Sailing yachts Northern Child and Southern Child are moored next to each other in the bright turquoise water of Antigua Yacht Club, awaiting their crews for the RORC Caribbean 600. The race is a 600nm non-stop offshore race, which ties the fleet in knots around the Leeward Islands.
Northern Child’s crew all arrive separately, comprising of Brits, Americans, Irish, Danish and Dutch and they are all turning up for their first practice day. The crew have never sailed together before. Few have sailed at night before, and fewer have completed a long, tactically challenging offshore race like this. This race requires every ounce of concentration every minute, whether you have just woken up from your three hours of sleep or not.
The start line is the first hurdle. 20 boats jostle for position on an imaginary line in the water, counting down the last minute to go. Boats assert their rights on the line, and other boats have to manoeuvre out the way. This new crew is tested, as actions have to be precise here and there is no time for a second chance. Concentration and communication is key, and I think it is fair to say that some crew were concentrating so hard on their jobs they didn’t notice the moment we crossed the line and started racing in earnest.
Away from the line and up the first beat the crew are really determined, tacking their way up the shore line of Antigua. Northern Child, like all classic Swans, has an overlapping headsail. This is our powerhouse going up wind, but we have to work for it! Every tack was a race to get the clew round the mast and keep it inside of the guardwires, as the grinders pulled it home.
The sun is merciless, pounding down on those only recently flown out of their snow bound homes.
As the first night dawns the enormity of being out at sea, racing against competitors you can now only see as a small light against the darkness, is thrown upon the whole crew. Northern Child is bolting along, running in front of the wind with the moon at her back and we are closing down the miles to the next manoeuvre, and the first sail change in darkness.
The crew have split into watches, at night the watch changes more regularly as exhaustion creeps in quickly. Boat speed is everything, and to achieve the best speed an alert crew is needed. However, regular changes mean little sleep, and no one is able to achieve much more than three hours in a row. This will become the norm for the next four days; sleep management is one of the biggest challenges to offshore sailors.
The trade winds are a little further South than normal, meaning that Northern Child can hold her Asymmetric kite for a longer time as the start of the course is generally winding its way northward. This meant that everyone got a good turn at flying the kite throughout the day, keeping their skills honed for doing the same thing throughout the night!
Several perfectly executed gybes later and Northern Child has rounded the top of Saba. Unfortunately a mistake in the night cost us some time. It is amazing how quickly a line dropped over the side can be taken away by the sea, and how effective the pressure of the water is when the boat is travelling at speed! However, the crew rallied once more as the sun came up, and this was the pattern of the days to come: mistakes during the night time hours were compensated for by superb effort during the day from the whole crew, many of which were digging so deep inside of themselves for this highly tactical race, whilst unused to the continued demands of offshore sailing.
I am sure many of the crew have particularly memorable occasions from the race, some of mine were the whale sightings on the first day, the lovely down wind helming of Mark as we passed between St Barths and St Maarten, the superb tactics from Noddy and gust calls of Kim and Piet as we sailed past Guadeloupe, sometimes hard pressed, sometimes ghosting, but continuously moving through the dreaded wind shadows. Moving through to the last few hours, with the whole crew on deck as we round Redonda, and the sun casting long shadows, it is always useful to remember that playing jokes on a tired crew is never a good idea, that Antigua and Montserrat can be easily confused, and that your crew trust you so implicitly that no one questions why we are sailing away from Antigua (Montserrat) not towards it!
We finished the race, at the correct Antigua, in the middle of the night and never was a tack and a mainsail drop achieved so quickly by such a worn out crew. We had spent the last six hours on ‘super watch’ with everyone who was able up on deck helping to tack the big headsail through. It was definitely with a sense of pride, achievement and maybe a little bit of relief, that we turned the nose of Northern Child towards Antigua Yacht Club Marina and dry land!
We should have known that it wouldn’t be an anticlimax when we got in. I have never seen such a big welcoming party for one boat. Not only did the RORC Shore team make us welcome with pictures, banners and crates of beer, we had crews from a host of boats, including sister ship Southern Child, to greet us and catch lines, to make sure we had a drink and went to the bar, to talk through every manoeuvre and out manoeuvre, and most of all to remind you that we are all there as part of something big!!