Ant Steward departs Table Bay
Setting off from Table Bay

On departure he said - "If you think that I am mad then you should meet my mother".

This is the story of the incredible voyage of Anthony Steward.

He took the production plug of the TLC19 trailer sailer and turned it into a boat then sailed her around the world.

To this day he remains the only person to have accomplished a circum-navigation in an open boat. This article briefly describes that voyage, it's hardships and Ant's accomplishments.

I will have to let your imagination help you to grasp what was involved - I cannot do it justice with words.



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Anthony (Ant) Steward is a big man, both physically and in his will to overcome a challenge. Big as he is, he has circumnavigated the world in (or rather on) a rather small open boat called "Zulu Dawn" but named "NCS Challenger" for the voyage.

He had become bored with regular sailing as most of us know it. He had done extensive round the buoys racing on a variety of boats from fully crewed keelboats to single handed dinghies (he is ex South African national champion in the Finn class) as well as offshore racing and cruising. It was while sailing double handed around Cape Horn (during which trip they were dismasted) that ideas started to formulate in his mind on the ultimate sailing challenge, the only sailing feat which had not yet been accomplished.

Webb Chiles attempted a few years earlier to sail around in an open boat, a Drascombe Lugger. He did not complete the trip, finally stopping at Gibralta, if I recall correctly. He was quoted at the time as saying that only the easy part was left so it was no longer a challenge. Whatever his reasons, he left the challenge open for others such as Ant.

The boat chosen by Ant is based on the TLC 19, a very modern little production GRP trailer sailer which I designed for Nebe Boats, a local builder. Also in the original design concept was a one-off version of the boat which was to be used by another single hander, Paul Rogers, in another open boat attempt on Webb Chiles' records. A bit of history on Paul's boat is of interest because the boats are rather different despite having identical hulls.

The TLC 19 open boat of Paul Rogers
The TLC 19 open boat of Paul Rogers

In contrast to Ant's sole aim of circum-navigating, Paul was to attempt the longest non-stop passage in an open boat while also going for some speed records. He found that, with Cape Town as his start point, the only passages which qualified on distance were to Australia or Europe. He decided to head for UK as being more sensible than tempting the Southern Ocean.

Lengthy correspondence with "Nobby" Clarke (who was custodian of the records at the time) produced some surprise requirements. Nobby felt that the achievements of Webb Chiles must be protected by ensuring that it did not become easy to better them, a sentiment with which I agree although some of the resulting rules seemed a bit at odds. To this end we were not permitted to place Paul's deck at gunwhale level but had to have a bulwark of 150mm (6") height around the deck. This had the effect of considerably reducing the range of stability available and making the boat rather less safe if taking a wave on board.

My argument against this ruling was that a boat such as a Laser dinghy did not qualify as an open boat by the definition which was being applied. However, it would if we added some protection in the form of a bulwark all round. However, Webb's boat had a bulwark so we had to have one too.

What we were permitted that Webb did not have were a wet deck (self-draining cockpit) and fixed ballast keel. Those two features went a long way to giving the seworthiness necessary to take on such a voyage from our notorious waters.

The resulting boat had a single spreader masthead rig for simplicity and to keep the centre of effort low. A high aspect bulb keel of 1,5m (5'0") draft and twin transom hung rudders gave excellent performance and control.

Unfortunately, Paul's departure was very late in the year, after the normal safe cut-off time for cruising boats. He was clobbered by a front passing through four days after he left. Seasick and having left it too late to reef in deteriorating weather, he was at the mast fighting a jammed mainsail when hit by a breaking wave and capsized, the boat going upside down and staying that way.

With a self-righting range of about 110 degrees (similar to an IOR racer) his 50kg body weight was insufficient to right her and the bulwarks sucked her down so that the waves could not do the job. After 10 hours with Paul sitting on her bottom, she righted herself minus rig. Left only with a mast stump, oars and storm canvas, he continued to St Helena in mid-Atlantic under jury rig and with broken ribs.

Paul's experience gave some pointers to Ant who made some changes. Unfettered by the limitations imposed on Paul's boat, the result was a safer concept. Ant's attitude was that he was doing the trip for the challenge of it, not to break any records which Webb may have set up. In any event, he was going to set a new record, not try to break an existing one so there were no previous boats to worry about.

Ant also researched Webb Chiles' voyage carefully and found that the only really bad weather which he experienced was near Vanuatu, when he capsized and drifted for two weeks, unable to bail his flooded boat. This, backed up by Paul Rogers' experience, convinced Ant that bulwarks were dangerous. He had initially considered making his voyage in a Drascombe such as Webb's but decided that the southern route which he was to take was too dangerous for such a boat, having a far larger percentage of bad weather. With the hindsight given by his voyage, he now also feels that Webb, in saying that only the easy part remained, was forgetting the Caribbean Sea and is convinced that he would not have survived that area in a Drascombe.

Ant's boat has a heavily cambered foredeck and side decks at gunwhale level, giving a far greater range of stability. Draft was increased to 2m (6'6") and bullhorns were added to the bow to help keep the bow up when it tries to bury. The rig is a high aspect double spreader fractional arrangement with double non-overlapping roller furlers and a track for asymetrical spinnakers on the bullhorns. These mods were all of Ant's own design and show his strong racing background and the influence of the BOC boats. In fact his boat, with its plumb bow, flush deck and raked transom looks like a mini BOC boat. Ant sold everything that he owned to build his boat and budget limitations meant that he cut corners and scrounged wherever he could. This started right at the outset with the hull purchase.

He bought the plug used to build the mould for the TLC 19 trailer sailer. I was horrified when I heard what he planned to do with it because it was not built for such a voyage. The plug was very lightly built because Gerfried Nebe, the builder, intended to complete it as a very light planing dinghy with hiking bars and 3 or 4 trapeze wires for some exciting sailing on protected waters. That plan had not come to fruition and the plug lay around until Ant spotted it and snapped it up.

He had nowhere to build his boat and talked a friend into letting him do it inside his apartment. Getting it into and out of the apartment must have been an interesting exercise. Resin smells and woodwork noises in the early hours eventually led to an enforced removal to Royal Cape Yacht Club, where she spent the last couple of months before launching.

Ant put in watertight bulkheads to break the hull into small compartments, some of which were foam filled. He also built watertight storage lockers all round the cockpit for his food, clothing and VHF radio (the radio was the only electronic item on board and was powered by small solar panels at the stern). The result was a boat which was about as unsinkable as he could make it. Also on board was an Air Force type one-man liferaft given to him by a friend.

He left Cape Town amid warm farewells from hundreds of people. Many expected to never see him again and talked of his foolishness. He said that if we thought that he was mad we should get to know his mother, then we would know where he got it from. He had decided that he was sane and the rest of us were crazy for staying behind. It would have been a crowded boat if we had not.

Almost the last thing that he told the wellwishers before setting off was that he has an hereditary disease. It is a blood deficiency called Angio-neurotic Oedema and is controlled by steroids. It can incapacitate him very quickly and can kill him if left untreated. However, he was then at the age at which his father had outgrown it and was hopeful of doing the same. That did not make us think him any less crazy.

He left Cape Town in very light conditions and at a very much better time of year than did Paul Rogers, not that it made much difference. He was also clobbered, this time five days out of Cape Town and capsized not much further out than Paul was. With a better range of stability, NCS Challenger righted herself immediately and took off at speed with Ant in the water, luckily attached by a harness line (the only time that he was wearing one when capsized).

That was to be the first of many capsizes, so many that Ant has no idea of the number for the whole voyage. Between capsizes he did excellent passage times, often doing 125 or more miles a day. He reports that she will beat at 5 knots into a 35 knot wind and, reaching under spinnaker, regularly recorded speeds of 12 knots, phenomenal for such a small boat loaded with stores.

He followed the normal cruising route across the South Atlantic via St Helena, Ascension and Fernando de Noronha to the Caribbean then Panama. Between Cape Town and St Helena he lost his navigation tables in the capsize and lost 2 days while drifting uncontrolled after being incapacitated by food poisoning through eating raw fish. The next leg he damaged his sextant and, as a result, sailed 50 miles past Ascension before seeing gannets flying across his route and followed them in.

Between Fernando and Barbados he was nearly run down by a ship while becalmed and unable to manoeuvre, seeing the ship passing only 50m away. At Barbados, he was initially unwelcome because of his South African origins and the sanctions against the country at the time. He had stopped there because he had run out of food and water. The authorities made him wait aboard at anchor for 2 days before allowing him to replenish.

While stopped over in St Maarten he flew to Newport for the prize giving of the 1990/91 BOC race. While there, the manufacturers of the Magellan heard what he was doing and gave him a GPS which made navigation rather easier than using sextant, soggy tables and a school atlas.

The leg from the Caribbean to Panama he found to be particularly tough. He nearly lost his rig when the upper pin came out of his forestay soon after leaving St Maarten then was capsized repeatedly in a gale which produced large breaking seas and left him totally spent. A cruising sailor had jokingly told him that he need not worry about collision with ships because the seas are so big that he would be carried right over them. He comments that he did see seas roll on one side of some large ships and off the other.

In the calm after the storm and only 30 miles from Panama, he was in exhausted sleep and woke as NCS Challenger was thrown aside by the bow wave of a tanker. The unexpected cold shower brought him to his senses rather quickly and he spent the next minute or so looking at a huge black wall which was passing by and which he only recognised as a ship when he saw the name on the stern.

The South Pacific he found to be less eventful, although sometimes presenting problems of its own. He sailed to Bora Bora via Galapagos and the Marqesas, losing the false bow and loosening the keel bolts in a collision with a tree en route. After leaving American Samoa he was dismasted in a squall when the cap shroud parted. He retrieved all the bits and pieces then went back in for repairs.

Ant sailing off Australia
Sailing off Australia

The hurricane season was rapidly approaching and he felt that he could not afford the 3 week delay waiting for a new mast. He strapped the boom and spinnaker pole together to make a jury mast and recut a genoa to make a gaff-headed main. He then tied the broken mast on deck like a giant jousting pole and set off amid much criticism. As it turned out, the delay waiting for a mast would have had him caught by Hurricane Cleo, which he just missed at New Caledonia. The new rig was stepped in Brisbane after averaging over 90 miles a day from American Samoa under jury rig.

NCS Challenger waited out the hurricane season in Brisbane while Ant flew home for awhile. Before continuing he fitted an SSB radio powered by batteries charged by his solar panels. From available power he was able to talk to those back home about every third day. Larger panels fitted later gave power to talk twice a day. He also fitted an electronic tiller pilot.

From Brisbane Ant harbour hopped around the top of Australia to Darwin. He was warned of potential problems rounding Fraser Island just North of Brisbane and it was in this area that he ran aground hard on a sandbank, damaging the keel and opening a leak which was to plague him later.

From Darwin he set off to sail non-stop to Durban via the Mozambique Channel to better Webb Chiles' distance record. This was not to be as a leak forced him to head for Christmas Island for repairs. He found and repaired the leak only two days from Christmas Island but landed anyway to take on water.

It was after Christmas Island that he was tested almost beyond his limits. On 13th July 1992 he was sailing through a storm and had the hatches open while attempting to talk to Cape Town Radio. A large breaking wave knocked NCS Challenger down and she flooded through the open hatches, destroying all the electronics. In her flooded and unstable condition Ant could not right her for a half-hour, during which time the self-steering gear was destroyed and the mast bent.

Ant had to cut the rig away to prevent further capsize and spent the night sorting out the mess and bailing, the wind continuing to blow 30-40 knots for four days, during which he covered 240 miles with no sail. After the storm he spotted an island and set up a jury rig, heading for the island. He realised too late that there was an outer reef which he could not avoid with the minimal manoeuvrability that he had. The boat was washed across the reef by the surf, with Ant just hanging on in the cockpit while the hull rolled over and over and took a hammering, coming off the other side minus keel and rudder.

Shipwrecked on Cerf Island
Shipwrecked on Cerf Island

Ant now found that his little liferaft had, for its own reasons, given up the ghost and would not stay inflated. He left his boat stranded on a reef while he, bleeding from his ordeal, set off across the lagoon for the island 700m away and found himself surrounded by sharks. With only a knife and marline spike to defend himself he swam that distance slashing at the sharks all the way to the beach. He still finds that ordeal particularly difficult to talk about.

He found himself on a deserted island (which turned out to be Cerf Island in the Seychelles group) with only a derelict fisherman's cottage and no fresh water. He lived on paw-paws and coconuts (probably the most healthy diet of the circumnavigation) for the next nine days until rescued by a fishing boat which he attracted with a flare.

In the interim, NCS Challenger had washed up on the beach with the hull surprisingly intact. The keelbolts had not been ripped out of the hull when the keel had come off. Instead, the aluminium keel had been broken off the base plate which remained attached to the hull. The lighly built GRP hull which we, back home, feared would break up under heavy weather sailng was taking incredible abuse and coming back for more.

Ant was taken to another island by the fisherman, where he was admitted into hospital and stayed for a week. While he was there, the fishermen returned to Cerf Island and took NCS Challenger in tow, taking Ant and his boat to Mahe. From there she was shipped back to South Africa where Ant repaired her while on honeymoon with his new wife, Sue. Most brides won't tolerate so much as a surfboard or golf bag on honeymoon so either Ant had found a really suitable mate or Sue was piling up points in her favour and he is in for major trouble later.

Ant and NCS Challenger were dropped off back at Cerf Island by a freighter of the Mediteranean Shipping Company, detoured specially to get him back to his shipwreck position. He was now into the regular cruising grounds of many South African yachts so he was nearly home. However, this home stretch proved to be the slowest part of the entire voyage.

He was plagued by light weather in the mozambique channel and damaged the boat underwater, the repairs causing delays. As he harbour hopped along the notoriously unforgiving South African coast, persistent gales kept him in port and he hit a whale, causing another leak to repair. He was trapped in East London harbour by gales for twenty days, during which time he tried four times to leave. When eventually successful in leaving East London, the next blow was an attack of his disease because he forgot to take his medication. That omission resulted in him being rushed to hospital on arrival at Port Elizabeth, his own home port.

After his release from hospital he still had to make it around Cape Agulhas and the Cape of Good Hope before reaching Cape Town, his point of departure. The going remained slow as he waited for suitable weather at each major headland.

Ant Steward returns home
Home again in Table Bay

His arrival in Cape Town saw a turnout of boats of all types and sizes, from dinghies to a harbour tug spraying its water canons, all there to salute a great adventurer. Thousands of people lined the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and he sailed in amid the incredible noise of a great welcome, now accompanied by Sue who had joined him on entering the harbour. At the quayside, NCS Challenger was lifted out by crane, with Ant and Sue still on board, and lowered onto the hard to meet the media.

With NCS Challenger hanging from the crane and out of her element (and with big letters SOS painted on her keel), it became clear to onlookers just how big a job Ant Steward had taken on in sailing his little boat around the world. It had taken over 2 years and was probably tougher than Ant had imagined. However determination saw him through and, unrepentant, he began making preparations for his next madman's trip, to sail non-stop around the world in a 20ft boat, this one with a cabin. An onboard fire in mid-Atlantic cut that voyage short and landed Ant back in hospital badly burnt.

Update Jan 2002

Ant is land-bound at the moment. He was manager of the Royal Cape Yacht Club in Cape Town for a few years, during which time he was deeply involved in development sailing programs. He skippered a development crew in the 2000 MTN Cape to Rio Race. At present he works for the production catamaran builders, Robertson & Caine.

Follow this link to see the TLC 19 trailer-sailer on which Ant Steward's boat was based.


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This page was updated 1 March 2013