It’s time for a certain humble boat to tell its epic story. NCS Challenger – with a bar across the top of its bow as part of its design, looking somewhat like a hammerhead shark – is ready to do so, having been restored to its former glory.
A quarter of a century ago it returned to South Africa having taken Ant Steward, who was a member of Durban’s Royal Natal Yacht Club, around the world – the first person to complete such a voyage solo, in an uncovered sailing boat.
That is with no cabin and no deck.
The boat looks handsome among other exhibits at the Port Natal Maritime Museum. It no longer shows weathering, thanks to an effort by local companies and the eThekwini Municipality to keep Steward’s story alive.
“It’s a feel-good story and we hope it will bring a lot more foot traffic to the museum,” said Martin Prange of City Architects, who was instrumental in its restoration.
“We are planning storyboards, but there’s also a lot about Ant and his trip on the internet.”
Steward, who now lives in Baltimore in the US and lived in Durban from 1981 to 1993, rattled off his own list of memories of his nine-month trip in an e-mail interview with The Independent on Saturday.
“There were so many incidents that had a huge effect on me. The bird sitting on my shoulder mid-ocean for eight hours. The school of dolphins in the Pacific swimming next to the boat and each one coming up to touch my hand in the water.
“The fisherman who rescued me off my shipwreck island (in the Seychelles). They were petrified of me because they thought I was a crazy wild man.
“They only came ashore once each one had a fishing knife to defend themselves.
“Then there were killer whales intercepting and coming right up against the boat in the Mozambique Channel.”
There were also times when Steward had not much more than a school atlas to rely on for navigation, fought sharks and relied on a makeshift mast.
Having survived all that, the boat then lay for years in the Durban sun, suffering weathering.
“I was getting calls from concerned friends that my open boat was in a bad state of repair,” he said.
Although Steward had made plans to ship NCS Challenger to his new home across the Atlantic, he said he was happy to hear others were busy with other plans to keep her in Durban.
“She was built in South Africa so it made sense to keep her there.”
Two local companies, Rho-Tech and NCS Resins, threw in their lot and, in four days spread over three weeks, gave her an overhaul.
“We changed the surfaces, resetting them, getting hatches put back where they needed to be, getting all the hardware back into place,” said Mike Schutte, general manager of Rho-Tech in Umbogintwini, adding that they had refurbished it to look exactly like it was originally designed.
History repeated itself with NCS Resins coming to the party, its involvement in the circumnavigation being the reason for the first three letters of the boat’s name.
“We applied a gel coat and resin, making it a strong and appealing product,” said NCS Resin managing director Trevor I’Ons.
Future plans include erecting a tensile structure over the NCS Challenger and its neighbouring exhibits – a whaler, a lifeboat off the vessel FT Bates and a surf ski fishing boat that hangs suspended from its trailer – suffering under the Durban sun.
Steward said he could not have managed the voyage, that saw him alone at sea for 260 days, without the support of friends and complete strangers.
“Strangers gave me food and nursed me back to health so I could continue at each stop.
“Poor islanders would share all they had, and I realised how happy they were with what they had,” Steward said.
“Since the voyage I have always tried to give back as much as I could to the less fortunate,” he said.
He added that there were two types of people in this world: givers and takers.
“The voyage taught me to give; I am very grateful for this.”
Steward became the manager of the Royal Cape Yacht Club and, with sailing commodore Anthony Spillebeen and Olympian sailor Ian Ainslie, established a sailing academy for the previously disadvantaged.
“We had so many eager youngsters. I remember that we went to a regatta in Durban with 80 kids and dominated the sailing.
“We entered a team in the 2000 Cape to Rio and finished 7th out of 82 boats – amazing considering that a lot of our kids had never been on a boat the year before.
“A number of the students went on to sail on the South African entry in the 2007 America’s Cup,” he added.
“This remains one of the most rewarding periods of my life post the open boat trip.”
In the past quarter of a century Stewart has been back on his tracks: “To St Helena Island, which was my first stop on the voyage. The people of St Helena are the friendliest, most peace-loving people I have come across in all my voyages.
“They are close to my heart.
“I did go back to the Seychelles 12 years after being shipwrecked on one of the outer reefs.
“A reunion with Frank Bibi, the young captain of the Seychelles trawler who found me on the reef, was very emotional and we had great time talking about my rescue.
“They took me to the nearest inhabited island and then went back to the reef to rescue what was left of my open boat. I will always be grateful for his kindness.”
In 2005 Steward visited Durban and showed his children the NCS Challenger for the first time….
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