The Great Gordon

The Cape to Rio race started yesterday. It’s a 3,500 mile sprint across the South Atlantic from the gorgeous city of Cape Town nestled at the foot of the African continent, to the equally gorgeous city of Rio de Janiero, nestled under the watchful gaze of Christ the Redeemer, the massive statue atop Corcovado. Between the two famous seaports lies a wide ocean swept by a constant trade wind and laced with 40 years of Cape to Rio history. It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 40 years since the inaugural event in 1971.

Christ The Redeemer watches over the city of Rio.

As a child growing up in South Africa I was a hardened and devoted fan. There was extensive media coverage leading up to the start of each race, and daily position reports in the newspaper as the boats raced toward Rio. There was always a special supplement in the paper that came out a week before each race. It unfolded into a large map of the South Atlantic, and you could plot the positions on the map and join the dots with brightly colored lines. I would wait by the gate at the end of our driveway anxiously waiting for the newspaper man who would come with the latest edition containing the latest positions. I could usually hear the squeak of his wheels long before sighting him, and the noise would send a thrill through my tiny twelve year old body.

The early races were epic events. In 1973 the venerable Cornelius Bruynzeel, or Kees as he was known, set off aboard his yacht Stormy. Bruynzeel, a plywood magnate from Holland, had won most major international races but it was not because of his sailing prowess that he was being closely followed in the press. The year before he had suffered three heart attacks and at 72 was told by his doctors that it was suicide to go on the race. Bruynzeel disregarded the advice opting instead to take a cardiac nurse, some specilised cardiac equipment, and a burial-at-sea kit. Stormy not only won the race on line honors, but also on handicap. Bruynzeel went on to live another 27 years healthier than ever and died in his bunk doing the Middle Sea Race in 1980.

I got to do my first race in 1979, aboard Dabulamanzi, one of South Africa’s top ocean going yachts. The boat was owned by Gordon Rennie, one of South Africa’s most successful businessmen. Gordon was big news at the time, but not for all the right reasons. Back then South Africa had very strict currency laws and you were not allowed to have a foreign bank account. Rennie, like many highly successful people presumed that the laws were for the rest of us and promptly disregarded them. He was caught with a Swiss bank account and the South Africa authorities decided to make an example out of him. He was to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Humiliated by the bad press Gordon locked himself in a hotel room in Johannesburg, drank a bottle of whiskey, and slit his wrists. He didn’t die. Three days later housekeeping found him barely breathing, but alive.

This all took place in the weeks leading up to the start of the race and we presumed that our entry in the race would be off, but not so. Rennie was adamant that he wanted to sail and so we prepared the boat. A couple of days before the start a gentleman came by. He wanted to talk with the captain. The man was Rennie’s psychiatrist and told our captain that we should not do the race, that Gordon was suicidal. We did do the race, we were baby-faced kids looking for adventure and Rennie’s problems were not our problems so we didn’t mention the visit from his doctor. Gordon was on board and for the first few days was ill tempered and not much fun to be around. One night, at watch change, we were chatting among ourselves. Gordon was back aft, in his bunk, asleep, or so we thought. “If Gordon wants to jump overboard let’s hope that he gets on with it, he’s being a major pain in the arse,” someone said. “Absolutely,” someone else chimed in. “If I see him at the rail about to jump I’m going to give him a swift kick to make sure that he does not change his mind.” We all laughed and then went below for some rest.

It turned out that Gordon didn’t kill himself. Instead, after 28 days at sea, he looked fitter and happier than he had for decades. Once on land he treated us to a fancy dinner. At the end of the sumptuous meal Rennie stood to make a toast. “To you bastards,” he said. “I had planned to kill myself on this trip. To jump overboard. To go out in a blaze. But I heard you bastards that night sitting in the cockpit. You thought that I was asleep. Well…., well I was damned if I was going to give you the satisfaction and now I am grateful that I didn’t leap overboard.” Gordon, like Bruynzeel, lived another 20 years fitter and happier because of his time at sea.

All ocean races have their stories. I have mine. This upcoming Rio race will have its share of stories. It’s the people and their foibles that weave the pattern of our lives and it’s this pattern that is the essence of our lives.

If you would like to read the full story from my book, Grabbing Life, you can download a free chapter as a pdf here

You can follow the Cape to Rio race here

Cape to Rio race poster

The official poster for the Cape to Rio race.

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