Spirit of Athena's Race
Involved in a minor way in the initial planning of the RORC Caribbean 600 I thought the course appeared to be a little tame compared with the three Fastnets and four Asturias (Bay of Biscay) races I had done before moving to Antigua. Even some of the RORC (English) Channel bashers seemed tougher than what we laid out for the first RORC Caribbean 600 in 2009.
Having sold my yacht on leaving the U.K., for two years I had to sit on Fort Charlotte and watch the yachts leave and return. My delight can be imagined when I was offered a Swan 44 to skipper for the race. I had a boat to race and all I needed to do was find a crew.
E-mails to all my old crew and many friends in the U.K. produced one lady who had raced with me for 11 years. RORC, Crewseekers, the Antigua Yacht Club mailing list and rumours around English Harbour produced a total of fourteen potential crew. Reviewing sailing CVs and interviewing applicants in Antigua I settled on a very mixed bunch which included a German living in New York, an American also from New York, a Danish Olympic Gold Medallist, two Englishmen, both temporarily in Antigua, one of them vaguely known to me from the U.K., a rugged Scotsman who happens to be a CSA Measurer and a young, blonde Australian female - more of her later. That made nine of us and almost nobody had met anybody else.
Ten days before the race the Swan was pulled. I now had the crew but no boat.
An approach to On Deck Ocean Racing produced a Beneteau 40.7 at a very generous price. The yacht was a little 'tired' and in no way prepared for a 600 mile ocean race. On Deck promised to have it ready for a practise sail the day before the start and, to give then their due, the boat was ready but not tried and tested.
Of the five crew flying in from overseas, first to arrive was the young Australian blonde who had included a photo in her CV. The first thing I had noticed about the CV that her picture was back to front. I might have understood had it been upside down. Having agreed to collect any arriving crew at the airport I was fairly confident of recognising her. I couldn't have been more wrong. I drove straight past an image of a 1960's hippy, beads, flowery clothes, pins, etc., etc.. Fortunately I had told her what car I was driving and I had the roof down. I heard my name yelled from behind me. It was the apparition of the hippy.
Our Danish Olympian was flying to the U.S. and then taking a next day flight to Antigua which happened to be the same flight as our New Yorker and our German who were staying in an hotel the night before the flight. I put the Dane in touch and he slept on the floor of their hotel bedroom. The U.S. flight was due to arrive two hours after the flight bringing my ex-crewmember from the U.K.. Conveniently, the U.K. flight was an hour late and the U.S. flight, half an hour early. Less than 48 hours to go and the crew was complete.
We were on the boat for the first time 27 hours before the start. On Deck had kindly completed the safety check for us but it meant that we didn't know where anything was so we had to do it all again. A diver had been ordered to scrub the hull in the hope of gaining a few extra tenths of a knot and when he had finished we set off on our first sail together. I remember once racing on a yacht as one of ten crew. Unfortunately, five of the crew, including me, were yacht owners. I don't think I have ever had a more chaotic race in my life. I now faced a similar problem. There was a surfeit of talent and quite where to position each person needed some careful thought. Our Scotsman, with his local Caribbean knowledge, was the obvious choice for navigator and our German as a watch leader. We had a plethora of helms with only two crew not experienced in this area. All could trim sails. We would have to just let things fall into place as the circumstances dictated.
Sailing in light airs for a couple of hours gave us no real feel for the boat nor did it assist in determining crewing positions however our practise sail did throw up a few winch problems and we headed back into harbour to service them and load all the provisions on board. At this point we had a minor disagreement. I had done the provisioning including making 45 French bread sandwiches, deep fried 100 pieces of chicken, boiled 2 dozen eggs, cooked 80 sausages and a lot more. Additionally I had bought 96 litres of liquid. The crew told me this was nowhere near enough and pressurised me into buying another 100 litres of water. We had emptied the boat's water tanks but someone decided, unbeknown to me, to half fill the tanks. Two days into the race and we were forced to hand bail the tanks, but more of that later. On tidying the boat after the race we removed 118 litres of unused drinking liquid. I love being proved right.
72 hours before the start I was finally in a position to sign on and went to the RORC office to register. We didn't have an IRC certificate. Frantic e-mails to RORC Rating produced one two hours before the start of the race. Having served on the RORC Rating Committee for nine years I have been pushing IRC in the Caribbean. With one of my crew being a CSA (Caribbean Sailing Association) measurer. I could not face four days racing around the Caribbean with him if I was unable to get an IRC Certificate before the start. Also, at registration, I didn't have and couldn't get the yacht's sail number. It was suggested that I use any sail number so I used my old one, IRL 3000, which could be changed later. As a result we were registered as an Irish boat. This was to have a beneficial affect because it caused me to think that I would like to be representing Antigua so I asked to be changed.
Our warning gun was set at 11.20. Either all our watches were wrong or the start was running about two minutes late. The start line is from Fort Charlotte above the Pillars of Hercules outside English Harbour to a buoy laid about a mile offshore. Due the unusual northerly component to the wind, it was impossible to lay a square line. In fact, it was impossible to cross the line on starboard. We decided to take advantage of this and went right inshore. As a result, we were the windward boat by some margin. We can quite rightly claim to have led the 2011 RORC Caribbean 600 off the start line, albeit for only a few minutes.
A couple of hours into the race all our electronics failed and we were forced to rely on a compass and several hand held GPS's. Fortunately, I had plotted all the waypoints manually and typed up a list of their positions and the courses to steer to and from each waypoint. At the North Sails buoy off Barbuda we hoisted our spinnaker but, within a few minutes, the guy blew out of the end of the pole. The guy was placed back into the pole jaws but blew a second and a third time. Copious amounts of gaffer tape held the guy for the next 28 miles when the guy blew again which was quite convenient as we were just discussing how we would gybe. In the circumstances we went to white sail, gybed and continued under white sail to Nevis. It was at this point our real competition, the other 40.7, Coyote, overtook us. Unfortunately, despite having beautiful Kevlar sails compared with our rather knackered Mylar ones, Coyote rated 6 points lower than us. At around this time, white sail reaching around Nevis, the kicker exploded off the bottom of the mast. I was on the helm and the moon hadn't yet risen so it was pitch dark. The noise was so loud I thought the rig was coming down. The crew jury rigged the kicker which lasted about a couple of days before it blew again. It was also around then we had our most disastrous breakage, the toilet seat broke off the bowl. This was followed by the door to the cupboard holding the toilet rolls flying off leading to some very soggy toilet paper.
In the lighter winds behind St. Kitts we were quicker at getting our spinnaker up and overtook Coyote again only to lose the lead around the back of Saba. With the advantage of having done the race twice previously, Coyote went about a mile further inshore than us. After St Barths, we compounded our error at Saba by over standing St. Maarten however, by the time we reached Montserrat on the reach down to Guadeloupe we were neck and neck.
Earlier, on our approach to St. Maarten as the sun set, we turned on our navigation lights only to find we had no power. Fortunately, the engine battery was still fully charged so we started the engine only to discover the alternator was not working. Fortunately, I had requested a set of battery powered lights which, although not legal, would give us some chance of being seen. The real disadvantage was that we no longer had a compass light. We had several unsuccessful attempts at rigging torches and the helmsman ended up in relying on verbal directions from someone holding a GPS.
With flat domestic batteries and no charging facilities we couldn't run the 'fridge and our food started to go off. Half of it had to go over the side (all food, no wrapping). The half full water tanks were now useless and unnecessary extra weight. The only way to empty them was by hand bailing. Also, with no lights below, doing anything in the dark posed endless problems.
One of our biggest problems was now having sufficient small batteries to run emergency nav. lights, head torches, GPS's, etc.. This dilemma was not helped by the discovery that the shelf above the chart table on which we placed the batteries had an opening directly down to the bilges. Half the batteries disappeared down this hole never to be seen again. Batteries were removed from cameras, torches and anything which was not absolutely essential to the running of the boat. To compound the problem my waterproof hand held GPS died. The GPS was residing in my jacket pocket when a large wave filled the pocket to capacity and drowned the GPS. My mobile 'phone went a similar way right at the end of the race.
The wind shadow of Guadeloupe is well known but it tends to affect the northern two thirds of the island. The northerly component to the wind shifted this shadow to the southern third and, despite staying offshore, we were caught in it together with Coyote and the Class 40, Pogo. For five hours we worked the boat through every zephyr of wind and gradually drew away from our rivals although the Class 40 did remain fairly close. As we approached the Saints the wind filled in and the yachts behind us disappeared in the darkness.
The beat to Desirade seemed to take for ever not helped by the fact that our sail material and shape only allowed us to tack through 110 degrees. The lack of progress was extremely frustrating. Not long into the reach from Desirade to Barbuda I went below to use the heads and stepped into six inches of water in the bow. A constant stream of water through the forepeak hatch couldn't account for this quantity. Right in the bow someone had turned on a tap. Closer examination exposed a one inch diameter hole carrying wires through which water was pouring at several gallons a minute. The drain hole in the anchor locker had blocked and, having filled to capacity, the water emptied itself into the forepeak. Over 100 buckets were removed from the boat and our engineer calculated we were carrying over a ton of water. Without power, the electric bilge pump would not work. For different reasons, neither would the manual one below decks and the one on deck, when used, obstructed the helmsman. The only way to get the water out was to hand bail.
Steering in daylight on the long reach to Barbuda was no problem but by night we were back to verbal instructions from someone holding a GPS which we couldn't keep on all the time for fear of running out of batteries. We knew we were steering erratically. Once around the North Sails buoy off Barbuda we set the spinnaker again but found we were struggling with no reference points and practically no visibility. The waning moon, rising later each day was still below the horizon and cloud cover had increased. The night was very dark. After about an hour of broaching and potential gybes plus very poor VMG, we decided to white sail under a poled out jib mainly for safety reasons, however, according to the GPS, our VMG and ETA actually improved but, overall, it probably cost us time.
We rounded Redonda just after dawn and, for the first time in over 24 hours we saw our rival, Coyote, closing on us. We knew we had to beat her to the line by about 36 minutes but, depressingly, we watched them tack through 90 degrees as we tacked through 110 and, bit by bit, they closed the gap and although we beat them to the line they beat us by 19 minutes on handicap. From first to last in spectacular fashion.
For the last two days we survived on 18 small pork pies, 8 pot noodles, a pack of baby carrots and a block of cheese plus apples, chocolate and crisps. It was at this point I gave our Australian a nickname, Dipsy Doodle. She was eating a packet of corn chips by that name and it seemed perfect for an Australian blonde. In reality, I could only do that because she turned out to be a real star, putting her hand to almost anything and with almost unbounded enthusiasm.
For a crew that had largely never sailed together we gelled surprisingly well. We had our issues but we resolved them mainly because everyone was working as hard as they could to do the impossible - make the boat go fast.
Having sailed my own yachts on three Fastnets, four Asturias races through the Bay of Biscay and numerous RORC and non-RORC offshore races I have never done a race as tough as the RORC Caribbean 600.
Why was this one particularly tough? There is no doubt the yacht was not up to an offshore race in these conditions. No criticism of On Deck. They only had a little over 24 hours to prepare the yacht. More importantly, the 40.7 is not an offshore yacht. Not only is it not designed and built to take the punishment and it is badly laid out for racing in heavy conditions. Everyone on the helm was thrown off their feet on several occasions by the lack of foot braces around the steering position. One crew member having to be X-rayed for broken bones after returning to Antigua. There are no hand holds to enable a relief helm to climb from the cockpit to the helming position and, even if we had had instruments, they are almost impossible to read from the steering position although a few of them had mast repeaters. Equally, there are no foot braces in the cockpit and below one grab rail broke away, the saloon table broke free as did locker doors, one pilot berth collapsed and one of the lee cloth tie downs pulled out of the bulkhead. It was impossible to sit at the chart table on starboard tack and the heads wouldn't pump also on starboard tack. Most of the jammers slipped and halyards had to be tied off or left on winches. One of the winches, despite being serviced, failed again and had to be stripped in 20+ knots of wind and 10 foot seas. With halyards left on winches we used the turning blocks until one started to pull out of the deck.
Sounds bad but these problems were not what made the race tough. It was the corners, the wind shadows, the tactics and navigation, the varying sea conditions and, most of all, the innumerable sail changes. For the headsail we did inside peals, outside peals and bare head changes and none was easy. Two, three or even a few more in an offshore race is fine but two or three dozen becomes hard work. In less wind it might have been different but, at this time of year, the Caribbean generally does not have less wind. 2010 was an exception and probably won't be seen again for another ten years. The Fastnet and the Sydney/Hobart may have reputations as hard races but that's as a result of a couple of bad years. Mainly because of its numerous corners and wind shadows behind islands, the RORC Caribbean 600 is a much tougher race than either the Fastnet or the Sydney/Hobart.
I have made reference to the crew and, whilst it would be easy to include them all in the narrative it would make it even longer than it is already but I cannot end without mentioning them all.
Our rugged Scotsman, navigator and CSA measurer doing his first ever offshore race was Sandy Mair whose local knowledge was invaluable. Dipsy Doodle (Liz Schoch) I have already mentioned and she was the star of the show finding more than she was seeking having now teamed up with James MacKenzie, repairman extraordinaire, who screwed the boat back together whenever it fell apart and would never go to bed. He always wanted to do more than his fair share of helming. Jacqui Wattam from my U.K. crew who also did Sailing Week with me when I brought my yacht to Antigua in 2004 and married one of my crew. Jacqui is a great booster to my morale always telling stories of some of my more outrageous exploits when, of course, I was younger. Another surprise was Alan Costello. Interviewing him he come over as somewhat unassuming but his experience began to show as the race developed and he was never afraid to recognise his limitations particularly in downwind helming in heavy airs. Too often sailors claim an ability well beyond their capabilities. I admire people who recognise where their skills lie and are honest about them. Alan was also great below decks which was not pleasant.
We managed to injure our American, Jon Friedwald, on the first day. Ten miles into the race a big wave bounced him onto a cleat and the bruise which developed on his thigh looked like a side of raw beef but he never complained. Jon spent a lot of time forward of the mast and as a wave break to the crew on the rail. I did think he ducked a little too often when I was on the helm. Our Olympian, Martin Kirkenterp, who has big plans to go a long way in the yachting world, constantly tried to increase speed by fiddling with everything but as we were sailing a yacht and not a dinghy his efforts probably cost us more time than they had saved but his drive and hard work more than compensated in other areas. Finally, our German, Ansgar Chorhummel. I now know why internet dating works. Despite the fact that I could never get his name right, Ansgar and I hit it off by e-mail from the start and that didn't change when we sailed together. Ansgar races his own J-80 and has an absolute wealth of offshore sailing experience. Of course, he is a typical stoical German.
I said, from first to last in spectacular style. We were last but, in addition to being first on the start, we also had another first. Because I had switched from being 'Irish' to being Antiguan we were also first Caribbean yacht. We were first because we were the only Caribbean yacht to finish, all the others having retired. The prize, a barrel of rum, was broached in a crew party the next day and was soon substantially lighter.
I have been asked if I would do it again and I have said 'Yes' but only if I can be helmsman or cook or navigator on ICAP Leopard.