Caribbean 600 Report (More…)

08 Mar Caribbean 600 Report (More…)

We knew this was going to be a good race. Last years 2015 edition of the RORC Caribbean 600 marked the rushed debut for Lloyd Thornburgs third Phaedo, the ex Foncia MOD70 now in spectacular green and chrome livery and named Phaedo3. They had packed a huge program into the past year and co-skipper Brian Thompson remarked it was hard to believe it was only one as it felt like three. By comparison, we have only had Team Concise for half that time. We had lined up against Phaedo four times and beaten them twice including in the recent Mt Gay Round Barbados race. That said, they had beaten us twice on the much longer courses and it was our solid aim to break the tie by taking this one of them in their own backyard.

The Caribbean 600 represents a fascinating and challenging course as it weaves it’s way in and around the stunning Leeward islands. All but one of the turning points are made up of the islands themselves and each island has unique topography from shallow reefs to self generated weather systems to deal with. Our team had arrived 6 days before the race in order to do some practice runs around certain stages of the course. We wanted to go around some of the trickier islands to look for trends in the wind and get some idea of what we should be looking out for. A few key crew positions had been changed and for this race we had some offshore sailing royalty onboard. Michel Desjoyeuax, aka “Mish. Des.” or “the Professor” would be joining us for the race. Phaedo3 was his old boat and he sailed the course with them last year. When you bring someone of that caliber onboard there is always a concern that it may disrupt the synergy that already exists within a team but in many respects we are still a young team and this represented a great opportunity to hopefully pick up a few tricks from one of the sports true legends.

Phaedo had also brought an offshore heavyweight in the form of Damian Foxall to bolster an already very strong team. There was no doubt we were both in it to win it.

Come race day, after a solid sleep, we got out onto the course nice and early so as to look at a few lay lines and to try out the race gennaker. Start-wise, this was going to be a much longer game than the one we played in the Round Barbados race. We would be last to start. The windward start would involve a couple of short tacks to clear the cliffs at the base of Shirley Heights before making the longer Starboard tack out to clear the Eastern corner of Antigua. There were going to be more boats on the start and if we chose to start on starboard tack, we were also going to be headed straight in to the cliffs at the feet of Shirley Heights. Being first over the line mightn’t be as important as being well positioned to get clear of the other boats and the cliffs. The following boat may be well positioned to prevent the lead boat from tacking clear and thus be in control.  A port tack start was also an option. We would play it as we saw it. In the end our start was quite conservative. Phaedo had gybed inside us as we approached the line and luffed up underneath us. They had lost enough speed so that we easily had enough room and speed to duck them and return the favour however we also had to consider the other slower boats now crowding the committee boat end of the line. I think we could have also ducked these and cleared them pretty quickly… perhaps even using them to clear Phaedo off our windward hip. That’s hindsight. Instead we chose to let Phaedo lead us into the line which then gave us the freedom to tack clear onto Port once over the line. It was only a short tack to line up the distant East corner of Antigua but nonetheless, Phaedo made it shorter by once again tacking well inside our lay-line. Looking ahead it seemed that we were on a similar line to most of the other boats who had started earlier which left me wondering if Phaedo was going to make it. We seemed to have pace over them and slowly, as we flew gloriously high and dry perched out on the windward float, the green boat dropped behind our J1 headsail. Not before I noticed some of their crew were fully hiking off the windward hull. Hmmm… should be condemned and sent straight back to mono’s as far as I’m concerned!

I much prefer starting last as it gives us a chance to watch the tactics of the other classes and to go flying through them. We all have friends and interest in the other boats and at least this way we get to see each other in action. You certainly get to appreciate the speed and altitude of the flying tri’s as you look down from on high. I’m sure the other fleets also enjoy the spectacle and we don’t hang around long enough to disturb much air.

Despite our pace, Phaedo had managed to sneak along her inside lay line and make the point. As we began to bear away she emerged once again from under the headsail and narrowly in front. The gennakers were set for the fast reach turning to a VMG run out to the North Sails mark 35 miles away off Barbuda. Pretty soon there was only one lone sail up ahead of the two hard charging trimarans. The mighty Comanche had started 20 minutes ahead of us and yet we flew past her almost exactly an hour after our start grateful for not only our speed but the competition that was coming with it. Comanche would sail a lonely race.

A couple of short gybes were required to clear the North Sails mark and Phaedo benefitted from these at first but their last layline was off and they slowly waddled around the mark holding a 1 mile lead but having lost some of their recent gains. The two boats then chose different lanes and strategies for the 50 odd mile leg down to Nevis. Phaedo chose to peel to the J1 solent jib and sail a direct course whilst we aimed to sail deeper under the gennaker expecting a shift further down the course. We were super keen to reel them back in. We no doubt each had our theories and at times each path looked strong but in the end… we converged the same distance apart. Both boats had been hovering around 30 knots since they rounded the corner of Antigua. So much for the expected slow start. Phaedo threw in two gybes as we approached Nevis, they set themselves up inside us and were perhaps looking for some wind acceleration at the corner as a bonus but in the end it cost them nearly half a mile. We were close as we entered the next stage jumping down the lee-sides of the islands of Nevis, St Kitts and Eustatius to the turning point of Saba. Each of these islands would funnel the wind through the channel that separated them to varying degrees and it made for a fascinating game to choose to push on through the more direct, lighter lee of the island or gybe out, cover more distance but get more breeze. We mostly lead the gybes with Phaedo quickly covering but on one occasion they hit the light airs first and gybed out. We pushed on and were rewarded by a converging path as we came back together. We now had the option to be on the inside and lead into the next windy channel. How or why we didn’t do this and let this opportunity slip is a hot point to be discussed. We had already practiced this leg of the course in very similar conditions and knew what was coming for the first boat into the wind but we pushed on out anyway and relinquished the advantage. The really annoying bit was that we knew it. Pretty soon after we gybed back further out to sea, Phaedo hit the new breeze, powered up and bore away at speed for Saba. We still had to sail in the lighter breeze up towards their line before following suit. The gap was now out to two miles. The sun was setting as we approached Saba at around 20 knots under gennaker. It’s a remarkable looking island. With villages perched high up on its steep flanks it quickly enters most peoples Caribbean bucket list. It’s amazing how well the wind manages to get around this big ol’ rock and you can actually pass quite close although perhaps not as closely as we did this time.

We were keen to come out on the inside of Phaedo but just pushed it too hard. If we had have done the same at most other islands we would still be there. The speed at which you hit these wind shadows is always remarkable in one of these boats. They come in quick, wrap the headsails around the rig and then due to their light weight, lose momentum pretty quickly. Some times there is no pretty way to do it other than to try and use the wind whilst you still have it to ease the canting rig back upright before you have to do it all manually. Then you have to play the same game every boat does to fight your way through to the next bit of breeze. Getting the mainsail battens to pop through in next to no wind is always a fun exercise. The next trick is to get the rig canted the right way and everything down and in place for when you hit the new breeze. It can be a long, slow grind otherwise.

Somewhere up ahead in the dark, Phaedo was enjoying pretty much double the lead she had entered Saba with although we did come out on a higher lane for the beat up to St Barths. We weren’t too happy about taking two losses in a row with no-one to blame but ourselves. It was now obvious that we weren’t going to be getting much sleep on this race. We simply had to claw them back. The plan was to have a “buddy” watch system where you look after your mate and swap roles when the other gets tired. The race was too close and we were too hungry to make amends to stop working. We had crew sleeping on the incredibly uncomfortable thin spectra nets on the windward hull. We just aren’t equipped for sleeping up there and no spot is right. You try, you want to, you sit up for a bit and then try again but in the end with the boat in constant motion, it’s like sleeping on a pushbike.

As we sailed upwind in warm, moonlit darkness away from Saba, we came across a cloud line that offered us a 10 degree knock. We tacked off and were rewarded with a slight build in pressure as well. It appeared that Phaedo hadn’t covered immediately. We had tacked straight after one of the tracking scheds so perhaps they were unaware we had gone. Their AIS was conspicuously off which we speculated about (as you do)although the fact is they didn’t cover lent strength to the legitimacy of a potential fault. We now had good separation and winds over to the right and after another shift we tacked back. A few miles into this tack and we got into a lifting breeze. I was looking ahead towards the lights of St Barths trying to see a black sail moving against them when the joyous news came up from the cockpit that we had taken big chunks out of them and they were actually about to cross behind us. At last we were properly in the lead. The thought of leading Lloyd around his own island home drew grins and an infusion of fresh energy. We tacked an equal amount of times to clear St Barths and with a 1 mile lead, hoisted the gennaker once more for the VMG run down around St Martin. It was on this leg that it became obvious that Phaedo had a mode we couldn’t match. Wheras it appeared we had the edge upwind, they seemed to have it downwind and slowly they ate our lead away with depth and pace. As they gybed away for the bottom corner of St Martin, we stayed on perhaps too long in the direction of a larger cloud and lost some breeze. The next time we crossed along the well lit shores of St Martin, it was Phaedo that did the crossing. We gybed along the lee of St Martin trying to guess how close we could cut it without losing wind and trying to leverage any advantage. On the final gybe we chose to go nearly a mile further offshore than Phaedo and although we found a little more breeze, it didn’t quite pay us back the distance as Phaedo creapt around the corner without having to gybe again. It hadn’t been a great leg for us. Not much had gone right and yet here we were… still only 1.5 miles behind with an upwind leg back to St Barths playing to our strengths.

We made some nice small gains on them here but perhaps could have done better once again with our laylines. Unwarranted tacks can be expensive on these light, wide boats and although we tacked as many times as they did to clear the obstacles, there was little risk in avoiding the first couple as the closest headland wasn’t the furthest to windward. Once again Phaedo got the final lay line right so in the end we rounded the final corner at St Barths trailing by just under 1.5 miles.

Ahead lay the 110 mile leg to Guadeloupe. We were all still wearing the same shorts and T-shirts we walked away from the breakfast table in. The closeness of the racing and the general pace of the boats had kept us all hard at it on deck so this leg would offer us an opportunity to maybe put on something a bit warmer and try and grab a nap… as long as you’re to windward. I tried climbing in the canvas double surfaced front beam fairing and worming my way up to the high side. I sort of got there but the angles were all wrong and with every hull fly I would slide back down. For a while I tried to kid myself it was better but in the end it was back to the cheese cutter thin tramps and weird angles of the windward float. We compressed and separated from Phaedo on a leg that wasn’t that pleasant to drive on. The true wind angle would sometimes swing from the high 40’s into the 60’s so that you constantly had to trim the traveller whilst helming to try and keep the boat speed above 20 knots. We dropped into line with Phaedo and at this distance their stern light was easily visible.

Guadeloupe grew large in the pre dawn loom. We had held our distance to Phaedo but as we approached the long lee side of Guadeloupe in the early dawn, it was about to get interesting. Both teams had speculated before the start how it mightn’t be to your advantage to be the first one into the fickle wind shadow and we didn’t really feel disadvantaged being a mile and a half behind as we may be able to learn from their mistakes.

We compressed a little as Phaedo hit the lighter winds first and turned in to engage with the lee of the island. We didn’t have a real plan other than to read it as we saw it and try and play the conditions against the other boat. All eyes were scanning for wind clues on the closing shore and water. We wanted some separation but not too much. It was obvious that Phaedo was slowing right down so we chose a lane further out and headed there.

All the crew weight had moved inboard and forward. The big gennaker was now in the air to help draw us along. There were different opinions about how far out we should be, what the conditions were doing and how we should engage. Our paths began to converge but we still stayed slightly further out. Half way down the island under a dramatic dawn sky, Phaedo parked.

We turned a little further offshore and went gliding back into the lead before slowing ourselves. Phaedo crept over and there we were, trickling forward, just over half way through the race and a little over a boat length apart.

We were now in the thick of it, trying to keep the big gangly tri moving and well positioned with the competition whilst keeping an ever watchful eye on the weather. At one stage we both started heading for the shore as we could see, even at this early hour, a classic sea breeze developing. Smoke on the shore was drawing up the hill by the circulating breeze that was drawing us in. Sure enough we spotted a wind line out to sea that seemed to be growing in intensity until we could actually see white caps. The problem was that we had to make it through the dead patch to get to it. Phaedo was the first to turn. Both of our tacks were painfully slow but we knew we had to be “there”. Phaedo hit the breeze first and we rapidly configured the boat in preparation. Gennaker furled and down, dagger-board down, rig canted and all hands on the pumps ready to grind it all in once settled. In the end, once everything was settled, Phaedo left the wind shadow of Guadeloupe with about half her lead in tact. We now had a long beat ahead of us and were keen to see if we could duplicate our previous windward performances. We had already closed to within half a mile by the time we tacked on their line around Illes de Saints. From there it was a 50 mile long beat out towards the island of Desirade. The MOD’s were fully powered up with every spare set of hands perched out on the windward float. I had only been below decks once for the whole trip. Sure enough we began to reel Phaedo in.

Mich sailed through her lee, overtook her and then proceeded to come out higher. Later they asked us if we had been using the water ballast that this boat had fitted for the single handed sailing. I can honestly say we weren’t and we don’t. As far as we’re concerned we’re using the same basic tools they have.

A few tacks were needed to clear Desirade and it was our turn to cover them. When we did burst around the top under gennaker, we were holding onto a narrow lead of under a half a mile. Ahead of us lay a 90 plus mile VMG run back over the top of Antigua to the North Sails mark off Barbuda. Although it was a VMG run we didn’t want to start it by getting rolled by Phaedo. The start of the leg saw both of us sailing pretty hot as they tried to get over the top. The skill was to keep the boat fully flying the main hull and lifting on the leeward foil without letting it fly too high, lose what little centerboard was in the water and go skidding off sideways on the curved outer foils. It took a fine balance of constant traveler trimming and helm as the two boat hammered out the miles neck and neck at over 30 knots. Phaedo just couldn’t get through us. We changed helms and seemed to be doing very well as Phaedo slipped off our 3 O’clock position and back to our 5. They seemed to be changing tactic but by going deeper they were losing speed in a standard trade-off. At first it seemed as if they were dropping back but as we once again sailed over the Eastern tip of Antigua, it appeared they had found their old killer mode of speed and depth. Our mistake here was to give them the opportunity to go into this mode and we should have fought harder to stay between them and the mark. We were now being lifted above the rhum line and it was obvious there were going to be gybes at the end of the leg. We tried to match their depth with what we had but just couldn’t seem to get there. In the end we had lost about a mile and a half to them by the time our higher course forced us to do two extra gybes. The last one had us coming in hot to the mark and the call for a bareheaded gybe and peel to the J1 lead to a slow manouvre. Phaedo had turned the corner and with a 3 ½ mile lead, was now bolting at 30+ knots towards the last turning point 50 miles away at Redonda.

This leg was a tight reach blast all the way. The helmsmans job was simple as he just had to hold her straight whilst the trimmers did all the work. The traveler sheet was shifted to the windward primary winch and plugged into one of the pedastals. For the trimmer, now shaded by the mainsail and being blasted by the fire hose spray and roaring apparent wind these big tris generate, the shorts and T-shirt program was wearing a bit thin. Every other spare hand was loaded on the windward hull as we tried to keep the centre hull just skimming the surface all the way down. As we approached Redonda we crossed “Tonnerre” still beating her way towards Guadeloupe and struggling to lay Montserrat. We blasted past her transom flying high at 30+ knots. One of our Team Concise team mates, Jack Trigger, had landed a ride onboard Tonnerre and we could imagine him on the rail thinking “those b******s are going to be in the bar in a few hours”.

Redonda is a relatively small, pyramid shaped rock island only 35 miles from the finish. It’s wind shadow isn’t big but it still represented perhaps our last opportunity for gains… or losses. Annoyingly we had put aside a training day to do a number of roundings but the wind didn’t materialize to make it of value so it was dropped. We closed in hard on Phaedo as they parked in the shadow. Once again we debated the options but ended up following a similar line. They had been around this one a few times before. Despite our similar course we lost time on this rounding. Even on the same course as a boat ahead or behind, you can simply be in a different wind cycle. Phaedo was heading for home around 3 miles ahead of us. Although this sounds like a gain in distance it actually represented a time loss as we were now beating upwind at almost half the speed of the last leg. We let The Proff. loose on the helm and tacked immediately after clearing Redonda.

It was a beautiful evening as we flew upwind for the final 30 miles. The setting sun turned the giant swirls of spray flying way out behind us to gold.

We discussed options but there was nowhere obvious to make it all back. We tacked on any small opportunity and although we began reeling them back in, it wasn’t enough. Phaedo covered our every move until the end and under darkness, crossed the line a little over 2 miles ahead of us. 9 and a half minutes or so. Both boats broke Phaedos previous record by over 2 hours (??).

Comanche… 130 miles back. Just sayin’!

The mood onboard Team Concise was subdued. We had a fast boat and good pace on average but too many mistakes had cost us that one… and we knew it. Phaedo had sailed a solid race but we don’t feel we are the new kids anymore. We know we can take them down and after the Mt Gay Round Barbados victory, we were really hoping for back to back wins here to show them we more than have their measure. After that last win we stated that we had to bring our A game to beat them. The scoreboard doesn’t lie here so we can only say that this time we didn’t bring enough.

As we dropped our sails in the harbour we could hear the horns of the super yachts welcoming the victorious Phaedo crew back to their berth. They sounded again for us as we reversed in to wedge ourselves between the towering masts. The dock began to pack out as lines were eagerly caught. People clapped from restaurants and the dock cheered and offered good hearted commiserations. It seemed everyone had greatly enjoyed following the record setting scrap between the big tris. A crate of beers landed onboard to help wash the disappointment away. Lloyd, Brian and the Phaedo3 crew all came over to congratulate us on a great battle. It was their deserved turn to glow. Their weary eyes reflected our own and they freely admitted how hard they were pushed. They didn’t think it was in the bag until they crossed the line. Good, neither did we. The beers and good cheers began to wash away the immediate disappointment of the loss. I have no doubt that both teams love the passion and effort the other brings to the game. The fact is that we had just had a fantastic race around a stunning race course on incredible boats with and against great rivals and solid friends. I did perhaps 90% of the race in shorts and T-shirt. As far as yacht racing goes, that was… pretty damned good. No, it was better than that, it was brilliant.

As the crowd retired to the bar nearby, the Yacht club brought down a round of burgers and fresh beers as we tidied the boat up. It was then that it hit us just how exhausted we were. The adrenaline from the competition had subsided with the crowd and the first beer had nearly wiped us out. As a crew, we laughed warily at our pathetic effort to flake the last sail. We doubted we could survive another beer… but that’s what Espresso Martinis are for. Both teams powered on neck and neck once more.

Losing is part of the game. You do what you can to prevent it but when it happens you simply have to see the opportunities of a lessons learnt. In the art of improving your game, winning and losing can hold equal value. It’s what you make of your losses that often sets up the wins to follow.

I’m sure that both teams learnt a huge amount from racing in such close quarters with each other. Phaedo will go on to do the Heineken and St Barths regattas but she will have to play alone. We will be bringing Team Concise/Ms Barbados back to the UK for some TLC before the next big dust up at the Round Ireland race. By all accounts there will be three of as there as the Omani’s look set to return to the fray, possibly four by the next Middle Sea Race. I sure hope so. It’s simply too good not to share.


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