Written by Jill Southwood, Photos by Megan Beauchemin
Living in landlocked Switzerland, keeping his boat in the south of England, was just one of the enormous challenges that were to face Ralph on this epic journey.
He has owned Ntombifuti since 2003. The name means “The Other Mistress”. She was built in 1983 specifically for the 1984 OSTAR race. He has sailed extensively around the Mediterranean Sea, from Barcelona to Croatia and Venice, and many places in between. It was on his return journey to England that the idea of singlehanded racing began to formulate in his mind. With all sorts of problems he put into Albufeira for repairs but his friend, who was sailing with him, was forced to return home leaving Ralph alone with his boat. Why not have a go at singlehanded sailing and bring the boat home himself?
He was soon back in Britain, at Cowes, having made a fair crossing of the Bay of Biscay and up the English Channel.This voyage served as a qualifier for the Azores and Back Race. Not being a racing man, this was to be his first race singlehanded! This was a comfortable race for him. It encouraged him to take on his even greater challenge – the OSTAR. By completing the AZAB he had now qualified for the OSTAR!
This would turn out to be something totally different and unimaginably hard.
He enjoyed a good start in Plymouth crossing the start line amongst several other boats. He had rounded the Eddystone Lighthouse, and was heading toward The Lizard near Falmouth, when the autopilot started playing up and steering him off his set course. Water also leaked in from somewhere and was soon above the bottom boards. This was a disaster in the making after Ralph had taken over 18 months to prepare the boat to the best of his ability. This in itself had not been easy, living so far away from her, and doing all the work himself.
Then the engine began to make a worrying sound – the fresh water pump was not working properly. After two days he realised he could not carry out repairs himself so he took the agonizing decision to turn back towards France and the nearest large port of Brest. He had to have engine power for all the electronics on board and had no alternative wind vane for self steering. At around 0300 hrs the engine completely failed and the French Navy came to his rescue. They towed Ntombifuti into Brest. This was to be a huge setback and he was utterly downcast. He had to wait days for parts to arrive for the autopilot, bilge pumps and engine. He was on the verge of giving up all together but his friend Uwe Röttgering (OSTAR competitor in 2009) encouraged him to carry on.
At last after six days he was away again and out into the Atlantic. However, the rest of the fleet was hundreds of miles away. He was very alone. There was still a chance he could catch Wind of Lorne and possibly even Suomi Kudu if all went well. His race would become more of an ocean passage than a race but his friends kept urging him on. Soon he was optimistic again. Half way across the Atlantic Ocean he caught up and overtook Wind of Lorne. This really spurred him on but realistically Suomi Kudu was too far ahead to catch.
When nearing Newfoundland he lost his internet connection. He suffered increasing back pain clambering around the boat like a monkey on all fours. He felt so isolated and alone and the weather was relentless in its dreadfulness. It was cold, wet and foggy. The wind was constantly against him. Only once did he manage to use his astronavigation skills in the night sky. Still he pressed on finding an inner strength he did not know he had. This was the agony and the ecstasy of ocean racing!
He had seen no life at all since leaving France but suddenly there was a school of dolphins, a good omen, which raised his spirits. This tiny event made an enormous difference in such dire circumstances.
He was off the Nantucket shoals when he managed to make radio contact with Asia Pajkowska aboard Cabrio 2 on her way home to Poland. Asia had sailed Ntombifuti in OSTAR 2000. It was really good to chat to someone…. anyone just for a few minutes.
At last he was around Nantucket Island and a fabulous stretch to the finish followed. This was the best sail of the entire journey, skimming along on a fast reach at 8 knots!
After 35 days and 8 hours since the start in Plymouth, but only 27 days and 11 hours after leaving Brest, he was over the line at Castle Hill, Newport, Rhode Island.
It had been a monumental achievement in only his second race ever! It had been a hugely testing experience which brought out every emotion possible in a normally very calm and mild mannered man. He had made it and was tremendously happy. He had done it all completely alone.
He is the FIRST Swiss German to have completed an OSTAR and the FIRST amateur Swiss to have completed this Corinthian race in a monohull.
Would he do it again? Yes, maybe, and aim to have a better race next time!
Meanwhile his adventure continues. Ralph is soon sailing for Greenland where a friend will join him to form a rope party in order to undertake a few first ascents of the granite mountains of South Greenland.