Dragon Boat Racing in South Africa

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Cape Town Dragon Boaters Paddle to Robben Island - 3rd June 2012

WCDBA and Sisterhood paddlers and supporters on Robben Island

WCDBA and Sisterhood paddlers and supporters on Robben Island - picture by Trevor Wilkins             more pictures ..
An island just offshore, within sight of land, is always going to have a fascination to paddlers and sailors, especially an island with a history.

Dragon-boat paddlers have been talking of making a crossing ever since the sport started Africa in 1995 when two beautiful wooden flag-catching dragon boats were given to the city of Cape Town by our sister city in Taiwan. Two brief "off-the-cuff" attempts were made in 1996 and 1997 to paddle to the island, but were foiled by bad weather. Western Cape paddlers then focused on training for local and international regattas and World Championships and ideas of a crossing to Robben Island receded to wishful thinking on days when the bay looked calm and inviting.

Then in 2011 a branch of "The Sisterhood" opened in South Africa and the girls came up with a plan to paddle to Robben Island to raise funds for charity. Western Cape Dragon Boat Association (WCDBA) agreed to help them achieve this goal and to paddle across with them, thus satisfying our own long-held dream. We decided to use the wooden boats because they are strong and solidly built with an upwardly curving bow terminating in the magnificent dragon's head which is a solid part of the boat, rather than a flimsily attached, removable head, as is the case in the standard fibreglass racing dragon boats. The fibreglass boats, being flat, would arrow through waves and swells, scooping up water in the process, where the bows of the wooden boats would deflect the waves.

Historically, it was appropriate that these two magnificent boats should be the ones used for the crossing.

Dragon boating is very much a team sport. The wooden flag-catching boats take 18 paddlers, a drummer and a helm and being a team sport, you need the team together before you go anywhere! This makes it much more difficult to organise than an individual sport like running or kayaking. Two dragon-boat crews plus support-boat crews is nearly 50 people needing to be available when the weather and sea conditions are right. As very few people are fortunate enough to work for themselves, any attempt had to be scheduled for weekends. Summer wasn't considered because there is either a strong south-easterly wind, or it is blazing hot. Winter has north-westerly gales, huge ocean swells and it can be very cold and wet. We do get glorious Cape winter days, but spring and autumn were considered better times to plan for a crossing. Dragon-boats have no decking and with a full crew they have very little freeboard, so swell size must be small with a good space between swells and there needs to be minimal surface waves.

Having got the required permission from six different authorities, the October-November weekends of Spring 2011 were scheduled for potential crossing ... but the South-Easterly winds raged. Everything was then put on hold until Autumn 2012 (April-June). This at least gave us more time to train in the wooden boats which are quite different to paddle after being used to the lightweight fibreglass boats. Again, six weekends were set aside.

The 12th May dawned perfect, no wind and a flat calm sea - but, there was a sea fog so thick at times we could hardly see from one end of the boat to the other. We'd all assembled before 8.30, even Steven Bentley, the V&A Harbour Master was there ready to spend the day accompanying us - and the fog didn't lift. Steven kept contact with Port Control, only to hear that not only was the fog thick everywhere, but that a large fishing trawler had gone aground on Clifton beach and the whole harbour was abuzz with rescue operations. All other shipping was on hold and we certainly weren't allowed to proceed. In the end we were given permission at midday to creep out around the breakwater to the shelter of Granger Bay just so everyone could feel swell under the boats and get an idea of what being out at sea would be like. As we returned to the V&A Waterfront the fog finally began to lift but by then there was such a backlog of shipping, we had to give up for the day.

A real pea-souper fog - picture by Trevor Wilkins

Then we were down to the last weekend of the six options and the swell forecasts were not good. We reluctantly agreed that Saturday was not an option and that Sunday was better, but still unlikely. Saturday dawned calm and balmy, but the swell was well over 2m. As the Safety Officer giving the final yes or no, was I being too cautious? Had I been a wet blanket? At 5pm a few of us went out in one of the safety boats and agreed that if conditions the following day were no worse it might be do-able.

Sunday 3rd June was perfect, the swell was half that predicted and there was no wind, it was all systems go. Then paddlers from the WCDBA team started cancelling and I started to wonder if we'd have enough to paddle a wooden boat 28km. Worse was to come, the skipper of the major safety boat called to say the keys had not been left for him as promised. Without this safety boat the whole trip would be off. We had over 40 people assembled after months of training and committing to setting 12 weekends aside for a potential crossing taking precedence over other engagements. The weather and the sea were finally perfect and now everything was about to collapse because we couldn't get the keys. Fortunately Trevor our skipper knew who else to phone and how to find the keys so he managed to rescue the situation and we ended up setting off only an hour later than planned. The Sisterhood-SA had a full crew of 18 paddlers a helm (sweep) and a drummer, whilst the WCDBA boat ended up with a sweep and 14 paddlers (3 guys + 11 women), one of whom drummed while leaving and entering the two harbours, returning to their seat to paddle once out in the open ocean. I drummed as we left Robben Island and very nearly fell overboard as I tried to scramble back past the drum, fortunately nobody seems to have had their camera trained on me as I made my undignified tumble onto the gunwale.

We agreed later that given a choice, 16 paddlers plus drummer and sweep would be optimum for power and control of these banana-shaped dragon-boats. For this initial crossing the experienced WCDBA paddlers were accompanying the largely novice crew of the Sisterhood-SA so we were holding back and not going for time.

Setting off on the return trip from Robben Island to the V&A - picture by Helga Frank

As we left the V&A part of the harbour, a young humpback whale was lazily cruising around. What a special send off! On the crossing we came across large "rafts" of jackass penguins. They had clearly never seen dragons on the water before because they let us get really close before diving and resurfacing as soon as we'd passed to continue staring at us in amazement.

picture by Trevor Wilkins

The route across from the harbour to the island crosses three shipping lanes so we were lucky it was quiet, there was no shipping traffic on our way out and only two container boats on our return, one leaving and the other arriving. Once at the island we were allowed off the boats to stretch our legs and use their toilets but were not allowed out of the harbour precinct. The route back was as spectacular as the route out, from a World Heritage Site to one of the World's Seven Natural Wonders.

WCDBA squad feeling dwarfed !   - picture by Helga Frank

Robben (seal) Island is a small low-lying island of only 5 km², situated in Table Bay 11 kilometres north from Cape Town Harbour and 7k west of Blouberg. Giant rollers of the Atlantic Ocean continuously pound the western shore whilst the southern and eastern shores are swept by the icy Bengula current which flows up from Antarctica. In winter the island is battered by rain-bearing North-Westerly winds, in summer South-Easterly winds frequently rage at gale force.

Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been an island of isolation, used most famously for political prisoners, but also from 1846-1931 as a leper colony and a hospital for those society preferred to forget, the mentally and chronically ill. It has even served as an animal quarantine station. During the Second World War the island was fortified to defend the Cape Sea Route and in post-war years, two prisons were established on the island, a criminal prison and a political prison. Nelson Mandela and many of South Africa's current politicians were inmates of the latter.

Both history and geography have combined to make access to and from the island difficult. Today, red tape continues to make access difficult. The Island is both a museum and a world heritage site. Only boats owned, managed or licensed by the island museum are allowed access. Permits are not given for landing on the island unless on an official island tour. The Western Cape Dragon Boat Association and The Sisterhood-SA are therefore very grateful to , the V&A Harbour Master, Cape Town Port Control, the Robben Island Museum, the Robben Island Marine Reserve authorities, the City of Cape Town and the Harbour police for permission to undertake the crossing.

A special big thank you to our support-boat skippers: Trevor Wilkins, Alon Kowen and Morgan Evans,
and to the V&A Harbour Master, Steven Bentley for his constant support of dragon boating in Cape Town.

We'd love to do the crossing again, this time going for time, but the organisation (red tape) is complicated, weather at the Antarctic end of Africa does not follow set dates and we were warned that it could not become annual event. So sadly, having a crossing as an International Dragon Boat event is not practical.
Imagine getting teams all the way to the southern tip of Africa only to have it storm the whole time they are here.

Pam Newby
WCDBA Sweep and Safety Officer

The track off my blackberry's Endomondo. Note the effect of the slight westerly wind that got up in time for our return.

Paddlers who made the crossing from the V&A Waterfront to Robben Island & back
3rd June 2012

WCDBA squad
Anne Berzen, Jurgen Briegel, Rob Baum, Jean Hopley, Marina Louw, Pam Newby, Wendy Pearce, Greg Pearce (sweep), Vanessa Robarts, Shui-lyn White,
Paddlesnappers: Janine Jordaan, Louise McQueen, Vince Naude, Igshaan Raciet,
amaBele Belles: Jenny Heunis

The Sisterhood-SA squad:
Alicia Louw, Bianca Linderman, Brenna Excell, Caren Robb, Clé Latouf, Daniella Lynch, Esmé narun, Helen Benish, Jess Cash, Joanne Anderson, Juliet Curtis, Laura Barker, Martyne Dallmann, Melanie Lambrechts, Phillippa Hance, Suna Hall, Birgit Rawcandy, Kirsty Williams, Allison Grant/Timea Kulcsar (drummer), Martin Poole (sweep)

Sponsors of the Sisterhood-SA squad: Investec Asset Management and Glider Eyewear

The Sisterhood-SA raised R70,000 for their chosen charity, Malamulele Onward,
an NGO providing therapy for children with cerebral palsy. Well done!

The Sisterhood-SA with a backdrop of the Cape Town Stadium and Signal Hill - picture by Pam Newby

Click here for more pictures from Trevor Wilkins

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