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Home > Editorials > Captains of Ships – Colin Richardson

Captains of Ships – Colin Richardson

Although born in Liverpool, Colin spent most of his formative years in Simon’s Town, home to the South African Navy’s largest base and around 3,000 cheeky penguins.  His father joined-up in 1975, becoming the official Navy artist, while his mother worked at their Waterfall Barracks.

Colin also felt the lure of the sea and, from a young age, was a pretty decent dinghy sailor.  Keel boats came next, and Colin was rather handy with them too.  It therefore came as no surprise that Colin’s first job was an apprentice with sailmakers Doyle, going fulltime when he left school.

Colin picks up his tale:  “One day, the owner of the loft strode in and queried who had a skipper’s ticket.  Out of 30 or so, only two of us did.  Apparently, the boat we were working on had to leave the country by Friday or they wouldn’t be able to exploit a tax loophole.  Having never driven anything bigger than 30 foot, I found myself skippering a 72-footer across the Atlantic, from Cape Town to Fortaleza – I was 18.

“Except me, everyone onboard was Italian and none were very good sailors.  It took me to the limit of my skillset, but I was so naïve and immature that I never questioned my abilities.  Everyone got to Brazil safely and, now speaking fluent Italian, I headed back to South Africa in time for the 1988 Cape Town to Lisbon Race.

“I was navigator for 50-foot sloop Dunkelly, no mean feat in an era of sextants and paper charts.  After Portugal, we took her to Hamble.  I sailed up The Solent in late March, kitted out in southern hemisphere gear, chilled to the bone, and thought, ‘what a sh1thole’ – ironic, as I now live on that river.

“I fell over South African sailor John Martin who was gearing up for the single-handed round-the-world BOC Challenge, starting and finishing in Newport Rhode Island via Cape Town, Sydney and Punta del Este.  He needed shore crew, I was a sailmaker, so I took a job with him in Plymouth, before travelling to the US for the start.  John led that race – until he collided with an iceberg.

“I returned to Cape Town in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was released, and took back my old job with Doyle.  Before long, a past decision came back to haunt me and I was inconveniently arrested for failing to complete compulsory national service.  My punishment was a spell inside Wynberg military correctional facility in the company of nut jobs, religious objectors, homosexuals, and guys who didn’t embrace apartheid and simply couldn’t be assed – like me.

“By way of background, at the age of 16 all white South African males were issued with call-up papers.  I planned to do as little service as possible and, once I’d finished high school, join the South African Navy as an officer cadet.  This way I could serve for four years, gain a bridge watchkeeper’s ticket, leave, and never have to report again.  The alternative was two years’ service, followed by 30 days annually for ten years – no way.  All was fine, my application was accepted, and then I received a letter saying, as I had been born in the UK, I’d have to do the two years’ statutory service before the four years’ as an officer cadet – so I never bothered.

“Having falsely claimed I never received the call-up papers, the judge let me out of prison on condition that I would immediately fulfil my conscription duty – I didn’t.  I buggered off to the States, effectively dodging the army twice.  Thankfully, by 1994 the apartheid system was put to an end and it was safe for me to return to South Africa.

“So, in 1992 I found myself across The Pond working for Halsey Sails, building America’s Cup sails for America³, Team New Zealand and Ville de ParisAmerica³ won.  And then, in January 1993, I dived into my first Cape Town to Rio Race, this time as bowman on 75-foot Parker Pens – we came second by about three hours.

“In the meantime, I’d applied to the British Sailing Team to take part in the Whitbread Round the World Race on board Volvo Ocean 60 Reebok/Dolphin.  The trials were in Hamble at the end of January – it was bloody freezing again – and there were 60 of us trying for 12 places.  They narrowed it down to 20 or 30, myself included, and then ran out of money.

“The Spanish team, sponsored by Fortuna cigarettes, wanted British Olympian Lawrie Smith to skipper their boat.  Lawrie, along with his core sailing crew, cherry-picked two guys from the beleaguered Reebok/Dolphin team to switch sides – I was one of them, the other was Toby Isles.  It was all a bit hush hush.  The existing Spanish crew didn’t know they were going to be fired, so it was rather embarrassing when a bunch of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans and Brits rocked up in Puerto Portals, stole their jobs, and sailed Fortuna back to England.

“In a further twist, Reebok/Dolphin secured funding, so Toby and I jumped back to Team UK.  I did all six legs of the Round the World, it was fantastic.  Upon return, we celebrated at The Square Rigger pub in Hamble.  I met a nice intensive care nurse called Charlotte, and we developed a sweet platonic relationship.

“1995 saw my second bite at the Cape Town to Rio Race, co-skipper on 65-foot Merlin, and then back to Halsey Sails for another America’s Cup, making sails for Young America, Tag Heuer Challenge and Team Dennis Conner.  This time we didn’t win, New Zealand’s Black Magic took the title.

“I sensed it was time to get out of sailmaking, the work wasn’t consistent and, while my day rate could reach 200USD, superyacht crew were regularly commanding more.  I observed them having a lovely time, while not doing too much dangerous offshore racing, so I quietly started doing my tickets in Southampton, upgrading my less-widely-accepted South African ones.

“As a freelancer, I got to sail with Halsey clients and Doyle clients, and the latter led me to an 80-footer sponsored by Swedish nicotine replacement product Nicorette.  They were getting set for the Whitbread Round the World Race alongside Merit Cup, sponsored by American cigarette brand Merit – oh the irony.  Nobody on Merit Cup seemed to smoke, but most of Nicorette did, so we’d smoke their freebie fags.  With a certain air of inevitability, we appeared in the daily Svenska Dagbladet puffing on ciggies in our Nicorette uniforms.  We nearly got fired, but managed to cling on for almost a year – winning a number of regattas.

“My next adventure came by way of a soon-to-be-decorated Dutch sailor I’d met while sailing for David Kong at the CORUM Cup in Hong Kong – a young Piet van Nieuwenhuijzen.  He tipped the wink that there was a place for me to trial with the Dutch Sailing Team as they prepared Volvo Ocean 60 Brunel Sunergy for the 1997 Whitbread – I got accepted as one of the 12 race crew.

“Six months later, I got a phone call from my parents in South Africa, apparently my mortgage wasn’t being paid.  I strolled into my employer’s office and innocently queried as to whether they may have incorrect bank details for me?  Weeks later, my father rang, the mortgage was still in arrears.  I then witnessed a conversation between the Team and Quantum Sails, they wouldn’t deliver the next half-a-million-euros-worth of sails until the first half-a-million-euros-worth was paid.  The penny dropped.  It wasn’t a bank error.  I just wasn’t being paid.  I blew up at my boss and stormed out.  I wasn’t doing a potentially dangerous 120-day race on an underfunded boat for no reward – they came second to last.

“I flew back to Cape Town to act as shore crew for rivals Swedish Match, and David Kong got in touch once more.  Would I help him with his X-48 cruiser-racer currently in build in Denmark?  I flew to Denmark for a few weeks, then Hong Kong for a few months, and ended up staying eight years.  During that time he bought, sold, or built, six or so boats, and we raced in the East Asian sailing circuit, often winning – not that it was particularly competitive.  Having been on-off single for a number of years, embracing the local Hong Kong culture shall we say, I also started winning in my private life.  Charlotte and I attended a mutual friend’s wedding in 2000 – platonic became romantic.  

“David’s last boat, carbon-fibre Reichel/Pugh 78 Amity, was built in Cape Town, and I took her on a couple of transats interspersed with an eight-month Caribbean season.  Charlotte worked flat-out at the NHS to allow her to take extended leave and join me on Amity.  One such visit, we spent time in Saint Martin, before flying to Cape Town via San Juan Puerto Rico and London.  My grand plan was to get engaged in Cape Town.

“Queuing at separate US immigration booths, Charlotte sailed through, but my visa had expired and the jobsworth official wouldn’t allow me through under the Visa Waiver Program.  There was a standoff, I was deported back to Saint Martin.  I had my mobile, Charlotte didn’t, so she had no clue where I’d vanished to.  She boarded the connecting flight to London with her head in a spin.  My unscheduled return flight landed in Saint Martin around 2pm and the Air France flight to London via Paris departed at 5pm – this was the hideously expensive option, hence our San Juan Plan A.  I shelled out for a ticket and landed in London a few hours after Charlotte, she was seriously pissed off.  I also had a nice stamp in my passport saying I’d been ‘refused entry’ to the US – to this day I still struggle to enter the States.

“In London, Charlotte’s mother clandestinely handed me a cheap ring from her jewellery box.  I had a size guide for the engagement ring.  On terra firma in Cape Town, I made my excuses and met with a friend of a friend who was a diamond dealer.  I arrived at the appointed RV point, on the V&A Waterfront, and was herded into the back of a minivan by a man with a machine gun – so far, so scary.  The dealer opened case after case of diamonds and I picked one.  I then walked into nearby Olga Design Studio with the gemstone and the cheap ring and was told the finished article would be ready in a week.  Charlotte gave me the third degree.  Where the hell had I been all day?  Was I lying to her?  She sulked. 

“The moment arrived.  We dined at the iconic Mount Nelson Hotel, the finest establishment in Cape Town – so fancy that Tiger Woods was two tables away.  As arranged, the waiter pulled the cloche off Charlotte’s starter with a flourish, revealing the glittering ring beneath.  I got on one knee, she cried, there was rapturous applause, and we went for a big night out on the tiles to celebrate.  The next morning, the headlines read:  ‘Tiger Woods gets engaged to Swedish girlfriend Elin Nordegren at Mount Nelson Hotel’.  So wrapped up were we in our own special moment, we hadn’t even noticed. 

“That same year, we acquired a farm in Tulbagh, in the Winelands of the Western Cape.  The idea was to pick up an acre or two, plant some vines and olive trees, a bit of fun.  We found an old burnt down apricot farm and fell in love – it was 34 hectares.  We’d only buy this behemoth if we could get a 100% mortgage – we could, so we did.

“Surrounded by wine farms, including one owned by Marine Inspirations’ Phil Wade, we gradually planted our Shiraz and winded up producing 6,000 bottles a year.  We also planted two hectares of olives, which gradually produced 10,000 litres of extra virgin oil each year and helped enormously with the finances.  We never lived at the farm, so our staff stayed rent-free in the cottages in return for looking after the estate and acting as security.  Our high moment was winning a blind tasting against a Château Lynch-Bages at the 2015 Monaco Yacht Show but, in general, it was hard work to trade the wine at the right price, so we sold up in 2017.  But I am pleased we had the experience.

“I left Amity in 2004 as the boss simply didn’t have a boat big enough for me to maintain the Class IV ticket I’d earned back in 2000.  So I found myself working for a manipulative American chap on 130-foot Perini Navi Gitana – I was fired within the year.

“The plan was to race on TP52 Cristabella, but she blew over in a hurricane in Palma and was a write-off.  It was summer 2004, I intended to lie on my couch at home in Hamble and watch the entire Athens Olympics uninterrupted.  The phone went, it was Neil Emmott from Superyacht Sales and Charter, 52-metre Swedeship Passion was looking for a captain – was I interested?  I ditched the TV remote, had a coffee with the American owner, and joined my first ever motorboat on the premise that I could take leave a few months after I joined to get married – we had a deal.

“We started in Antigua, did a Caribbean and Med season, then I took Passion through the Panama Canal ready for a Galapagos cruise.  At this point I flew to Cape Town, had my stag do with a bus-full of mates, collapsed from kidney pain, got diagnosed with alcohol poisoning and kidney stones, hospitalised for two days, and released the day before the wedding.  Charlotte was distinctly unimpressed.  I flew back and did the Galapagos, returned to Jamaica to collect the jetskis that we were barred from taking to the national park, and memorably lost the entire transom in the swell. 

“I had a great team on Passion.  Jumping from five or six crew to 14 requires a whole change of management style, but my previous owner in Hong Kong had been a real stickler and honed me into a more mature and professional captain.  The interior crew looked after me well, and would do a nice guest fold-down service with champagne and rose petals each time my wife arrived.  In December 2008, Charlotte flew into Saint Martin and shouted ‘I’m f+cking pregnant’ in front of the assembled arrivals crowd.  A few months later, I shared the news with my crew.  Of course, the interior team already knew, Charlotte hadn’t touched the champagne for weeks.  Marcus was born in July 2008, his sister Zara a few years later in 2011 – we named a Shiraz vintage after each.

“I stayed with Passion for seven years but, with a young family, wanted rotation – sadly my owners didn’t.  A former Whitbread teammate, Tim Powell, popped up and said that the owner of Rán Racing Sailing Team wanted to buy a Feadship – would I give him a bit of independent advice?  In 2012, I hooked up with the Swedish billionaire and his impressive wife and, along with expert help from Neil Emmott, our journey led us to 53-metre Mirage– formerly Elisabeth F.  He asked if I’d be his captain – only if I could have the rotation I longed for.  We came to a compromise, year one fulltime, and there onwards two weeks on, two weeks off, with our chosen co-captain Steve Emmerich.  Life has more or less followed that pattern ever since.

Mirage acts as a mothership for Rán Racing Sailing Team, so we have an unusual number of guest cabins, eight in fact, to host the race crew.  I don’t get involved in the racing, I am far too old for that, although I can at least claim that I was one of the first guys to sail the 72-foot mini-maxi Ran when she launched in 2009 – albeit under strict instructions from the aforementioned Tim to ‘stand at the back and not f+cking touch anything’.

“My current employer is a wonderful man, he’s very kind, has kept us all on full pay throughout the pandemic, and inspires great respect and loyalty from his crew.  We lost our chief stew of six years recently, but only because she went to work for them at their Swedish home.

“Since I became a father, my number one priority is my family, and to be a good parent.  I have no aspirations to run a 90 metre.  A boat like the one co-captain Steve was on for 18 years, 105-metre Lady Moura, has 65 crew.  Imagine?!  Not for me.  And, with a Med-based yacht, I get to head home to Warsash for the winter.  Our house is a bit of a doer-upper, a non-stop job list, and we have no less than 13 oak trees in the garden.  Guess what Charlotte bought me for my 50th– a leaf blower…”

By Sarah Forge