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The iconic Cape to Rio Yacht Race which was also known as the South Atlantic Yacht Race, from Cape Town to South America began nearly 49 years ago in part to encourage South African sailors to attempt ocean passages, has attracted huge international interest from the start, and has a fascinating history.

Even though it is best known as the Cape to Rio Race, the race has indeed headed mainly for Rio, but at times to other South American venues, including Punta del Este in Uruguay, and more recently Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia. Cape Town has always been the starting point of the race since its inception.

The first race set off from Table Bay in 1971 and from the start attracted huge international interest. It is a fascinating and tactical race, demanding both seamanship and weather-savvy, being the longest continent-to-continent yacht race in the southern hemisphere. The use of different ports for the finish has seen the race distance vary between 3 400 and 4 500 nautical miles.

After leaving Cape Town, participants head north-west towards the island of Ilha Trindade, and south-west from there towards South America. As they near the coast, skippers need to decide whether to take the longer route with stronger winds, or a more direct route with the chance for lighter winds.

Prizes are awarded to the first competitor across the line, new records being set, as well as the first three across the line in 3 handicap classes.

How it started…

In 1968, The South African purpose-built yacht Voortrekker, skippered by Bruce Dalling, (died 2008) placed second over the line and first on handicap in the Observer Single-handed TransAtlantic Race sailed between Plymouth, England and Newport, Rhode Island. His success turned him into a national hero and provided sailing in South Africa with a massive boost.

On her return to Cape Town after a season of racing in Europe, her owners, the South Africa Ocean Racing Trust, handed her over for the use of the South African Navy. It was at the handover that Vice Admiral HH Biermann suggested that South Africa should have its own ocean race, either to Australia or South America. The Springbok Ocean Racing Trust changed its name to the South African Ocean Racing Trust and immediately sprang into action. In co-operation with Clube de Rio de Janeiro, the race was organised in conjunction with the Cruising Association of South Africa (CASA) for 1971, at a date which would allow the finish to coincide with Carnival time.

That started the ball rolling, the debate at first being on whether the route should be to Australia or South America.

Why Rio?

South America, in particular Rio de Janeiro, was the winner as it allowed for a pleasing down-wind race, which would encourage the then quite small South African sailing community to cross an ocean, and as a letter from the mayor of Cape Town phrased it, it linked two of the world’s most beautiful sea ports.

It also, fortuitously, hearkened back to the shared history of exploration that linked the two countries, through the intrepid voyages of Diaz and Da Gama. It was ironically by accident that over 500 years ago the great navigators of Portugal made their most crucial discovery. Sailing in frail caravels in search of a sea route to the rich spices of India, a fleet led by Pedro Cabral discovered the coast of Brazil.

It was Brazil, far more than India, which was to transform the wealth and destiny of Portugal. Sailing on down the coast, Cabral’s little fleet reached a river mouth surrounded by spectacular high peaks, and since that was the month, called it the River of January.

So, a yacht race linking the “Cabo do Boa Esperanca” (Cape of Good Hope) and Rio de Janeiro is a delightful reflection of history, and it has clearly been a winning formula.

The Springbok Ocean Racing Trust, together with Clube de Rio de Janeiro and in conjunction with the Cruising Association of South Africa, organised the first Cape to Rio Yacht Race three years later.

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