaster always felt a hairbreadth away. Just as the wind seemed to calm, it struck. A sudden squall came in against the prevailing wind and flung our sail over the wrong way with too much force for any amount of monkeying to counteract. We were flipped into the rolling swell. In order to right ourselves we had to inflate long, sausage-like pontoons by blowing through a glorified straw and then tie them on underneath the boat. This was all very well in practice; but diving under the boat in these kind of storms to fish for a rope seemed not only dangerous but downright stupid. To add to our misery Ollie, the most resolute member of our team, was throwing up while bobbing in the water and mumbling deliriously. We decided to hit the SOS button and resolved to cut our losses and throw in the towel for good.
By the time the safety boat arrived we had just about righted ourselves and were sitting speechless and motionless, in a state of shock. The Kraken Cup rescue crew helpfully told us to keep moving and threw us a bottle of water before speeding off to save some other poor souls. We didn’t even have a chance to float our idea of quitting.
We stumbled onwards, all three of us in tears and cursing each other for coming up with this stupid idea. Thankfully the seas had calmed, and we were able to catch our breaths and gather our frayed nerves and ropes. As darkness fell, we were still sailing. Luckily every boat had a red beacon to use at night, so we followed the tell-tale red blinks. As we neared our designated island we heard a sudden roar and a crash and before we knew what had happened we smashed into a reef and ran aground. We had to drag our ngalawa across the reef in pitch black, stumbling over coral as we pulled. Eventually we made it to the beach, collapsed exhausted and slept on the sand.
The next day we found out we were not the only casualties from yesterday’s storm. Almost every team had capsized, three had also hit the reef and five had dropped out entirely, two of them heading straight back to the airport. The 22 was down to 17. It was not only the Kraken Cup crews who had suffered. One of the teams found three local fishermen clinging onto their wrecked boat and stayed with them until the rescue team could save them.
The next few days were blissful in comparison to what we had endured. The famous trade winds picked up and we surfed on the waves’ crests. Suddenly the unique design of the ngalawas made complete sense. These were the conditions that gave birth to these boats. Every evening we would cruise into a picture-perfect island, with a few palm trees, a couple of huts and nothing else to speak of. The fishermen would dive out on the reef and spearfish for us and we would eat fish roasted on the fire and then sleep under the stars.
The wind and the waves would pick up occasionally but after the horrors of that day we knew that we could endure whatever else the Indian Ocean might throw at us. At the end of our 10-day Odyssey only 14 of the 22 teams who had left managed to make it across the finish line. We finished in seventh place and found out we were the youngest team to ever have completed the Kraken Cup race. We somehow managed to wangle the Skipper’s Choice award, more for sheer pig-headedness than anything else. But a cold beer, a soft mattress and the joy of surviving was the only prize we needed.
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