50% of the Caribbean 600 Fleet Fail to Finish but a Deep-Reefed Challenger Sees it Through

8 March, 2018

The crew from Frenchman’s Bay YC could not have known when they booked with us last Fall what kind of event this year’s Caribbean 600 would turn out to be. With winds on start day consistently over 30 knots (I mean a steady 30kts here sailors not ‘it hit 30 once’) it was always going to be a challenging race but the exact nature of the challenge was perhaps not obvious to all- to my mind as the skipper this race was only about one thing- good old fashion seamanship.

As many who follow these blogs will know I am very conservative when it comes to safety and people being on these Volvo 60 boats. The instinct for those new to the boats is to think that because time has passed and the Volvo 60 is no longer at the cutting edge of sailing technology that somehow that translates into a narrowing of the gap between the skills needed to sail the boat fast and the skills of the average club sailor. Unfortunately this is just not true; the gap is just as big as it ever was and to try to ignore that and push on into difficult circumstances at full speed without respect for the equipment is potentially damaging to the vessel and to the crew. So although in many respects the conditions were made for Challenger to fly- I took a different path and decided to reign her in tight.

With this kind of sailing situation – rough seas and new crew the emphasis is very firmly on me to transfer not only good deck skills but also a healthy respect for the situation and to this end during the first day of training I laboured the basics of good body position, diligent observation of the clipping on rules, looking out for each other and a critical eye to your own safety and others at all times. The Frenchman’s Bay Yacht Club members were incredibly receptive and during our time out on the water on day two of the training they began to agree with me that this was not going to be an easy race

For the start I stayed well back out of the trouble- sitting with main up and jif furled at the landward end of the line watching as the IRC 1 Fleet who went ten minutes before us got hammered by a 45knot squall right out of the gate. For our start I merely unfurled the jib on port tack heading away from the land a few minutes before the start and crossed within a minute of the gun, second row with very little exhaust from the other boats due to the strength of the prevailing Easterly.

The first beat was … ‘Nuclear’ and the severity of the conditions were underlined after only a few miles of the first beat when I heard a crunch from the boom that told me not all was well. I discovered the second reefing line (which always gets the most punishment on any boat) had wriggled it’s self around – unseen- into a non-favourable positon and was now crushing the lower section of the huge square boom on Challenger. On any normal circular section boom this would have been catastrophic but due to the internal lay out of this specific boom which is made of an aluminum skeleton and kevlar panels it really just meant it was time to ease up-oh and never rig the reef line like that again!

Cracking off the sheets at Green Island was a great relief for us all and as Challenger purred along at 12-14 knots we took stock of where we were- there was no doubt to anyone that many boats had already turned back and that this was going to be a race of attrition. The thought did pop into my head for a nano-second that these would be perfect conditions for the roller furled Code 5 but I immediately put that thought to one side and contemplated instead the moments after a windward broach on a Volvo 60 doing 20knots in 3m seas with an inexperienced crew. Luckily I already have those grey hairs so I was to be able to dodge that bullet and instead asked if anyone wanted a coffee- Was it boring? predictable? cruisey? Sure no problem, I’ll suck that up- maybe it was, was it Dangerous? Emotionally damaging? Physically threatening? Nope – it was after all just coffee.

Finally the mark at Barbuda approached and we executed a very tidy and controlled deep-reefed gybe before rehoisting the main to second reef and setting off down the course West towards Nevis. In all my sailing career I dont think I have seen so many distressed spinnakers in one patch of water. Spinnakers were in the air, spinnakers in the water, spinnakers in wine glasses, modern sports boats with IOR style death rolls going on, spinnakers flying sheets and tack free at mast heads and of course- spinnakers in pieces. To all those crews that wrestled their kites back on board and continued sailing- I tip my hat to you. You’ll be happy to know that our spinnaker was just fine- packed in the bow and the coffee was excellent- English Press of course- my favourite. (I.e. Nescafe instant)

The rounding at Nevis I saw as potentially being a problem. I was worried that the sustained 30knots winds coming over the course would result in strong katabatic winds on the lee side of the Leeward Islands creating dangerous conditions for the boat and crew. My reaction was to stand well off giving the islands a wide berth. In the end this concern was unfounded and our circuitous route a few miles offshore only set us back by about four miles on the competition; a timely gybe inside to the shore – into the flat water conditions the rest of the fleet enjoyed would have saved us something like 5 Nm’s in total and kept us alongside the other Volvo 60 in the race.

What I will say though is that we had a hell of a ride on the outside with two reefs in the main, J2 pulling hard and the boat sitting on 14-16knots. On this years race our top speed was I believe 21.7 knots made possible by the steady hands of Mr Brent Hughes. The beat at the top of this stretch of the course is where our damaged boom did finally create some performance issues. Really we should have been able to cut East across to St. Barth’s without difficulty in two or three tacks in just a few hours but as we were stuck in third reef we were instead just going sideways- still doing 9-10 knots but holy moly- SIDEWAYS!

To give you an idea of the degree of our leeway- in the period of time that we took to sail over to St.Barth’s and around that little island- Esprit de Corps IV and our friends from Atlas racing on their Volvo 60 ( two reefs, J4) did the same distance AND sailed back to St.Marten, AND sailed around St.Marten AND started to head South towards Guadaloupe. All while we tacked through 140 degrees again and again and again. After seven hours we were 50+ extra miles behind and the game it seemed was up.

BUT.

Offshore racing is as you know much more than a simple game of Chess. Offshore Racing is more like full contact Chess, performed on a high wire over lava, whilst eating puffer fish off a razor and hence when the barometer drops there are many, many ways to both win and lose that have nothing to do with tactics, trim or training.

Where being slow and conservative was seemingly our greatest deficiency the CSM Rule of Universal Equilibrium says it must also be our greatest asset. This proved to be exactly the case and as I wept into my race track to see all the sound we had lost – little did I know that small threads were pulling apart, kevlar was fraying and the wheels were just about ready to come off our fleet footed competition.

On the second morning we discovered that basically every other charter boat in our class and those from IRC 1 we would class as comparable had by one method or another succumbed to the weather. My poker face flickered for but a second when I received the news as you can imagine… Not…. Busted head sails, busted mainsails, damaged rigging, busted rudders, you name it and suddenly there was only one. Us. I was glad of course that no injuries had created these fringe benefits for us but pushing your gear too hard? No, no sir that’s part of the sport- that’s what it’s all about – the game is to make sure that doesn’t happen. As Sir Robin told us as Clipper Skippers- to finish first, first you have to finish.

And there it is- I won’t bore you with the rest of the race- safe only to say that from 65Nm behind our main rivals our little girl Challenger -not once conceeding to the temptation to ‘open up’- carefully tip-toed around the rest of the C600 course over the next few days and came home 11th in class and 32nd out of 84 entrants. In the words of our friends from the world girdling Lunenburg tallship ‘Picton Castle’, ‘We may be slow- but we get around’.

Come the final tally Challenger needed a new brace in the boom, a two foot section of headsail foil replacing, a mainsail batten replacing and a one inch batten sized hole fixing in the mainsail. We suffered no injuries, no sickness (Unbelievable! They make them tough in Toronto!) and the worst section of the trip was definitely just the last few hours where this skipper’s blood sugar was too low and I let my competative nature get the better of me; my apologies to poor old Chris on the helm who could do no good- next time I need to pack more Snickers bars for myself.

My very great thanks to the crew from Frenchman’s Bay Yacht Club for their energy, enthusiasm, professionalism and great care for Challenger and each other on this race.

I think this C600 will live long in every sailor’s memory who was there and the only question years from now will be ‘did you make it round?’

And we can say…..