Ngalawa Cup - The Pioneer Report

“It’s far more physical and demanding than we predicted and we are chuffed about that.”
— Dylan, Race Chief

In July, we pioneered a boat race. Holy smoking sails, it was fantastic. And a bit hairy. We called it Adventure 9 and the second edition launches in January. We since decided Adventure 9 is a shit name so we renamed it 'Ngalawa Cup. Which is  only slightly better.

We've sent people across the earth in all manner of vehicles.  For some time, we had been pondering the worlds oceans but we needed a suitably anarchic vehicle. One thats a bit difficult but isn't too boring. One that doesn't need a team of ten thousand or acres of money trees.

Then we heard about Ngalawas. Made from a hollowed out mango tree, it sounded suitably nuts. No space for storage, they come with a canvas sail that dries nice and slowly and a set of outriggers lashed on with string. 

There is a rumour that NASA is trying to replicate the material that their testicles are made from.
— Dylan, Race Chief

A fishing vessel used by the Swahili, it's an ideal vehicle for fair-weather sailing close to shore. So we reckoned a multi-day race across open ocean should be appropriately taxing. 

We had 25 pioneers willing to accept the challenge. The cream of an impeccable crop, we selected our pioneers from across the globe for their sailing and survival skills. Once accepted, our pioneers assembled in Tanzania in July 2015 for two days of training before they were released into the Indian Ocean. 

We pointed north and hoped for the best. Adventure 9 proved a bit harder than we thought.

One of those pioneers was James West. He was our everyman.  Could anyone take on the Adventurists Boat Race?

He described his own sailing experience as 'minimal.' Lucky for him, he went to the 'Adventurists - find a team mate page' which fixed him up with a rather qualified skipper and teammate. We asked him how he got on.

How do you describe Adventure 9 now?

It was definitely the highlight of my year. It was fantastic really.

The whole duration of the 10 days I kept saying 'get me off this thing. I don't want to be doing this.' And then as soon as it was finished, it became: 'Oh. My life is so boring now. Now I'm not risking my life everyday. What happens now then?'

So, you miss it?

I miss it. I'd much rather be doing that than a Monday. 

If I try and explain it to people no-one really gets it.  You get on a raft thing and you just go.  We didn't even know what to expect before we went. We'd gone out a few days before the race and bought a lot of stuff, but then we lost it all on the first day and had to do the race without it. I'd got a chicken and we lost that. RIP Willoughby.  

You lost a chicken? Balls. 

Yeah. Our boat capsized. I was hugging it the boat, clinging on for dear life - while Pelayo was swimming round trying to get all our bits and pieces which had ended up everywhere. The first thing he went for was the chicken floating in the cage.  I was holding on to the algae bottom of the hull with this chicken just looking at me in these quite big waves. He went off to get something else. I was struggling to hold on to the boat and I thought 'I'm going to die...' and yeah, I let go. The chicken copped it. That was day one.

We didn't really sleep much that night. We stayed up late doing repairs and we had to catch the high tide at 4am. But because you couldn't sail until sunrise, we just paddled out over the reef and waited. On this boat that had just been repaired.

I kept thinking: this is so stupid. We just nearly died in this thing and we've paddled out in it, in the middle of the night, into the open ocean. But then the sun came up and we'd got over the reef at the right time, so we carried on. It was about midday when we nearly lost one of the outriggers but by then, we were beginning to learn something about the boat. We just jumped into the water in the middle of the ocean to tie it all back together.

That was when we got to the first island. We expected that we'd be the last people there by millions of miles but then we found another three teams shipped up there and another team was round the other side of the island. We talked to everyone and i just heard about boats sinking, boats capsizing and outriggers coming off. It had gone from a race to everyone just surviving. That night was incredible.  

We had a bit of a bonfire on the beach, telling stories and wrapping bits of rubbish rope around wood. The next day, we headed out to meet again at the next island.

Did any of those other people turn up?

No! So clearly they had a bad day. We weren't worried. We just thought "they'll be shipwrecked somewhere." We had our own issues to worry about. We talked to the locals about getting our boat fixed and that day went to the other end of the island. We did some scuba diving, watched turtles hatching on a beach as some of the other teams caught up with us. I felt like I was on holiday suddenly!

It was the day after that that was really bad. 

The next day, the wind had really got up. Even the fisherman, they said in swahili, don't go out. In hindsight we shouldn't have gone out.

Even the fishermen, they said in Swahili, “don’t go out.”
They just looked at us then and said “good luck.”

We were fine for the first half an hour, then our boom snapped, and then the sail went. We called the rescue boat and carried on with half a sail. They found us, replaced the sail which was fine until the new one snapped too.  We pulled the sail down, strapped the old boom to the new one. Another hour and that had snapped again, plus our outrigger was coming off.

By this time it was getting quite late in the day.  Every time you get an issue, it takes you about an hour to repair it all. and your boat's just wobbling up and down in the sea which loosens all the lashings. As you wait on the repair, everything gets exponentially worse. We were probably about a mile away from shore and miles from our destination.

We were exhausted. The waves were ridiculously high: when you were at the bottom, all you could see was a wall of water all around you. When you were on top of the wave, you were just looking down, getting ready to fall. 

By a stoke of luck, one wave smacked against our boat at exactly the right time, popped the outrigger straight back on. We started to go, but we had a rope tied that we shouldn't have and it capsized again. We were exhausted by this point and called the rescue boat. You could still see the shore - about an hour away.

That's when we saw the ferry. We had drifted off course into the shipping channel and it was coming towards us. We hoisted the red bucket to the top of the mast and waved it around as much as possible, the ferry had to change direction to go round us. 

That’s when we saw the ferry. It was coming towards us.

They waved at us to come aboard.  I was all ready to go but Dag, he wouldn't abandon his ship. That would be us out of the race. There were a lot of expletives at the time. We hadn't heard anything from the race team yet so we had no idea if anyone knew we were there.

Bleak. We're hoping that was the worst bit? 

This was the route taken by James' team, Drowning Duo and Sharkbait.

Yeah. That was the lowest point of the trip. By the time we were picked up, my legs were numb. I couldn't move. We got back to the place where we where all staying about 4am.  Our hosts had stayed up and cooked us a dinner. It was the most beautiful dinner I ever had. 

Did you consider dropping out?

I was convinced then that I would never go back. But then we had a day off. We talked to everyone else and realised everyone's having issues. You just think - I'm not going to be the one to bow down. I'm going to do it.

So, out we went again. We had a fantastic final day's sail. That day, that was a beautiful day's sail. 


What about your sailing experience? You hadn't sailed before? 

Not really. Done a bit in a dingy on a lake. Then a little course on a yacht in Australia. That was about it.

What made you sign up for Adventure 9?

Well I quite enjoyed sailing. I'd been following you guys for a little while and as soon as I heard about Adventure 9, before I even knew what it was, I had sort of decided I was going to do it. I like the idea of something new and different and challenging and stupid.  None of my friends were up for it, so i just went on the find a teammate page on facebook and Dag sent me a message. It all happened after that. We met once in Norway and then we flew to Tanzania. 

If someone is in your shoes, not a lot of sailing experience, what would you say to them? 

Do it. Its the its the best lesson you will ever learn in sailing. You learn quick. But you've got to go with someone who does know what they're doing. 

Also, these boats aren't like any other boats. Everything we thought we did right, ended up going wrong.  We tried to race the boat. you can't do that, they just fall apart. They don't work like normal boats.

You can't race them, you've got to nurse them. During those two training days, listen to what the local captains are saying. 

So if you had the chance to sail again this weekend in an Ngalawa, would you do it? 

[laughs] No! It was just a fantastic thing to do. But it would never be the same. 


A newly repaired stack of stubborn little boats are ready for their new custodians. 

We've fitted them with custom designed "inflatable sausages" which will bring the boats to the waterline when they capsize so teams will be better able to right it themselves. The lashings on the spars have been replaced with brand-new imported braid and we've got new sheet rope to save sailors hands from nylon induced blisters. 

The January race the reverse route to July. That means new sailing times different anchoring spots. A completely different race.

We're anticipating a spine tingling race.

You can follow the sailors here on the blog.

Perhaps you fancy yourself a sailor. There are still limited spaces in July 2016.