I have finally carved out a bit of time for myself to sit and write. Ahh. It’s been entirely too long, so I apologize to the hopeful reader out there (if there’s still anyone reading my stuff). I have been absurdly busy with work these last few months, doing a ton of sailing, and focusing on getting my ass out of the matrix.
The RORC 600
When booking accommodations for a trip, I find it quite hard to imagine what the surroundings will be like. I’m not one to spend a vast amount of time doing research on my destination, nor do I plan ahead when I arrive. I suppose that’s why I like traveling – it’s more of an expedition for me, rather than a planned itinerary. Meandering around, using nothing but a map, a hand-bearing compass, and the occasional inquiry to a local, I tend to walk around with light feet and open eyes.
I goofed a bit with this trip though. It’s a bit difficult to judge walking distance when looking at a map, or even with Google Earth, but I booked a room “near” Falmouth Harbor. Well it turned out to be about an hour’s walk from the Antigua Yacht Club (AYC) – where I had to walk to and from every day for the next four days. Oh well. It was a cute place, and with my being on a 48-foot boat with nine other people for a week I figured I could use the exercise and fresh air.
So after checking in that Thursday morning I headed down to the harbor to scope things out. As I strolled down the hill towards the anchorage, my first glances to the water were unforgettable – dozens, perhaps hundreds of cruising boats swinging at anchor, racing yachts all aflutter with preparation, and most noticeably a large number of superyachts. Now I’m not typically one to gawk at another’s pretentious show of wealth, especially by material things, but this was really something. Some of these boats exceeded 200 feet in length, with their hand-polished brightwork and flawless presentation. They were truly staggering to behold.
The area surrounding the AYC is quite charming. There’s an area of shops and several delightful cafes – one called Seabreeze that has the best cappuccinos and another called Skullduggery with a great selection of adult beverages and their own brand of rum. As I walked up to the AYC, I overheard an Irish gentleman on the phone saying something to the effect of “Hello Andy! I’ve arrived at the yacht club with your sail!” I took a chance and introduced myself. Turns out that by total happenstance this gentleman was John and would be a part of our crew! We met with Andy and Mia shortly thereafter for some coffee and the rest of the crew for beers that evening.
I awoke the next morning and strolled back down to Falmouth Harbor. I found a nice little restaurant called Moshi that served up an excellent breakfast for only about $15 (very cheap for this island). The energy at the yacht club was electric. Race teams were bustling about with gear, doing interviews, and preparing their boats. Cruisers were walking the docks taking pictures, and like me, in awe of the superyachts. This race features some of the fastest boats on the planet, like the Mod70 trimarans Phaedo 3 and Maserati. Seeing these machines in person, with their extraterrestrial hulls, is something truly amazing to behold. And to share the same race course with them was once in a lifetime experience!
I met with Andy and Mia for a cappuccino while we waited for the rest of the crew to arrive. We hopped into the dinghy and buzzed out into the harbor to Isbjörn. After listening to Andy’s podcast for years, seeing Isbjörn for the first time was a pretty surreal experience. She’s simply gorgeous. Sleek lines, a glistening navy blue hull, and the 59°North flag lapping the breeze, she lay to her anchor a true gem in Falmouth Harbor.
But the race was three days away and much to do remained. We spent the remainder of Friday readying the boat, relocating unneeded gear to a John’s rented apartment, and last-minute provisioning. Saturday and Sunday were spent practicing in the surrounding waters off the coast of southern Antigua. Quick tacking, fine trimming, and flying the spinnaker. It was determined early on that I was going to be working foredeck, so the spinnaker was my main focus – a skill that I have yet to really master. In such a short few days, I felt we really came together as a crew. We were all here to have fun and improve our skills as sailors!
The morning of the race we met at the Seabreeze Cafe bright and early, and with everyone and their gear ferried aboard, Rory and I volunteered to row the dink back to where it would stay tied up at the cafe for the duration of the race. This meant a fairly long swim back to Isbjörn – a wholly delightful way to start one’s day I might add! Captain Paul gave us a quick weather and route orientation, the anchor was weighed, and we made course to the start line.
“5…4…3…2…1…START!” an English-accented voice declared over the VHF radio, followed by the delayed boom of a cannon echoing from the cliffs. The race was on! Any sailing race begins with a bit of pandemonium, as boats are clawing at each other to get the upper hand at the starting line – except here the yachts are Maxi’s and Volvo Ocean boats. So between our gawking and pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moments, we had to focus on clawing our own way up the first windward beat around the corner of Antigua. With a somewhat slow, but flawless spinnaker launch, we made our turn towards the first mark of the 600-mile course – Barbuda.
Rounding the buoy at Barbuda was probably my favorite moment of the entire race. As we prepared to douse the chute for our reach to Nevis, the 162ft Herreshoff gaff schooner Eleanora gracefully overtook us to leeward. With the sun setting in the west and she under full canvas, this moment was truly majestic. We all took pause to see her pass.
The weather forecast for this week was indeed a strange one. A fairly disorganized front was making its way very far south, so light variable winds were predicted from all corners of the compass. However, the leg from Nevis to Saba was peppered with squalls and fluky wind. On my off watch that night, we were hit with one particularly strong squall near Nevis, which saw gusts upwards of forty knots – not a terribly big deal for Isbjörn, but it certainly took us by surprise.
The following day sailing around St. Barth’s, St. Martin, and Tintamarre were outstanding. Much to everyone’s surprise, we had a stiff northeasterly breeze with the passage of the front. So our spirits were high, sailing was fast, and we held tight onto third place, as we made course on the longest leg of the race pointed at Guadeloupe.
Then the wind slacked. As the high moved over us and out of the area, the much dreaded calm parked on top of us, with a searing sun and a crystal clear sky. Though it was beautiful (and I’m not complaining), we were racing after all, and at about 180 nautical miles this was our longest leg. It was quite hot below, so sleeping was pretty much hopeless for me. So in the shade of the mainsail, I sat and read O’Brian’s Thirteen Gun Salute and watched the off-gassing Montserrat slowly march by to starboard. As I sank deeper into my book, a startling cry from the cockpit exclaimed “WHALE!” Sure enough, a large humpback surfaced less than a hundred yards off our port bow. The beast moved with such grace and speed, as if Isbjörn’s slow trajectory were never even a consideration.
Then the wind totally died. Everyone knew this was coming, so we hoped we could outsmart the competition by picking up a little offshore land breeze in the lee of high hills Guadeloupe. It never came. And what little wind there was was just out of our reach to the west. So we watched, tortuously, as our competition crept passed us one by one through the night. The following day, the wind returned with gusto, and with it returned the excitement of the race. We were back in the game! As we beat around Îles des Saintes, Paul executed tack after tack with surgical precision, sailing right up to the cliffs, and gaining inch by inch on our relentless competition. By this time, the wind had filled back into its trade position of E-SE, allowing us a strong close-reach to Les Désirade.
At about midnight, we began preparations to make the turning point of Les Désirade, where we would hoist the spinnaker for the 100nm downwind leg back to Barbuda. Uncomfortably close to our port, Swan 44 Freebird had the same idea. I could see their spotlights and hear their hurried voices. So with red headlamp adorned and weary, I quickly rigged all of the control lines for the spinnaker launch. Well… I goofed up the tack line, unfortunately. But with Andy’s help we got it all sorted out and had a successful launch just after making our turn. Isbjörn is quite fast under spinnaker, and like a sleigh ride we walked straight away from the nearest competitors once again pointed at the Barbuda buoy.
The last day of the race was perfectly uneventful. Strong wind, comfortable seas, good food, and a happy crew. We rounded the buoy at about 1300, and headed to our last course mark of Redonda Island. That beautiful day was crowned by an absolutely beautiful sunset, with storytelling in the cockpit and Paul sharing his knowledge of pirate history in the Caribbean.
As we approached the finish line at English Harbor, Antigua, everyone aboard Isbjörn was wide awake with anticipation of completing the race. We crossed the finish line – a green laser beam from the clifftop to the outer buoy – at 2:20am on the 25th, 111 hours and 20 minutes elapsed. Elation, satisfaction, and total exhaustion filled the air as we slipped into the dark still anchorage of Falmouth Harbor. With the anchor dropped and the champagne popped, we shared our highs and lows of the trip, sang songs, and imbibed until the sun came up. But the celebration didn’t stop there – rum & coke with breakfast, our “prize” cases of Carib beer while we cleaned and organized Isbjörn, and more rum at the local beach bar. This was probably the best (and longest) day of my adult life.
We all parted ways on Sunday. Tired, content, and somewhat melancholy. Contact info, pictures, and hugs exchanged. This trip not only enforced my critical sailing skills like spinnaker handling, but it taught me more confidence as a sailor and a seaman. Most importantly, it taught me what it’s like to press a boat hard for multiple days continuously. It’s hard work, but I know now that I can do it. I see adventures like this not only as experiences or a check in the box, but rather as critical stepping stones in my path to achieving a life of freedom at sea.
Peace, Love, and Spinnaker Goofs