It was a bright, sunny day when a fleet of 36 yachts left the shores of Cape Town, South Africa, for Brazil in the 2014 Cape to Rio race. One of the yachts, Investec Ciao Bella, has the most unlikely crew; it’s manned by an entire family, the Robinsons. Unlike many professional competitors, their idea of a family holiday consists of a month ploughing through the cold ocean, ducking under flying fish, gawking at glowing dolphins and watching out for floating containers as deadly as icebergs.
In January, the family left African shores sporting shirts, short-sleeved vests and plenty of sunscreen. Little did they know they would sail in 60 knots of wind and 8-meter swells; a storm no-one was expecting was on the horizon. It claimed one man’s life and crippled a third of the fleet.
“If you look at the weather imaging from that day all you will see is this giant eye of cloud. And we sailed straight into it,” says Mike Robinson.
In 2011, Mike and his wife Gill, sons Ricky (23), Brennan (22), and Ryan (14) with daughters Kathryn (25) and Michaela (10) and their nephew Bradley (19) came second in the race.
The storm hit a day into the race. The swells were massive, the wind strong enough to rip your sail. The Ciao Bella struggled in churning seas which changed direction. Brennan and Ricky, the most experienced yachtsmen held the helm for hours on end. The rest supported them, changing sails at a moment’s notice and sliding on deck in the sleeting rain.
“It was a heavy night. It was the beginning of the race and some of us were predictably seasick. Everyone had a bit of a wobble except for my wife, Gill. When the weather got tough she was the only one standing and she took over the cabin. She made sure people got hot chocolate and that everyone’s harnesses and clothes were ready for the changes in shifts,” says Mike.
The Robinson’s sailed through the eye of the storm and launched out the other end with the wind at their backs, taking a commanding lead. They were exhausted and decided to take a 12-hour rest. The decision, says Mike, ultimately cost them the race.
“We were well out in the front, ahead of the other boats. If we had kept with it we would have had a strong wind all the way to Rio,” he says.
Other boats were not as lucky. The yacht Bille, registered from Angola, reported that their crew member, António João Bartolomeu, died and two other crew members were injured. Mike first heard of the news during a live radio interview.
“We were blissfully unaware of the drama. It was a rough ride but we managed it well. It was the Wednesday after the race began. I fumbled through the interview. It turned out it was a storm of massive proportions, the likes seen in the serious sea races, not the Cape to Rio,” he says.
South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institution (NSRI) reported eight-meter swells and 60-knot gale force winds. Three boats were towed back to Cape Town. The Black Cat reported being set adrift after losing its rudder; Isla took on water in the engine compartment and had an electrical fire; and on the AVA, two of their four crew members were injured and activated their emergency satellite beacon. According to Mike, a third of the fleet had been forced to retire.
“It was no longer a family get-together to sail. This was something unfathomable. Usually when you get to Rio there is incredible comradery. This time, there was the sense that there was one person who should have made it, but didn’t,” he says.
It took the Robinsons 21 days to travel 5,500 kilometers. It was almost twice the length of time the professional 10-man Maserati took to take the line honors, in 11 days. Still, Mike was happy to place fifth overall, the second South African boat to arrive in Rio.
“We were competing against boats that had more carbon than a coal mine,” says Mike, referring to the newer models made of carbon graphite which are lighter and faster than the Ciao Bella’s fiberglass hull.
“The first three boats were made of full-time racing outfits. We’ve got only one world champion racer and he’s 17 (Ryan). We traveled from Cape Town to the oil fields of Rio just on the power of the wind… We did all this with seven people on a 35-foot yacht, one of the smallest in the fleet. That’s amazing,” says son Ricky, now 26 years old.
Unlike their first adventure, the Robinsons were unusually disaster free, says Mike. In the 2011 Cape to Rio, their engine failed leaving them without fresh water. They also sailed the whole way with a cracked rudder.
The family’s life on board is littered with unusual moments. Flying fish smack people on deck and dolphins swim in their wake. Mike says there is nothing more majestic than an albatross in the trade winds. He also cannot forget the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean.
“There is not a color that can describe it. We think it’s a regal blue; as far as the eye can see and deep into the depths. It’s all encompassing. The wave movement becomes regular. Life becomes this rhythm. You cook to a rhythm, you sleep to it. When the sun sets the sea becomes velvet and the Milky Way goes from the left side of the horizon to the right. Behind you, the moon rises on a silver pathway,” he says.
It’s here, thousands of miles from land, where the race begins in earnest in the trade winds. At the helm Ricky, Brennan and Ryan compete to see who can go the fastest and the furthest in two-hour shifts. The smell of pancakes and bacon floats onto the deck. Katheryn and Michaela sing bad parodies and the brothers argue about philosophy during their 3AM shifts.
“I spent an entire night with Ricky and I don’t think we said more than two words to each other. We just experienced the moment in each other’s company,” says Mike.
As the weather warms up closer to Rio, the Robinson’s rations thin. The first to go are zoo biscuits, valued higher than gold, until a bout of foul weather reveals a stash, hidden in the rain jackets.
“Brennan was the most likely candidate, it was his jacket. But Ryan had also been using it. Michaela is known for hoarding her sweets so it could have been her. We just didn’t know,” says Mike.
The debate raged into the night. Accusations flew across the rocking yacht. The family posted a blog asking for help to solve the crime. In response, the other yachts, instead of helping to solve the mystery, tried to barter for the treats.
“Zoo biscuits are a precious commodity on the ocean. Sure, Oreos and ginger snaps are fine. But Zoo biscuits are lapped up, especially on the Ciao Bella. We got offers of fish in exchange. But no fish is worth a Zoo biscuit, no matter how fresh,” says Mike.
The journey ends at Rio, surrounded by huge volcanic cliffs clustered with mansions. The statue, Christ the Redeemer, stands out on the horizon. It might not have been the first place prize for the Robinsons but their trip was a family vacation like no other.