The annual RORC Caribbean 600 in late February is now a pillar event of the international offshore racing programme, despite the fact that it was only first sailed – and on a rather experimental basis at that – as recently as 2009 writes W M Nixon
From the very start, it has had a special place in Irish sailing hearts, so it seemed entirely appropriate that last night should see a convivial party in Howth Yacht Club to celebrate the efforts of two crews from the club who will be taking part when this year’s race gets going on Monday 19th February from Antigua.
They were joined by a third crew who will represent a combined operation by the National YC and Malahide YC, which means that there’ll be at least four Irish-crewed boats taking part in the annual sail-in-the-sun festival
You might think that with logistics demanding a minimal week-long countdown to getting all of your crew positioned on the other side of the Atlantic, the right time for the send-off party would be on Friday 9th February.
But as that’s the date for this year’s Afloat.ie “Sailor of the Month” and “Sailor of the Year” awards at the RDS in Dublin - for which there are no less than seven Howth YC awardees, with several of them in the club last night - Friday 2nd February was the only slot, and “Caribbean Co-ordinator” Brian Turvey and his fellow members in HYC, together with Caribbean 600 enthusiasts from several other ports, went for it with gusto, celebrating a race which raises the spirits at a time when February in Ireland can’t make up its mind whether it’s the last month of winter, or the first month of Spring.
In the Caribbean by contrast, it’s usually idyllic sailing conditions with good breezes, warm seas, lots of sunshine, and a crazy cat’s-cradle of a course taking in picturesque islands large and small until finally the total of 600 miles is reached as they return again to Antigua, arguably the sailing party capital of world sailing.
So in many ways, while now being part of mainstream sailing, it’s a race like no other, and Irish commitment began from the start in 2009 when Adrian Lee of the Royal St George YC came to the line with his re-furbished Cookson 50 Lee Overlay Partners, and won overall. As LOP had previously been Ger O’Rourke’s Chieftain from Kilrush which had been overall winner of the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race, clearly here is a boat which has an unrivalled position in Irish international sailing history.
Lee Overlay Partners will be there again on February 19th, and she has done a couple of other Caribbean 600s since taking the top of the leaderboard in 2009. But it is Ron O’Hanley’s sister-ship Privateer – close runner-up in the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race – which has tended to fly the Cookson 50 flag the highest in the Caribbean, though Lee Overlay Partners has logged some other extraordinary overall victories, including the decidedly exotic Dubai to Muscat Race of 2013.
It took a year or two for the appeal of the new race in the Caribbean to gain real traction in Howth. There, those who would normally have been in the forefront of national and international offshore racing, in a port which sent out two of the three boats in the 1973 Irish Admiral’s Cup, were of the cohort which most suffered from the onslaught of the economic recession.
But life on the peninsula has picked up, Howth Yacht Club has a heartening new spirit of energy and enterprise, and the fact of being isolated on a peninsula only slimly connected to the East Coast of Ireland (Howth is Eastside Dublin, not Northside) is seen as a real advantage, giving concentrated focus to club campaigns and projects.
With the Caribbean 600, this reached a new heights for Howth in 2016 with Conor Fogerty’s Sunfast 3600 Bam! winning her class, while another Howth crew, led by Kieran Jameson and Darren Wright, took third in class in the chartered First 40 Southern Child.
In 2017, they paused for breath, but Ian Moore kept the flag very high for Ireland as he navigated the 2017 Caribbean 600 overall winner, the Maxi 72 Belle Mente. Conor Fogerty meanwhile had gone the solo route after 2016’s race, returning to Ireland on his first single-handed crossing in order to position himself for the 2017 east-west Single-Handed Transatlantic race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, which he duly won to return home with the Gipsy Moth Trophy. Bam! had remained on the other side of the Atlantic, and was eventually re-positioning back in Antigua to be ready for the up-coming Caribbean 600.
As for Kieran Jameson, he focused in another direction with the Wright brothers on the Giraglia Rolex Cup 2017 in the Mediterranean, finishing in the frame in the chartered Spanish-owned Mark Mills-designed DK46 Maserati Hydra. But in the background to all this was a developing campaign to secure the charter of a very special boat for the 2018 RORC Caribbean 600.
We live in an era of unusual-looking offshore racers, but even in this colourful gallery, there’s something specially attractive and all-of-a-piece about the IRC 46 Peta Negra designed by Marc Lombarb of La Rochelle for English owner Giles Redpath. Yet she’s a “horses for courses” boat. In light airs with a lumpy sea, you’d guess that she might occasionally feel like she’s glued to the water. But it doesn’t take much heeling to reduce her wetted area by something like two-thirds, and she becomes a flyer, while offwind in a breeze, you better look quick, for she’s gone.
Part of the attraction of Peta Negra is that she works for her living. Much of the time, she’s very much available for charter. And also for much of the time, she provides a winning combination for the RORC Caribbean 600’s mixture of offwind legs. So by the time the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017 came up when Pata Negra was chartered by a Dutch crew, the Wright-Jameson team were very interested in the boat for the 2018 Caribbean 600 Race, and had taken an option on her charter, pending on lodging a deposit.
Kieran Jameson was tracking the boat in the Fastnet, and wasn’t too surprised to note that with so much rugged windward work, at the Fastnet Rock itself, Pata Negra was lying back in 59th overall. But like eventual overall winner Lann Ael 2, which had been lying 29th overall, Pata Negra’s Fastnet Race was only beginning.
She’d picked up places by the bucket-load on the swift broad reach to the Isles of Scilly, and even while the race was still on, Kieran Jameson activated the deposit payment on behalf of Michael Wright. His judgment was borne out. Despite being sailed by a charter crew, Pata Negra had shot up from 59th overall at the Fastnet up to 5th overall at the finish. Here indeed was a boat made to do well in the Caribbean 600.
When Kieran contacted the management company, there was a certain pause, a thoughtful intake of breath.
“After that Fastnet performance” said they, “we now have seven different potential charterers for Pata Negra in the Caribbean 600”.
Jameson replied quietly: “I think if you take a look at your bank account, you’ll find she’s chartered already, to the Howth crew”.
So that very neat bit of business provided something further to celebrate last night. But equally, it raises the stakes. Pata Negra clearly has the potential for a class win, made more so by the fact that she’s below the level where the souped-up TP 52s will be doing battle, so big things in the class results will be expected of boat and crew.
Optimism is growing after last weekend’s sailing in the Caribbean, in which Pata Negra broke the record for boats under 50ft in the 82nd Mount Gay Round Barbados Race. It’s a 60 mile sprint, and it was blowing old boots out of the northeast, but the Lombard design revelled in it to get round the clockwise course in 6 hours 19 minutes and 53 seconds, with an average of nearly 20 knots being set for the exposed stage down the Barbados east coast.
The Irish crew going aboard in a fortnight’s time will be Michael Wright, Kieran Jameson, Darren Wright, Colm Bermingham, Johnny White, Karena Knaggs, Sam O’Byrne, Ronan Galligan, Emmet Sheridan and Richard Cullen.
As for Bam!, in addition to skipper Conor Fogerty she’ll have Simon Knowles and Anthony Doyle from her 2016 win, and the other three will be Rob Slater, Robert Rendell and Damian Cody.
The combined National YC/Malahide YC team, racing the J/122 Noisy Oyster (one of three J/122s in the race) includes veterans of Middle Sea, Round Ireland and Dun Laoghaire to Dingle success, and they’ll be led by Bernard McGrenahan of the National YC, with Dermot Cronin of Malahide as navigator. Others in the lineup include Mairead Ni Chellachain (NYC), David Greene (MYC), Francoise Pean (NYC), Aileen Kelleher, Antonia O’Rourke, Nick Lowth, and Matt Patterson, a formidable array of talent which has also logged ISORA success.
However, the calibre of the fleet is formidable. George David’s 2016 Round Ireland dominator Rambler 88 must be favourite for line honours and another good handicap placing as well, while in the bigger picture Eric de Turckheim’s new 54ft Teasing Machine – which won December’s RORC east-west Transatlantic race to the Caribbean - is increasingly a force to be reckoned with.
As for the 2017 winner, the Maxi 72 Bella Mente, she isn’t going this year, but her very close contender Proteus is, and meanwhile Bella Mente’s navigator Ian Moore has transferred to the canting-keel New Zealand-designed Elliott 52 Outsider, now in American ownership and a contender every which way.
The entry list currently stands at 84, and includes some seriously hot stuff. Yet as Conor Fogerty conceded last night, when a crew arrives in Antigua straight from the tail end of the Irish winter, it can be an uphill struggle to get them to focus on acquiring that necessary competitive edge.
“Give them half a chance, and they’re into lotus eating rather than determined training” says he. “But as usual, we’ll get it all together somehow or other…”