We spent the Sunday before the start of the 2015 RORC Caribbean 600 attending to the final bits and pieces of personal and boat-related preparation in advance of the three day race. It was a good opportunity to get to know the people I would be spending the next few days with a little better, since I had only met two of the team (out of the 22 who would be on board for the race) before the event.
I woke up relatively early on the day of the race itself and walked up to the Rusty Pelican cafe bar in the marina for my usual morning coffee and battle with some of the worst internet connectivity I have experienced for some time. A few of us then went over to another cafe, called Seabreeze, for breakfast and to have yet another battle with another flaky internet connection that was massively overloaded by fellow sailors dealing with matters digital.
We set off to sea and the race start line shortly after 9:30 as planned, checking in with a committee boat on our way out of the harbour to demonstrate that we had safety equipment for all of the crew. The area around the start line became increasingly busy as the minutes counted down towards our start time and the significance of the event in the international yachting calendar became increasingly apparent as the large fleet of some of the most elegant and majestic yachts assembled.
We got off to a pretty good start, right in the thick of the fleet of IRC Zero yachts. There were seventeen yachts in our class and it was a thrilling experience to be in the middle of the pack as we crossed the line and tacked upwind to the first mark. Unfortunately, it was only fifteen minutes into the race when our first major problem struck! The strip of our main foresail, the J2, ripped and we had to head back downwind, in the opposite direction to the one we needed to go, so that the J2 could be taken down and replaced with the much smaller general staysail. Not a good start, as you will see about 90 seconds into the RORC’s video of the first day’s highlights.
It didn’t take the team long to get Windfall back on course, albeit we still lost around 30 minutes right at the start of the race and our boat speed on the beats would suffer for the entire race due to the staysail being much smaller than the J2. However, we’d still give it a go.
The first day was great fun and we started to settle into the routine. There were 22 of us on board and we established a two watch system – Watch A and Watch B – so that we could cover the various duties that were needed to keep the boat going without stopping for the three days of the race. There were three four hour watches between 6am and 6pm; and four three hour watches during the night between 6pm and 6am.
The food onboard was really good – two hot meals each day as well as a “grab it yourself” breakfast. Quite remarkable given the relative confines of the galley on board.
We were approaching Nevis as the first sunset arrived and the first night passed without incident, although the amount of snoring that was going on onboard was impressive. It was just as well that there were no really light sleepers amongst the crew.
Day two was hard work – we really missed the J2 on the beats and the wind was slightly too great for us to be able to use the larger and lighter J1 sail that is OK for winds up to 10 knots or so. It was also the longest leg of the course from Anguilla to Guadeloupe.
We ploughed on and were approaching Guadeloupe just as the second sunset arrived. There had been much debate amongst the team about how close to or far from the Guadeloupe shore we should pass to minimise the impact of the wind shadow caused by the large mountain there. We settled on a passage approximately eight miles off shore and it seemed to work just fine. We were well past Guadeloupe by the time the sunrise arrived.
We pushed Windfall pretty hard on her way back up towards Barbuda, which cost us another couple of sails, this time in the spinnaker department. North Sails now had three sails to repair and we had relatively little functioning weaponry available to us to keep up a good pace. We therefore decided to take it easier for the remaining day of the race, so a few of the guys retired to the saloon to watch The Internship and a couple of episodes of Little Britain. Quite a surreal experience really!
The third evening drew in quickly after we cleared the racing mark at Barbuda for the second time. It was then around midnight when we passed the final mark of the course and headed back to Antigua and the finishing line. The wind built considerably as we made our way home and we finally crossed the finish line just before 4am local time to finish twelfth in our fleet.
It was quite emotional returning to base once the race was finished and the significance of what I’d just been a part of started to sink home. What a fantastic experience that I shall enjoy talking about for many years to come. I return to England feeling very privileged, with some great memories and some great new friends to whom I am most grateful for letting me be a part of the team.
Hopefully, the video I have pulled together helps you to understand why I had such a great time and why I hope to do it again in the not too distant future.
… and for those who think sailing is for the faint-hearted and involves Gin and Tonics, I’d like to introduce you to Charlie. A great guy and somebody whose company I look forward to keeping in the future.