Around the World in…Oh, About 270 Days

Around the World in…Oh, About 270 Days

‘Once more upon the waters! yet once more!
And the waves bound beneath me as a steed
That knows his rider.’

Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, 1816

Over its long history as a notable world port, Cape Town has justifiably earned the sobriquet ‘Tavern of the Seas’. Its very beginnings were linked to this purpose: sailing leaky, creaky wooden boats from European ports around the tip of Africa was a long, long adventure in the 16th to 19th century years, and sailors tended to get tired of a diet of salted maggot-suffused pork and brick-hard sea biscuits after a few months. Not to mention the fact that a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables caused scurvy, which at best left you toothless and at worst in Davy Jones’ locker wrapped in an old canvas tarpaulin – mostly the latter.

Table Mountain overlooked a green valley, full of potential (although not much fresh water), and so it was chosen as a halfway stop on the route around the African coast to…well, initially, nobody really knew quite where. But the human spirit is nothing if not inquisitive, so Vasco Da Gama and others of his adventurous ilk just kept going ever onward until they found the riches of the east: spices, dyes and other exotic trade items were much sought after in the European lands, and the Dutch East India Company (and other pretenders to the throne of commerce) were quick to send fleets of ships to profit from this bounty.

The history of Cape Town – both the wonders and notoriety – is fairly well known to most South Africans, and Jan van Riebeeck’s initial landing was to set up the first ‘tavern’ of the Atlantic to Indian Ocean route; the Gardens in Upper Cape Town where vegetables and fruit trees produced vital vitamins are still extant and fascinate locals and visitors alike, although the vegetation is no longer edible. (Unless you, like the squirrels, have a predilection for acorns.) Over the ensuing centuries, political considerations and territorial ownership aside, Cape Town’s reputation as a resting and revictualling harbour grew, and it became a must-visit stopover for every matelot, adventurer, or – during one of the many wars that plagued the planet – soldier.

These days the Tavern has another role. The advent of container ships has taken most of the romance out of ocean commerce; clipper ships and three-masted schooners no longer ply the oceans with loads of tea and saffron. Cape Town has a huge container basin that sits off to one side of the harbour, out of reach of the non-sailing spectator, and is very much an efficient, computer driven mechanical marvel. Nothing to see here, folks. The other main visitors to our docks are the enormous floating hotels called ‘cruise liners’ that host a few thousand sun-scorched passengers, depositing them ashore for a few days of frenetic sight-seeing up and down mountains and in and out of wine farms. Ocean travel has changed substantially since the days of the graceful Union-Castle Line vessels. Remembered and much missed by Capetonians, these vessels transported people (and post) twixt South Africa and the United Kingdom. Quoting Henry Damant, author of ‘Every Thursday at Four O’clock:‘well known for the lavender-hulled liners with red funnels topped in black, running on a rigid timetable between Southampton and Cape Town’, these visitors never failed to thrill onlookers on arrival and departure.

But it’s not all commerce and tourism: this month sees Cape Town hosting a true set of ocean wanderers – participants in the gruelling The Ocean Race are docking at the V&A Waterfront as they make their way around the world, and these incredible sailing boats are well worth a visit as they rest up next to the quayside: a fleet of IMOCA 60 and Volvo Racing 65’s. To give an idea of what you will be looking at, it takes 7 months and 36 000 man hours to build, assemble, and paint a Volvo Ocean 65; there are 120 boatbuilders who work with 70 suppliers to outfit the boat. There are only eight of these boats on the planet, and seven are in our harbour.

Originally known as The Whitbread Round the World Race, the first event was held back in 1973, and it has been repeated every three to four years since that inaugural adventure. Rebranded in 2001, most people will remember it as the Volvo Ocean Race from its Cape Town stopovers; in 2019 it was renamed, simply, The Ocean Race. Now, this isn’t a Grand Prix type event. These boats, crewed by up to twenty individuals, race over nine or ten legs between destinations for a period of up to nine months. Covering a total race distance of over 72 000 km, the Ocean Race is not designed for weekend sailors or lake dabchick racers. Each event follows a different route; Cape Town has hosted a stopover six times in the 14 events to date.

On the 28th February the fleet sails from Cape Town, and this promises to be a spectator event of note: watching these professional sailors aboard their state of the art yachts gather the wind in their sails and heel over, picking up momentum on the first minutes of an incredible 12 750 nautical mile marathon between Cape Town to Itajaí in Brazil via the Southern Ocean, is an exceptional sight.

Waterfront Charters will have spectator boats out on the water: we would not miss out. Choose between a RIB adventure or a more traditional catamaran cruise to get out onto the Bay the watch all the action. Two hours of observing will thrill all who join us, and you’ll get as close as is possible to the boats as they ready themselves for the cannon shot that signifies the start. All details on the website: we can’t wait for this spectacle to unfold!