On 19 December 2020, I undertook a solo row from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, in support of the environment and climate change. The South Atlantic crossing saw me row completely unassisted for 71 days, over approximately 7200km or 4000nm, in often treacherous and unpredictable weather and sea conditions.

I reached first land at Buzios, on 27 February 2020, and then rowed onto Cabo Frio just outside Rio de Janeiro, on 28 February 2021. The Brazilians gave me a hero’s welcome, with a flotilla of boats accompanying me to the finish at the original Rio de Janeiro Yacht Club. I was overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality of the nation, and believe that my row contributed to building stronger ties between our countries.

In completing the crossing, I set a record as the first South African to row the south transatlantic route alone and unsupported by any safety craft, and two world records for the fastest and the furtherest solo transatlantic row.

I wanted to use the challenge to spotlight the impact of fossil fuels and irresponsible consumerism on the planet which will be the future home of our children and future generations. I also wanted to highlight that renewable energies are essential to building a sustainable future.

My boat was named “Ratel” which is Afrikaans for honey badger, an animal known for its courage and tenacity. I built the boat almost singlehandedly. The current norm is for ocean rowing boats to be built from marine plywood or in a fibreglass and epoxy mould. Ratel differs from this in that she is built on a design by Phil Morrison using closed cell foam laid up with fibreglass and epoxy resin.

The specific design incorporates honey comb construction principles which ultimately makes it very strong when considering it is super light. Before I started fitting hatches and equipment I could lift and turn Ratel by myself with one end on the cradle. With all equipment, spares and food loaded, she weighed a maximum of 550kg. With a length of 6.5m and beam of 1.62m she is super light.

To operate my systems I had 2 x 12V batteries connected in parallel with a combined 200aH capacity. These are deep cycle batteries suited for charging with solar panels. I chose Solbian flexible solar panels because of their good track record on yachts and boats. With a peak capacity of 276 watts at 46 volts, they deliver maximum half of that owing to be positioned at various angles to cater for morning, midday and afternoon sun. They consistently delivered even on overcast days and as such my batteries were fully charged every day at sunset.

Fitted onboard Ratel was a desalinator to provide fresh water. The Eco Systems Splash unit can make 16l of fresh water per hour. It runs of 12 volts and requires a 16amp supply.

Besides the desalinator my most important unit to be fitted was my VHF radio equipped with a GPS, AIS and DSC facility. The AIS allowed me to get early warning of ships in my vicinity whilst the DSC allowed me to communicate with them similar to as by SMS. I was able to call ships on normal maritime channels.

Ratel was fitted with 3 electric bilge pumps and a manual hand bilge pump in the unlikely event of a flood, and a tiller pilot. Other minor systems included cabin and external lights, as well as navigation lights. To charge my satellite phones I installed various connection points that allows for USB or connection by lighter socket. I had a limited 220 V requirement which is powered through an inverter. My total daily power consumption was 115aH, excluding the tiller pilot which I considered a nice to have. The onboard solar system was capable of delivering double the daily requirement. My power allocation was managed by a Victron BlueSolar charge controller.

With consideration of maritime safety, Ratel was designed and constructed like a life boat so that, should she roll over, she would self right. During the extreme weather that I experienced , she proved to be very seaworthy. At no stage did I fear that she would roll over. I estimated that the construction process would take maximum 9 months. In the end, owing to Covid delays it took 1 year.

I am fortunate that all the parts and components that made up Ratel were sponsored. This included a 4 person compact NovaMarine life raft, life vest, EPIRB and Parachute anchors. It is difficult to give a breakdown of the cost on an itemized basis, suffice to say that project budget was close to R500 000. Finally, for a project like this one should also consider the value added by a Shore Support Team, without whom a row like this would not be possible. I was in daily contact with my team who comprised of a Team Manager, Rowing Technical Advisor, Weather Man, Weather Router a Weather Analyst and a Media/PR Manager. Each one played a significant and crucial role.

Juwi Renewable Energies provided the financial backing for the critical equipment such as solar panels, my water maker, and the VHF and satellite Communications equipment. NovaMarine provided all my safety equipment such as a life raft, life vest and an EPIRB as well as the data for my satellite communications. Aerontec provided closed cell foam and much needed guidance. Saertex provided the fibreglass and Bulwark the epoxy. High density nutritional products were supplied by Genesis Nutritional Products whilst Spar supplied a range of foods from muesli to chocolates. Safety satellite tracking is done by Fleetmon who continuously monitors my position. Stormgeo provides weather monitoring software and access to weather data. Bondi Blu provided UV protective Eyewear and Tuckers Tackle fishing gear should the need arise for more food. Ratel was decorated by Boock Sign writers and the Simon’s Town Marina Company and Falsebay Yacht Club provided mooring and docking facilities. And for those moments when comfort is required, Dirkie Condensed milk provided a vital addition to my much loved cup of filter coffee.

Zirk Botha on preparing for Row2Rio2020
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