South Atlantic Crossing
By Simon Capstick-Dale
About 2 360 000 pulls was what it took Braam Malherbe and his rowing partner Wayne Robertson to complete the formidable 8 100-kilometre South Atlantic crossing from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro. The indomitable pair spent 92 tumultuous days at sea for a cause close to both their hearts.
Extreme adventurer, motivational speaker and conservationist Malherbe was on a mission to raise awareness about the vulnerable state of our Planet Earth as well as his DOT (Do One Thing) Challenge: an initiative that asks each resource-draining human across the globe to make one lifestyle change that will positively impact the sustainability of the only place our children have to live.
Malherbe is, of course, no stranger to world-firsts, having been numero uno to run the 4 200km-long Great Wall of China, and two years later the entire South African coastline from Namibia to Mozambique. But his latest row from Cape to Rio with Robertson was his maiden ocean adventure—and, unlike previous expeditions, it was entirely unassisted and unsupported.
Robertson, on the other hand, has a long-standing bond with the ocean, having been a surfer, skipper and marine surveyor. But he’s also a boatbuilder, which was the extent of his involvement in this expedition until the 11th hour. “Wayne pulled out all the stops to ensure the boat was expedition-ready, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for making the decision to join me when I was in desperate need of a rowing partner,” says Malherbe.
The duo’s Cape to Rio ocean expedition will go down in history as the most southern voyage ever undertaken from South Africa. Following the perilous route of the Cape to Rio yacht race, Malherbe and Robertson made this taxing transatlantic crossing in their dinky 6.8 x 1.8m vessel Mhondoro, swopping places between cabin and cockpit every two hours. They never, at any stage, had a rescue boat following them; the closest ship, often days away, was their only source of possible aid in the case of any emergency.
The notoriously erratic weather patterns and dangerous sea currents of the Cape of Storms made the pair’s uncharted southerly crossing a death-defying expedition that helped remind them of the relentless force of Mother Nature. “Being on the ocean in conditions this extreme was like living on the critical edge—all the time.”
For Malherbe, the sensory deprivation of the Atlantic Ocean was something he wasn’t at all prepared for. While running extreme distances like the Great Wall of China, he had complete sensory overload, with plenty of stimuli to distract him from physical and mental exertion. But in Antarctica, “[it] was the first time I experienced the exact opposite: sensory deprivation. I couldn’t see anything except for white for most of the time, and the wind howled constantly in my ears. But nothing could prepare me for the Atlantic Ocean, which was infinitely worse: You have water—and the sky, if you’re lucky—and 80% of the time there’s rain in your face. This redundancy is incredibly demoralising.”
Though the lack of sunny skies didn’t only play hell on the two men’s psyches, but also prevented the functioning of indispensable equipment on the boat. “There often wasn’t adequate sunlight to keep our solar chargers powered, so we couldn’t use the electric desalinator to make drinking water. Instead, we had to use the hand-pump desalinator—which eventually exploded, leaving us in a serious predicament.”
Sailing across the Atlantic in such a small sailing boat presents a unique set of challenges: The fact there was only 30 centimetres between their boat’s gunwale and the water was a huge mental barrier to overcome; another more palpable problem was the rowing pair’s lack of visibility to much larger ocean vessels. “It was exhausting having to be so vigilant of our surroundings all the time. We capsized four times, and there were constantly ships bearing down on us that probably didn’t know we were there at all.”
In the daytime, Malherbe and Robertson could use their binoculars to spot approaching ships, but at night these weren’t as easily visible, which meant they had to be far more cautious to avoid collisions. “We made contact with other vessels using the AIS [automatic identification system], but often we were already too close to them, and the ships too large, for their course to be diverted.”
Stormy conditions, comprising gale-force winds and ineffably rough seas, were part and parcel of day-to-day life at sea. Although their small vessel was equipped with a parachute anchor, they often misjudged the size of approaching waves and weren’t able to get it out in time. In these instances, their boat capsized and was submerged for several minutes at a time, which happened on four separate occasions. “Sometimes waves as big as 40 feet [about 12m] would break on us. If we didn’t manage to hold the boat at the correct angle, it would roll and capsize. When this occurs, the boat is supposed to self-right, but it never did, so we were left upside-down in the pitch dark with the only light available coming from the instrument panel in the cabin.”
With no support team to ensure they were properly fed and rested, the two explorers went from day to day on no more than four hours of sleep. While one man rowed, the other would usually prepare food and drinking water, and help avoid other looming dangers of the open water. “Each of us would usually row for two hours at a time. But if, for instance, one of us was feeling ill or particularly exhausted, then the other might do an extra hour—though there was always plenty of work to do when you weren’t paddling, too.”
At the start of their expedition, Malherbe and his rowing partner had three separate devices that allowed them to make regular contact with family and friends, who also kept the DOT website updated so that fans and followers could track the progress of their expedition. But after just a few weeks at sea, technical failures left them with only their emergency satellite telephone as means of communication. “When everything starts to go wrong—and it certainly did on this expedition—it’s easy to lose your cool. Although Wayne and I got angry with each other at times, we never once had an argument in 92 days. I think we both knew that without each other, we wouldn’t make it to dry land.”
Because of the high-pressure cells around the South Atlantic, the two-man team continuously had to manoeuvre themselves toward the northern region and allow the easterly winds to assist their passage to Rio. “The scary part was that if we found ourselves too far north, we would hit the doldrums—but sailing too far south, as we did for the last few days, the westerly winds slowed our progress. In truth, we started this expedition too late: The seasons were already changing, which made it much tougher.”
Since their safe return home on 9 May 2017, Malherbe has been preparing for a countrywide roadshow where he plans to get as many South Africans as possible committed to Doing One Thing for the planet, tracking their progress and sharing it with the world. “The DOT smartphone app makes it easy for people to participate in the DOT Challenge and encourage those around them to do the same.”
He believes that, as the only species able to make conscious decisions about our lives, humans can choose to be either an asset or liability to the Earth. “Our planet is just a dot in the universe and we are mere dots on our planet, but if we all just Do One Thing, we can make a monumental difference. In the near future, when I embark with my team on one final 8 000km expedition around the Tropic of Capricorn, I want 1 billion people to be Doing One Thing—and that, categorically, will change the world.”
Just Do One Thing!
Malherbe founded the DOT Foundation (www.thedotfoundation.org) to support projects that provide education and assistance in four vital categories: water, waste, energy and conservation; and started the DOT Challenge campaign (www.dotchallenge.org) to highlight the importance of Doing One Thing for the planet on a daily basis. Download the DOT app and make your commitment today.
Dedicated husband and father to a 6-year-old daughter, Wayne Robertson got his sea legs at a young age, having been a surfer and working as a skipper, marine surveyor and boatbuilder. He’s also a passionate eco-warrior, and launched the DOT Challenge with Malherbe to raise global awareness around the importance of biodiversity and conserving our planet for future generations. See www.waynerobertsonyachts.co.za.
Source: The Intrepid Explorer