I’m going to write a recap of the RORC Caribbean 600 - which I’ll say now, without a doubt, was one of the absolute highlights of my sailing career, even despite having to retire before the finish - but first, I’ll get straight to the higher point I want to make with this blog post. As of this morning, it’s official that Isbjorn will be back at the starting line of the 600 in 2017 in Antigua, hell bent on not only finishing the course, but winning our class. We’re changing our passage schedule to do it, and I can’t wait.
What follows is how we got to that point, the status of Isbjorn’s rudder, what the next two weeks in Antigua will look like and how awesome and supportive our crew and fans are. But first, some highlights from the race itself. Much more photos & videos to follow once we sift through and edit all the contect, so stay tuned!
The 600 is quickly becoming a classic ocean race, just as the RORC had hoped. I’m not a racing sailor at heart, but I’ll admit that taking part here has truly given me the bug. I am a competitive person at heart, and being on the same racetrack as the best sailors and the biggest boats in the world is an amazingly inspiring experience. And with the ratings system, it’s one of the few sports where the amateurs can line up head-to-head against the best pros in the world and beat them at their own game.
Right from the start we were more competitive than I’d imagined we’d be, largely due to the skill and experience of Paul Exner, who officially skippered the boat around the course. We entered the starting line on starboard tack, at the pin end, on Paul’s direction with me at the helm, and a classic wooden sloop called Blue Peter barged her way in, to Paul’s chagrin.
“Don’t be an asshole!” the skippered shouted at us as we tried to head him up and off the line. Paul waved him through, though under his breath told our crew that he was actually the one being the asshole and barging in.
On starboard, the first tack on the course takes you straight towards the cliffs.
“It’s a real man’s race,” Paul kept saying as we played chicken with the rocky shoreline, tacking onto port only a hundred yards offshore and in the raucous waves created by the backwash off the cliffs. Ours was the first start in the race, so behind us we watched as the bigger boats jockeyed for position on the line.
It only took two tacks to lay the east end of Antigua, the first rounding mark, with the breeze very much south of east. Tim Wright, the photographer who shoots the finish of the ARC in St. Lucia, and who’s been on my podcast, was buzzing around in the helicopter shooting all the action from above.
Pretty quickly after our start, the big boys started screaming up the course. We were passed to windward first by the Maxi72 fleet, led by Bella Mente. I can’t explain how difficult it is to steer the boat when the world’s coolest boats and best sailors are overtaking you just yards to windward. It was a front-row seat to the best sailing show in the world. Shortly thereafter the 100-foot maxi and recent Sydney-Hobart winner Comanche came screaming up to windward, easily doubling or tripling our speed as she sped off around Antigua. Not to be outdone, we were quickly passed by the two MOD 70 tris, Phaedo3 and Concise, one each side of us as they literally flew past the cliffs, their windward hulls 20-feet above the waves (Phaedo3 and Concise would match each other for the full 600 miles of the racecourse, finishing a mere 9 minutes apart, with Phaedo3 edging out Concise for the win, and smashing the course record. They sailed the 600 miles in just 31 hours).
The fleet spread out once we got around the east end of Antigua, and we took our time getting the spinnaker hoisted, as it was only the second time the crew had done the maneuver. The day before, our only practice day, we broke the mainsail halyard, so we’re practicing upwind work with just the genoa, and only had time to hoist and douse the chute once on the return into Falmouth.
We had a good set, despite the delay, and gained some ground on our IRC3 class on the leg to Barbuda and the first turning mark. Tim Wright popped up again, this time in his dinghy, to photograph us at the back of the fleet as we rounded the mark, passing a boat in the process and executing a textbook outside jibe of the asymmetrical spinnaker we had (thanks in large part to Etienne sending me his ‘tacker’ at the last minute. We rated better without the pole, so left it on the mast).
Isbjorn flew down the course on the leg towards Nevis, barley able to carry the chute on a beam reach but touching speeds over 9 knots as we sailed into the sunset. It was tense helming and trimming, just constant shouts of ‘ease!’ and ‘trim!’ on the chute while the helmsman fought the heavy rudder and aimed the bow at the south coast of Nevis. We took one-hour stints at the wheel, and by the end of it, the helmsperson was completely knackered. That night Keith cooked us a hot meal of rice and beans on the relatively flat broad-reaching leg. It’d be our last hot meal until we abandoned the race two days later.
Paul woke me up before my watch as we closed Nevis to prepare for another jibe. The coolest, by far, aspect of the race is the fact that the RORC uses Caribbean islands as mark roundings.
“You’d never get away with this in the US,” Paul joked. “Too much liability. But here, you can go as close in to the rocks as you dare, and it’s all part of the strategy.”
Under a brilliant full moon, we executed another textbook outside jibe and turned the corner at Nevis, aiming now for Saba to the northwest. Sirens Tigress, one of the all-female boats, passed us on the inside at the Nevis rounding, electing to stay closer inshore while Paul opted for the outside route to stay clear of the wind shadow. We remained the furthest-west boat in the fleet to avoid the big wind shadow behind St. Kitts. It worked. We regularly saw speeds over 10 knots on that leg, the fastest, boat speed wise, of the whole race, as Isbjorn surged down the rolling waves behind us. By the time we got to Saba, we’d put five miles on Sirens, who stayed inshore (which would become their strategy throughout the course).
By dawn, we were in the wind shadow behind Saba and Sirens had passed us again, staying close inshore. I was woken up by a huge williwaw that came screaming down from Mt. Scenery, some 3,000-feet off the water. We were close-hauled with full sail up, having dropped the chute earlier, and the gusts, which registered over 40 knots on the anemometer, knocked Isbjorn completely flat. The cockpit filled with water.
“I just looked up and saw Dan completely covered in water,” said Ken, who’d been knocked out by seasickness and was sleeping on the windward settee berth. “It looked like he was in a hot tub!”
Isbjorn tacked herself and sat hove-to for a few seconds. Paul was on the helm.
“He not once raised his voice,” said Dan, who was on watch with Paul. “All he said was ‘don’t touch anything.’ I had the instinct to ease the sheets, but Paul saw something different. He just rode the tack right around, jibed, and came back up onto course in less than 10 seconds and probably in the space of a boat-length. It was incredible, like it never happened.”
Meanwhile, enough water had poured into the cockpit that it got into the coamings, which are vented into the headliner above my bunk. I was soaked laying in bed, and so was all my clothing stowed in the locker on that side.
We lost some ground to Sirens on the beat to St. Barth’s, and mostly because I hadn’t yet figured out how to sail Isbjorn into the wind in the ‘groove’ that Paul had set up. The crew on the 1500 trip last fall called him the ‘boat whisperer,’ and I see why. This is the first that I’d ever sailed with Paul, despite all the work we’ve collaborated on over the past two years. He coaxed Isbjorn 10º higher on the wind than I ever have. We were tacking through less than 90º, making incredible ground to windward at 6-6.5 knots, full sail flying in 25 knots of apparent wind, and with no strain on the helm. I still don’t know exactly how he did it.
We sailed right under the cliffs on the west side of St. Barth’s, carrying steam into the shore to stay in the lee from the big waves, and setting up to tack around Red Rocks, the next turning mark before the bear-away and run down to St. Martin. Cutting the islands close like this became a theme of the race.
It’s hard to describe the physical stress of a race like this. ‘Relentless’ was a word the crew used often. We were eating granola bars and drinking water. You could barely stand in the galley let alone try to make any food. Sleeping was a struggle just to stay in bed. Two of the crew - and I won’t name names - flew off the toilet when the seat broke off, flew through the head door and into the hanging locker on the opposite side of the hallway. The spinnaker and the genoa both occupied the floor in the forepeak, and everything had a sticky, slippery sheen of saltwater on it.
‘This is the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done,’ I wrote to Mia in a short text message through the YB tracker. ‘The hardest marathon was still over in less than 5 hours. This is something else entirely.’ Despite that, I, and the crew, were loving the challenge of it all.
After another few hours of sleep (we were all on a 4-on-4-off watch routine), I was awoke as we sailed under spinnaker very close in along the beach on the south, Dutch side of St. Martin. We’d caught Sirens again, who’d had a problem with their chute and we’re sailing wing-on-wing with the genoa on the pole. We were only just able to hold onto the spinnaker on a really deep angle, and kept pushing closer and closer to the beach. We were easily going to pass Sirens. Just as we jockeyed for position - Paul helped me execute a really cool move to get up and on the inside of them, only feet from their transom - a French daysailer was out motoring around and fishing, right on the point we were about to round as we’re sailing about half a boat length away from Sirens, who were on the outside and heading us up into the beach. We called for room, and both skippers shouted at the French guy to get out of the way, who did so but only just barely. The crew dropped the chute and set the genoa in one smooth motion and we sped ahead of Sirens, finally taking them on the inside and beating them at their own game.
We changed down to the 100% jib on the beat up Anguilla channel in anticipation of the long, 165-mile close-reach from Tintemarre to Ile de Saintes, the longest single leg of the race. The change took 30 minutes or so, and Sirens passed us again, about a mile ahead of us as we both tacked to try and lay Tintemarre, the little flat island just east of Anse Marcel, my old stomping grounds at Broadreach. Thankfully it was still daylight, but only just, as it was very tight getting around the rocky spit that sticks out to the east. I thought for sure we’d need to throw in another quick tack, but when Sirens made it, I knew we’d have to so as not to lose too much ground. We passed within yards of the surf pounding on the rocks.
“I’ve rounded more lee shores in this race already than I have in my entire career!” I remarked to Keith. It was do or die - any mistakes and we’d quickly be on the rocks.
As darkness fell, we had Sirens in our sights about a mile ahead and were steering off her stern light. Ever so slowly we could watch the range tick down on the AIS. After my four-hour sleep, Keith, Michael and I came back on watch with about 9/10’s of a mile between us and we started reeling them in. It was a squally night, big black clouds obscuring the bright moon and tropical rain pounding down into the cockpit at times so heavy it literally flattened the sea right out. By my stint on the helm the girls on Sirens were within reach, only 3/10’s of a mile ahead, their stern light getting brighter and brighter. As a cruiser-at-heart, this little race we had going with Sirens was exhilarating. Every turn of the wheel and every micro-adjustment of the sheets had an impact on us catching them, and we took it very seriously. It was great fun!
A big squall descended on us just as we approached Sirens from behind. I told Keith to bear away slightly so as to give them room in case they needed to fall off quickly if a big gust hit. They doused their headsail in the heaviest of the squall - we saw 35 knots on the anemometer - but we carried on, feathering the mainsail and following the windshift. When the squall passed 3 or 4 minutes later we were half a mile ahead of the girls. Their green running light glowed brightly off our port quarter. Keith and I high-fived and we carried on into the moonlight.
After another all-too-brief four-hour sleep, I woke up to Paul’s concern about whether or not we were going to clear Montserrat.
“We’re about a mile off, and barely laying it,” Paul explained to me while I laid in bed, bleary-eyed. “But we’ve gotta try. The girls can point higher than us, so if we tack, they’ll definitely pass us,” he continued.
I climbed out of my bunk in the aft cabin - I’d been on the high side in this most arduous of beats - and there to leeward was volcanic and iconic Montserrat, glowing in the warm light of dawn, enormous cliffs seemingly right next to the boat.
“Look out the window,” I said to Keith, as he struggled to climb out of his bed (he had the GoPro on his head to try and document this difficulty).
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “What a sight!”
Dan was on the helm, driving Isbjorn to windward expertly and taking every lift to keep clear of the dangerous lee shore.
“That’s new land over there,” Paul explained, pointing out the ash flow than spilled down from the Soufriere Hills eruption from the mid-1990’s. “They haven’t yet surveyed it since the eruption, so nobody really knows how deep it is or what’s on the bottom over there.”
The scene was primal. In our sleep-deprived minds, Paul and I just sat and stared at the beauty of it all.
“Our earth is just amazing!” Paul said. “It’s like meditative staring at this rugged scenery. How cool is this that we get to experience this?! Nobody sails to windward of Montsterrat, least of all in 25 knots of wind and only a mile off. This is pretty cool guys,” he said to the crew, who were equally spellbound.
When Dan gave the helm to Keith, he told us the story of his midnight injury.
“Dan dislocated his shoulder last night!” Paul said, shocked.
“I was grinding in the genoa,” Dan explained, “and it just popped out. It’s happened before, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I laid down on the cockpit seat and jammed it back into place. Paul asked if I was okay, and I just said ‘yeah, I’m fine, but don’t we need to get that genoa in further?’ So I kept grinding with my good arm until the sail was properly trimmed.”
Thanks to Dan’s grinding and helming, we did make Montserrat in fact, and just after clearing the southern headland, were even able to crack off a hair for the last bit of the leg down to Guadaloupe and the turning point in the race, for a number of reasons, for us.
We decided early on to stay offshore at Guadaloupe instead of risking running the beach and looking for a seabreeze. Guadalupe’s wind shadow is the most tactically difficult part of the race, and it can be won or lost here. We’d gotten 5 or 6 miles ahead of the girls on Sirens since passing them in the squall, but they quickly got it back. We got stuck in a hole on the southern side of Guadaloupe when they went into the beach and made 6-7 knots the whole way down. Paul kept his spirits high the whole time, through several sail changes and spinnaker ups and downs, only later admitting at breakfast back at the dock how inwardly frustrating it was. But that’s Paul, forever the optimist on the boat and an amazing skipper to sail for.
It was during this calm that we discovered the rudder problem. Since we bought the boat less than a year ago, the packing was leaking on the rudder shaft, only a little bit. It was something I kept an eye on, as we had to keep pumping the bilge every once in a while to remove the water coming in at the rudder packing. After cooking up a storm in the flat lee behind Guadaloupe in preparation for the next long beat around to the east, I did my routine check on the rudder packing and noticed the problem. The bearing race itself had come de-laminated from the fiberglass attaching it to the hull of the boat, and was moving a few millimeters side to side when the helm loaded up.
“You should have seen your face when you came out to get Paul to have a look,” Keith said. “I knew right then and there that our race was over before you ever said anything.”
Paul came down to have a look, and we consulted privately before informing the crew. There really was no decision to make. With a structural failure like that, we had to quit. The only choice was where to go. Guadeloupe was right there, but we had no resources and we’d be homeless, and nobody spoke French. It was a close-reach back to Falmouth, about 60 miles to the north, so we decided if we really babied the boat, we’d be able to make it back to where we started form safely and be back in familiar territory.
I was nearly in tears at the reaction we got from the crew. Expecting everyone to be beaten down and discouraged, we found the opposite.
“Ever with retiring from the race, you guys have exceeded my expectations 10x on this whole thing,” Dan said, who was on the helm at the time. “I can’t speak for anyone else, but this has been incredible for me,” Michael added. “I can’t imagine sailing for two better people than you and Paul.” Vanessa concurred, as did Charly, Keith, and Ken, and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. By then I was noticeably emotional, having yet another setback on the boat I wasn’t expecting, but the support from the crew was incredible.
We had a nice hot meal in the lee of Guadaloupe and took two reefs in the main and rolled up most of the genoa for the last 40 miles or so back to Falmouth. After the pressure of racing so hard for nearly three days, the cruise back was an enjoyable relief. We still made 7.5 knots under reduced rig and sailed into the harbor before dawn at 4am, right at the end of my watch. We dropped the hook for a couple hours of sleep before the sun came up.
Around 9am we headed into the yacht club marina to a greeting by the RORC race committee which included a full case of Carib beer, and cold. And so the celebrating commenced, despite the unfortunate result. The next several hours, as happens, were spent at the bar eating eggs and drinking rum and champagne and telling sea stories. At the adjacent table, a woman crew from another boat stood up to walk away and immediately fell flat on her face, out cold from sleep deprivation. She came-to a minute or two later and laughed off the incident.
“This happens more than you’d think, and just goes to show the hardships and endurance needed for serious ocean racing,” Paul, by far the most experienced racing sailor among us, said.
Spirits were high among the crew, but I was devastated. I’ve done a lot of challenging things in my career, both on and off the water, and I’ve never had to quit before. Even during my toughest marathons, I could always dig deep mentally and get across the finish line. It might not have been fast, but as least I finished. But not this time, and it bothered me a lot. I realized then that I’d never be satisfied with a non-result in this race. We had unfinished business. We had to come back.
As for the boat, I’ve learned enough by now that anything is fixable, and this time we had time on our side. Our next trip, the Havana passage, doesn’t start until April 1, so while there’s no time to waste, there is a bit of time to fix things. I just didn’t know how.
Fast forward to yesterday morning and the nearly miraculous series of events that conspired to help us. I’d woken up early to go for a run over on the trail behind Nelson’s Dockyard. As I was stepping off the boat in my running gear, the welcoming committee was gathering on the dock to greet another finishing boat.
“Who’s coming in?” I asked the woman with the beer. “Sirens,” she answered. And they were going to tie up right next to us. I had to wait and congratulate them on holding us off in the end - after all, gear failure is a big part of ocean racing, and in a race as relentless as the Trade-Wind sailing in the 600, just finishing the course is an accomplishment, as we learned the hard way.
“We just couldn’t shake you guys!” Susan, the skipper of Sirens, said, smiling. “Such a shame that you had to retire.”
In the time it took Sirens to back into their slip, I caught Ken chatting up a middle-aged British guy on the dock who’d been admired Isbjorn. He introduced himself as Jonty, and mentioned he’s just bought a sistership Swan 48 over in Europe, and was in fact planning on bringing her to Antigua next year to race the 600.
I explained why we had to bail, and Jonty immediately leaped into action. As it turns out, he has a house on Antigua and has spent many years sailing here on various other boats he’s own with his wife. Within 15 minutes of him checking out the rudder issues, he’d phoned three or four people, and minutes later a South African named Oliver was onboard evaluating the problem.
“No problem at all,” Oliver assured me. “We can have you back together in no time. I’ll do some research and find you the best deal on a haul out and we’ll get to work on Monday.”
Jonty had also emailed some Swan guys in the UK who only minutes after that had emailed over photos and original drawings of the rudder bearing construction, assuring us that it was a simple, if not fiddly, fix. Oliver plans to drop the rudder, take everything apart, machine new delrin bearings both top and bottom, then re-glass the whole assembly into the boat. I spoke to him just this morning and we’re scheduled to haul out over in Nelson’s Dockyard at Antigua Slipway, where they’ll block the boat up over a wooden boardwalk where we can remove some planks to allow room for the rudder to drop out of the boat. I’ll be documenting the whole process, so stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, Mia and I rented a small apartment on the waterfront here where we’ll spend the next two weeks while Isbjorn is on the hard.
I’m by no means a religious person, but all I could think about during this mind-boggling morning where people came out of the woodwork to help us - and all because I never did go on that run when Sirens came in - was of my mom, and her smiling down on us from out there in the universe, somehow having something to do with this good fortune.
“You’ve got some crazy good karma,” Vanessa said at breakfast yesterday.
Whatever it is, I’m conscious of it and thankful for it. This whole thing is going to end up as a blessing in disguise. Despite having to quit the race, this couldn’t have happened at a better time - we’ve got time and resources. Imagine if it had failed mid-Atlantic at 50º north on the way to Ireland? Then what? I don’t want to think about it.
As I opened with, Isbjorn will be back and better than ever in the 600 next year. We’ve already adjusted the calendar to bring us back across the Atlantic in time for the race start on February 20, and Paul has already committed to skippering the boat again. Dan’s already paid his crew deposit, and Mia will be racing too. My friend Rory, who’s been following us all along from his place in Taiwan, is also in (he raced with us in Annapolis-Newport and Newport-Bermuda on the J/35 I skippered a few years back). So we’ve got three crew places left for those of you who think you might have the racing bug. And I can assure you, once it bites, it bites hard!
See you on the starting line in 2017.