Nigel Biggs’s Checkmate XVI flew the burgee of the Royal Irish Yacht Club at Key West Race Week in mid-January, with a crew including young Irish sailors Adam “Bubbles” Hyland and Cian “Tree” Guilfoyle, alongside Dublin resident Jim Houston. This regatta is a “bucket list” event for sailors all over the globe, attracting Olympic medallists, America's Cup winners and Volvo winners to join professional and Corinthian sailors alike. Is there a better place to sail in January than the Florida Keys writes skipper Nigel Biggs
This was the second instalment of Checkmate’s US tour, following the Annapolis Fall Regatta last October. We joined ten other evenly matched C&C30’s for 5 days of highly competitive windward/ leeward racing where regular place changes were to become the norm. A high scoring regatta is often a testament to close racing, which was this case as this true one design fleet battled for the slightest advantage.
After losing a much needed practice day due to high winds, the first day of racing was a tough one. Starting in 20 knots of breeze that reduced during the day, the waves were up and the water warm for a great day of sailing. Boat handling is vital in any fleet, but when a flogging kite can be the difference between five and fifteen knots, it is crucial. Although happy with our pace, our lack of time in the boat and a couple of breakages meant we struggled to take the results we had hoped for in the first two races. However, we were improving and our efforts were rewarded with a hard earned win in the last race of a long day.
After a long discussion about where we could improve, the boat job list was finished and we headed of for Conch Fritters, Mahi-mahi and Shrimps….with maybe a cold beer.
Tuesday brought big winds, big waves and no racing. After more work on the boat we had a day of sightseeing, swimming and relaxation. The nippers took the opportunity to get up close to the Maxi 72’s and take a dip in a the ocean….slightly more pleasant than the beach at Dalkey in January.
Day three bought a 15 - 18 knots from the NE, an offshore wind that held steady enough to provide the closest racing of the week. With a swell left over from the previous day, it was tough to get upwind without slamming around and kept the fleet close together all day. The first windward mark had 10 of the 11 boat fleet overlapped, but our early start to the day and practice session paid off and we were in the mix all the day.
Finally we got some proper sunshine for day four of racing. Starting in a 10 – 14 knot breeze from the NE, the racing was as close and intense as Wednesday with no room for mistakes. Race 3 of the day had us in the middle of the leading bunch heading for the line, but a slight shift had us heading back in on port….hero to zero in 5 boat lengths!
For the last day of racing we headed out into a torrential downpour, 20 + knots from the south and a monster swell. Just like home – only warmer! After a conservative start at the committee boat, we headed right in a clear lane and were in our element……wind, waves and rain, all very reminiscent of Duna Laoghaire Regatta last summer! With confidence in our boat handling, we worked the boat hard to round the windward mark in first place, hoisted the spinnaker and headed off downwind at speeds approaching 20 knots as the breeze continued to build. Neil Mackley called a perfect lay line for our gybe into the bottom mark and we rounded with a good lead which we extended on the next round to take a thoroughly deserved and applauded win. With the breeze now a solid 25 knots, gusting to 30+, racing was abandoned for the day as we surfed back to the shelter of the dock at 15 knots plus with smiles all round….a great way to end a great week.
Key West Race Week 2016 was certainly very good to us both on and off the water. With a huge range of age and experience on board, we took every opportunity to learn from each other and improve and develop our skills. Our 2 race wins were reward for our efforts (the last being particularly satisfying) and whilst disappointed to only finish 6th out of the 11 competitors in our class, in the no discard series, we will continue to improve.
Our next event is the Miami Ocean Challenge in February where we will continue our 30 year plus Checkmate campaign of working hard, racing harder, but more importantly having fun and making new friends.