The Governor’s Cup Yacht Race is a downwind 1,750 nautical mile ocean yacht race and is slated to be an entry on many sailors’ ‘bucket lists’. First taking place in 1996, the Governor’s Cup Race is a bi-annual event starting from False Bay Yacht Club in the quaint naval town of Simon’s Town, South Africa, finishing in Jamestown, St Helena – one of the most remote destinations in the world and currently only accessible by one of the last operating Royal Mail Ships, the RMS St Helena.
Billy Leisegang - Governor’s Cup Yacht Race
We take five minutes to catch up with Billy Leisegang, Principal Race Officer and General Manager of False Bay Yacht Club, organisers of the Governor’s Cup Yacht Race...
Describe your role as Principal Race Officer of the Governor’s Cup Race
I and my team are responsible for making sure that yachts are fully prepared for the race and its challenges. Our work starts from the time we formally publish the ‘Notice of Race’ to the time the competitors arrive back to Cape Town on the mail ship, RMS St Helena.
During the race our job is to monitor progress of the fleet and report back to Race Control back at False Bay Yacht Club, where the website is updated, including live tracking of each yacht’s progress.
On arriving in St Helena we time the yachts over the line and calculate handicap results. We also ensure that each yacht is welcomed by our team on the St Helena Dive Club’s Boat with a gift of champagne and beers!
During their stay on the island, we provide support for the competitors and supporters and St Helena Yacht Club, together with the Islanders, provide a full programme of entertainment. We also provide support during the loading of yachts on to the RMS for the return voyage and the delivery of yachts, crews and supporters back to South Africa.
How long have you been sailing?
I have been sailing for over 50 years, since I was a boy. I have always been a competitive sailor and have achieved Provincial and National (Springbok) colours for ocean racing. Apart from sailing regularly and participating in local and international events, I have been an active committee member throughout my sailing life and have served on the Governor’s Cup Organising Committee since 2002.
Having taken early retirement from the retail world, I was employed by False Bay Yacht Club in April 2010 as Sailing and Amenities Manager before becoming General Manager in January 2011 – the perfect position for my sailing passion. It really is a dream come true – working in a wonderful environment with wonderful people, an incredible setting and family atmosphere, and the best Club in the world!
How would you position the Governor’s Cup Yacht Race?
Whilst the race could be compared to events like the Newport to Bermuda downwind dash, the Sydney to Hobart race, or the longer Cape to Rio Race, it is truly unique in that it is an event with ‘three holidays in one’.
There’s the downwind dash from Simon’s Town to the South Atlantic Island of St Helena with all the excitement of surfing down the huge Atlantic rollers, whilst loved ones sail on the RMS St Helena where they’ll arrive after Christmas at sea to welcome you with champagne and cold beers! Then there’s the holiday in paradise on St Helena with the welcome and inclusion in Islander life. And finally there’s the five star return voyage on the RMS St Helena, which the majority of the participating sailors and their yachts are booked on to return to Cape Town. This is five nights of fun and laughter, the best of food, plus days and nights filled with traditional mail ship deck games and entertainment.
Have you competed in the race yourself?
I have taken part in the race four times on our family yacht ‘Our Dianne’ and have been awarded the Governor’s Cup overall handicap trophy three times, with overall line honours in the fourth race. We even won a year’s supply of Peroni beer in the 2010 event!
The whole family has been part of the race, with the live ‘Dianne’ (my wife) and eldest daughter, Donna, as supporters and with my son, Riàn, co-skippering in all four races, together with my youngest daughter, Terry, co-skippering in the 2002 race.
In addition to the race, Dianne and I also went to St Helena in 2003 for the well known 'Festival of Running'
Who takes part in the Governor’s Cup?
People from all walks of life enter the Governor’s Cup, from wealthy executives to those that have to raid the piggy bank – but all are equal on the playing field of the sea! Some sail by the seat of their pants and some use expensive and advanced technology.
This year we have over 90 people participating, from a single handed racer in the smallest entry boat, to a Scout Association youth crew, family cruising boats, a folding trimaran competing with the fast downwind racing yachts and a yacht bringing Saints (as those from St Helena are affectionately known) back home.
With such a variety of yachts entering the race, how is the winner decided?
The Bellows Line Honours Tray is awarded to the first racing yacht to cross the finish line, with the Governor’s Cup being presented to the first placed racing monohull on handicap. Rally trophies are also awarded for cruiser mono and multi-hulls, which take advantage of being allowed to motor for 100 miles to get them to the prize giving on time. There are a further five trophies for various awards including the Ambrose Family Cup, three Taylor Trophies and the wooden boat for the first FBYC yacht on handicap.
The handicap system works on multiplying a carefully calculated yacht performance time correction factor to each yacht’s finishing time, with the yacht with the lowest corrected time being declared the winner.
What is the most challenging part of the race?
The organisation of the race is certainly the most challenging part. It has taken a full committee a year of hard work to plan and organise the entire event and even then how we manage to get everything done in time, no-one knows! Sponsorship is another huge challenge and we thank all those that have contributed to the race and individual entrants.
In terms of the race itself, the most challenging part is keeping the yacht sailing to its full potential. A yacht such as the one I race, ‘Our Dianne’, can surf down an Atlantic roller at speeds in excess of 20 knots (37 km per hour or 23 miles per hour). You can then be almost becalmed and have to concentrate for hours to gain every little advantage over competitors.
How do you ensure competitor’s safety during the race?
We work with South African Sailing, the controlling body of sailing in South Africa, who give us 'Controlled Event' status after we have satisfied them of adequate safety precautions. We have a nominated 'sweep boat', which has a powerful engine and the equipment required to communicate and respond to emergencies. All yachts entering the race are required to be equipped with either a long range UHF (Ultra High Frequency/Single Side Band) two way communication radio or a Satphone, a short range VHF (Very High Frequency) two way communication radio and an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) which, when activated, allows search and rescue to locate the yacht or the crew if they have deployed their life raft and abandoned the yacht. All yachts and crew have to be certified to go offshore with a Yachtmaster (or two Coastal) skipper and Category A Safety Certificate, and yachts are required to complete a 200 mile shake down voyage. They are also inspected immediately before the race to ensure that they are adequately prepared and provisioned for the voyage.
During the race, Race Control work with the local and International safety and reaction authorities, which are alerted and deployed in the event of an emergency. There are three government or semi-government departments involved, Cape Town Radio, MRCC (Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center) and ICASA (licensing authority).
And the final safety precaution is the provision of tracking the fleet, which can be activated in the event of a crisis. Tracking has the added benefit of being displayed live on the website, allowing supporters, media and race organisers to follow the progress of the fleet.
What happens on St Helena once the race has finished?
Each yacht is greeted at the finish line and presented with a welcome pack of champagne and beer, and the Governor of St Helena personally greets as many yachts as possible. Then the 10 day party begins with hikes, catch ups and lots of planned entertainment!
St Helena is not the usual Island destination, which is what we love about it. There are no casinos or high-rise hotels with nightclubs and folk are seldom seen dressed up to the nines. Daytime activities include scuba or snorkel diving amongst the beautiful and plentiful fish; dolphin trips; beautiful hikes and trails; scenic drives encompassing barren volcanic desert and subtropical rain forest; historical tours including Napoleon’s residence and tomb; climbing the 699 steps of Jacobs ladder; and no stay is complete without a visit to see Jonathan – the 170+ year old tortoise!
What do you think is the best part of the race?
I love absolutely everything about the race! Being part of the organising committee, the lead up to the race, which starts with Saints sharing our home; the race itself with all the fun, laughter and camaraderie between crews and competitors; the Island and its magnetic people, and the trip back on the RMS – it’s quite a sight to see the majority of competing yachts stacked on to the RMS to return to Cape Town!
With an airport due to open on St Helena in 2015 and the race now beginning to receive international awareness, how will this affect the race in future years?
Previously, St Helena, the mooring area and the RMS have proven to be able to cope with a fleet of around twenty yachts, but with an airport on the horizon, I am sure the number of entries will be easily doubled, if not tripled and we hope to see entries from countries such as the UK, Europe, the USA and South America. Future events could be extended to include special classes such as single-handed, double-handed, Superyachts, Mini-Transats and the like, with air access providing the means for competitors to return home at their convenience instead of relying on the RMS schedule.
And finally, do you wish you were competing this year?
Yes, but this time around it is my turn to put something back into this magnificent event!
Who knows, there is a potential UK family looking into the next race, so ‘Our Dianne’ may sail again? Perhaps to coincide with the opening of the airport?