With winter still clinging like a hyper-cold limpet in northern latitudes, the prospect of balmy breezes and warm seas in the tenth annual RORC Caribbean 600 in late February seemed like the perfect prospect for escape and sport writes W M Nixon. After all, Irish sailors look on it with a certain proprietorial pride, with Adrian Lee’s Cookson 50 Lee Overlay Partners (Royal St George YC) winning the inaugural race overall in 2009.
Sea, sun, scenery and sailing – you have all that guaranteed for starters, even if only to enjoy it vicariously in following the event on many information streams. But then, as the start time approached at 11am local time Antigua on Monday 19th February, the growing entry list indicated an increasingly high quality lineup, with many powerful big boats and a swathe of professional crew.
Yet even if names of legendary fame and achievement were going to be competing, these was still a place for club entries with the necessary amateur experience to send forth crews, either on members’ own boats, or on judiciously-selected charter boats.
The “judicious selection” came in finding boats suitable for a rather specialised cat’s cradle of a course which can include a lot of power reaching, and takes in 11 island in order to have topped the 600-mile mark when the fleet finally returns to the finish line off the southern headlands of Antigua.
With every sign that this year’s staging of the race would experience the northeast tradewinds in stonking form, we were encouraged a week ago to predict that George David’s mighty Rambler 88 might repeat her dramatic showing of line honours and a new mono-hull record, just as she did in the Volvo Round Ireland race of 2016.
Well, Rambler 88 did that, and she did it well, knocking more than two hours off the record her predecessor Rambler 100 set in 2011. But then as the rest of the fleet battled the course, it became increasingly likely that the big silver bullet could repeat her astonishing Irish success of the treble – line honours, course record (one day 13 hours and 41 minutes in the case of the Caribbean 600), and IRC overall win.
Several of Rambler 88’s challengers seemed within an ace of it, but the final 35 miles beat from Redonda back to the race’s focal point at the south end of Antigua saw them fail one after another to make the target, until by Wednesday only American Ron O’Hanley’s keenly-campaigned Cookson 50 Privateer – with Kinsale’s Ben Fusco as mastman - was in with a realistic chance, but that also faded on the final windward slugfest.
It means that overall the Americans have dominated the podium for the top results even if Kinsale has a share of it, with Rambler a clear first, Privateer second, and the Volvo 70 Warrior (Steve & Stephen Murray Snr & Jnr) third. So why then is there a considerable element of RORC Caribbean 600 celebration this weekend on a certain peninsula on Ireland’s East Coast?
Well, the slightest delving into the more detailed class results shows that between them, the National YC in Dun Laoghaire, and Howth Yacht Club on the eastern peninsula, can come up with 1,2,3 in class places, and in an event of the calibre of the RORC Caribbean 600, those are placings which are very special indeed.
The third place (it was in Class 1) came from Irish-American Kevin McLaughlin’s J/44 Spice, skippered by his son Sean with former Irish college sailing stars Will Byrne and Chris Raymond of the National YC in a key role in the crew.
As for the second place, it was also in Class 1 and went to the interesting Marc Lombard designed IRC 46 Pata Negra, chartered by Michael Wright of Howth under the guidance of Kieran Jameson, and crewed by an almost entirely Howth YC team.
And the first place was a peach. It was in Class 3, and went to Conor Fogerty’s Sunfast 36 Bam! HYC, which filled the same position in the 2016 race, but has since been away on other business such as winning the east-west Single-Handed Transatlantic Race of 2017. Yet although she was the second-smallest boat in the race, the potent Bam! was by no means the lowest-rated, so she had to work for her placing in conditions which tested everyone.
For it has been something of a Demolition Derby. Of 74 monohull starters, only 40 finished. And while the ten multi-hulls recorded a better finish rate, one of their exits was the most dramatic of all – a capsize by the catamaran Fujin, fortunately without any serious outcome other than one inverted multi-hull, with her crew safely on top, near the island of Saba.
While the possibility of such things was always present, the traditional pre-race festivities were special for the Howth contingent, as their own ex-Pat superstar Gordon Maguire arrived in from Australia to race aboard George Sakellaris’s much-fancied Maxi 72 Proteus. That the pre-race betting on Proteus was well-founded seemed justified after the first nine hours, as she narrowly had the overall lead on corrected time coming into the turn at Saba. But then an equipment failure led to her rapid retirement, and that was one favourite down, and others to follow.
Last year’s overall winning navigator, Ian Moore, was aboard the German-owned Elliott 52 Outsider, a canting keel entry which certainly looked the part. But as an outsider bet she would have been a disastrous investment, as nothing seemed to be going right from the start, and she retired at the north end of the course.
By that stage, the retirals were coming thick and fast as sails and gear – and maybe crews too - failed the test. But the key Irish boats were hanging in, even if the crew on Pata Negra were going through spinnakers at such an alarming rate that by race’s end they didn’t have a single spinnaker left in the locker.
But the preponderance of miles of power reaching, and the presence of some beats which provided opportunities for sound tactical choices, enabled Pata Negra to offset her lack of downwind sails. In the two final beats – one along the much indented south coast of Guadeloupe, and the other from Redonda to the Antigua finish – it was a pleasure to watch how navigator Colm Birmingham was calling it spot on, reading the shifts to perfection and skillfully using any bit of lee in the shelter of headlands to enable Pata Negra to gain an extra fraction of speed and out-perform much larger boats around her.
Heaven only knows how many peninsula people were following the tracker on Thursday afternoon as Pata Negra got within ten miles of the finish, with the mid-day wind at Antigua really getting up a head of steam. And then, with 9 miles to go, her speed was shown as down at 4.3 knots, her heading straight towards the harbour…. Was she disabled and motoring?..... A great collective sigh of relief as the next position showed her back up towards 8 knots and better, fairly thrashing along to the finish and that second place, achieved despite the spinnaker eliminations.
It was all part of a choreographed and slightly emotional series of happenings put together by Brian Turvey, starting with a send-off party for the two crews in Howth YC. That had to be held on February 2nd as the Volvo/Irish Sailing/Afloat.ie “Sailor of the Month” and “Sailor of the Year” awards were to be held in the RDS the following weekend, Friday February 9th, and after that there was an HYC Achievers Celebration hosted by Commodore Joe McPeake on Saturday 10th February, following which it was Antigua all the way.
But by the time that Achievers Party came around, Conor Fogerty had become “Sailor of the Year” the night before, so he was doubly feted in his home club, and gave a moving little speech in which he frankly admitted that when he bought the boat new in 2015, he hadn’t a clue how to make her go well, but it was the encouragement of fellow Howth members which helped him up from being an also-ran to a winner.
Such thoughts were much in everyone’s mind through Thursday night as Bam! battled up that final beat to the finish, for another of the crews at that early-February party in Howth had been the combined National YC/Malahide YC team of Bernard McGranahan and Dermot Cronin, who were going to off to Antigua to race the J/122 Noisy Oyster, but they’d had to pull out with just 115 miles to sail, a really bad moment for Team Ireland.
But the Bam! supporters concerned about that final beat were heartened by some thoughts voiced in Conor Fogerty’s video from his OSTAR win:
“There you are, out in the ocean in the night in this light little boat in a gale, climbing up the side of a big sea that seems to go on up for ever in the darkness, and then you shoot out the top and become airborne for what seems a lifetime, and you’ve time to think that there’s no way this little plastic thing is going to survive hitting that very hard bit of water way down in the bottom of the trough, and then comes the crash which surely nothing can survive….but she does, she does survive without splitting open. And then she picks herself up, and just sails on, climbing the next mini-mountain that you know is right there in the dark”.
Set against that, the Redonda to Antigua beat was a walk in the park. But Bam! fans fretted until their boat was safely home around 4.30 am our time yesterday morning, and then it was time to relax and savour the moment. As for the Howth crews who have done the job and given their club such credit, aboard Pata Negra they were: Michael Wright, Kieran Jameson, Darren Wright, Colm Bermingham, Johnny White, Karena Knaggs, Sam O’Byrne, Ronan Galligan, Emmet Sheridan and Richard Cullen.
Aboard Bam!, in addition to skipper Conor Fogerty there was Simon Knowles and Anthony Doyle from the 2016 win, and the other three were Rob Slater, Robert Rendell and Damian Cody.
Here it is, still February, and they’ve had a season’s sailing and success already. It certainly blows away those winter blues.