RE­LENT­LESS PACE

RIP­PING AROUND AND THROUGH CARIBBEAN IS­LANDS AT 30 KNOTS SOUNDS LIKE FUN. AND IT IS.

Sailing World - - Pace -

Iwake to the sound of wind bat­ter­ing the shutters and linger under the bil­low­ing white mos­quito net. Lis­ten­ing to it howl out­side the house stirs a cock­tail of ex­cite­ment and ner­vous­ness. I think about the fore­cast; 13-foot seas and 30 knots isn’t some­thing to be taken lightly.

An­tic­i­pa­tion of the fore­cast is vis­i­ble among my team­mates as we roam around our shared house and gather our be­long­ings on the morn­ing of the start of the Caribbean 600. I go easy on the cof­fee, which never helps my nerves. We have high goals and ex­pec­ta­tions for this race, which adds to the stress. Given the fore­cast, there’s a chance we can beat the record, but our ob­jec­tive is to beat Ram­bler 88, the big Amer­i­can maxi, across the fin­ish line. We have a strong de­sire to win over­all be­cause the Caribbean 600 may be the last ma­jor race for Para­dox. The like­li­hood of stars align­ing is slim, how­ever, and our mar­gin for er­ror de­creases as the wind strength builds.

Soon enough, boat cov­ers are off, sheets led and we’re cast­ing dock lines. We could use an­other sailor or two given the ex­pected con­di­tions, but a last-minute crew ad­di­tion is too much to or­ga­nize. We col­lec­tively leave con­cerns about be­ing short­handed next to our flip-flops on the dock and mo­tor to the start. Our six-pack crew in­cludes Para­dox’s owner, Peter Aschen­bren­ner; our skip­per, Jeff Mear­ing; nav­i­ga­tor Jonny Mal­bon; Paul Larsen, aka the world’s fastest sailor; He­lena Darvelid; and my­self, trim­ming, and run­ning the pit.

For ref­er­ence, Ram­bler 88 has 18 crew to our six, but we have strong as­sur­ances in our fa­vor. We know the boat in­ti­mately, hav­ing sailed thou­sands of miles and many races to­gether. We’ve pushed the boat hard be­fore, es­pe­cially during the 2015 RORC Transat­lantic Race, which had five straight days of white-knuckle down­wind charg­ing, con­tin­u­ously touch­ing 30 knots and more of boat­speed. We know Para­dox, a Nigel Irens-de­signed racer/cruiser built in 2010, is strong.

A race- com­mit­tee de­lay fol­low­ing the first start, to wait for squalls to roll through, is puz­zling be­cause the con­di­tions match what we ex­pect to ex­pe­ri­ence over the course of the en­tire race. It’s blow­ing a steady 26 knots and 35 in the squalls. We know what we’re get­ting into, but I’m wor­ried many of the other com­peti­tors do not. I’m a fairly cau­tious in­di­vid­ual, and if I were on many of the boats I saw gear­ing up for the start, I wouldn’t have left the dock. The sea state and the squalls are go­ing to be hor­ren­dous, and con­di­tions will be boat-break­ing, which of­ten equiv­o­cates to peo­ple get­ting in­jured. Hu­mans break be­fore car­bon fiber does.

Adrenalin and con­cen­tra­tion soon re­place the wan­ing anx­i­ety. It’s time to get a good start and sink our teeth into what will be an epic race. It’s time to shift into a lower gear and dig deep. We set­tle for a full­speed charge at the start line on star­board near the com­mit­tee boat and then tack im­me­di­ately af­ter we cross the line. Every mono­hull in the fleet had started be­fore us, so we need to cre­ate some space and open run­way to the first turn­ing mark off Bar­buda.

The ela­tion of get­ting thrown into it straight­away is ex­tra­or­di­nary. We’ve been dream­ing about this race, and the con­di­tions on the race­course are ex­actly what Para­dox is built for. We take unadul­ter­ated plea­sure in pass­ing nearly every boat ahead of us. Around the top of An­tigua, while be­gin­ning the reach to a mark off Bar­buda, we pluck off the fastest re­main­ing boats one by one: the maxi Pro­teus, the Volvo 70 War­rior and then, fi­nally, Ram­bler 88. I give an en­thu­si­as­tic wave to the crew on Pro­teus as we blaze past, hop­ing it’s the last we see of them un­til we’re ashore with a beer in hand.

Af­ter its re­cent re­fit, Ram­bler 88 now draws 23 feet and is about a ton and a half lighter. We an­tic­i­pate the race be­ing a 600-mile game of snakes and lad­ders with Ram­bler, which we ex­pected to be the bet­ter boat up­wind, but we’re con­fi­dent we’ll get the best of it on the reaches.

Now, about those reaches. We’re con­tin­u­ously touch­ing 30 knots or more of boat­speed here. That’s wet. Very wet. The pres­sure of the spray on your face ranges from a tol­er­a­ble an­noy­ance to an out­right smack. The smack is fol­lowed by a gasp for air and a head shake, and a con­tin­u­ous drib­ble of salty spit­tle down your chin that you con­tin­u­ously eject. The in­side of your top and bot­tom lip be­comes pruned, as if you’ve held a salt cube in­side your lips for hours.

At times it’s both ex­cit­ing and fear in­duc­ing. My emo­tions are in sync with the tri­maran’s heel. Heel an­gle dic­tates whether or not it’s an ori­fice-clench­ing mo­ment or ex­cit­ing ac­cel­er­a­tion. Rac­ing at such a high level, you’re al­ways go­ing to be push­ing the edge. We can’t af­ford to take our foot off the gas pedal with Ram­bler 88 only a few miles be­hind.

That is, of course, un­til the gas pedal gets taken away.

A smart yachts­man once told me, “In or­der to fin­ish first, you must first fin­ish.”

Though we didn’t re­ally heed this phi­los­o­phy un­til two- thirds of the way around the race­track, there are mo­ments when we sim­ply must slow the boat down. Es­pe­cially in this amount of wind, the sea state, the squalls, all of which take a toll on the equip­ment. Stuff breaks, right?

The first piece of gear to fail is one of our winches. Para­dox has two winches in the pit on ei­ther side of the cen­ter hull and no way to cross lead lines, so it will be an is­sue if not sorted soon. I be­gin to ac­cept that there’s no way we can main­tain our lead if we are down a winch.

But it also isn’t the best time to have Jeff go below to try and fix it. Things are get­ting very windy on the back side of St. Kitts and Ne­vis as we work our way to­ward Saba.

We avoid the wind shad­ows but fight our way through nu­mer­ous squalls. In one huge ac­cel­er­a­tion, we spin out into a crash jibe. Time to tuck in the third reef and de­ploy the storm stay­sail. We re­cover quickly and carry our new sail com­bi­na­tion to Saba. But then we strug­gle on the up­wind leg with our small fore­sail. It’s time to peel back to the stay­sail.

The wider-than-av­er­age reach an­gle from St. Barts to Guade­loupe is where we can lay some track and pos­si­bly pull away from Ram­bler, which is less than a mile away at times. Off we go, thun­der­ing into the black, moon­less night. The night is made darker in­side my tinted gog­gles, but from where I re­side, hold­ing on to the trav­eler con­trol line in the cock­pit, I can still see the num­bers and the an­gle of heel. That’s all I need to see. I’m camped out on the trav­eler while Jeff and Paul take hour­long turns driv­ing.

En­ter my world for a mo­ment. I’m ter­ri­fied of get­ting washed overboard by a wave, so I’m clipped in for­ward. My role with the trav­eler is to con­trol the boat’s heel, which means I’m the safety backup to the driver. Think of it like cut­ting the fuel line to the ac­cel­er­a­tor. I have a sense for peo­ple’s com­fort level and driv­ing style; Paul likes to push it, so I don’t dare deny fuel to the fastest sailor on the planet. Yet even Paul has a tip­ping point. Lit­er­ally. We shout back and forth to each other over the noise pro­duced by the speed. “Ease!” “How much wind is there?” “More trav­eler!” I have as few wraps on the trav­eler winch as pos­si­ble, so I can dump it quickly, hold­ing on to the abra­sive sheet as tightly as pos­si­ble. My fin­gers be­gin to ache, but I can’t switch hands be­cause I’m us­ing the other one to hold on tight. The pelt­ing spray makes it hard to take a breath, so I tuck my chin for a clear pocket of air. With my chin tucked, spray now pen­e­trates the gog­gle’s top vents and I have no free hand to clear the salt from my eyes be­hind the gog­gles.

I’m sit­ting, pre­car­i­ously perched, with one leg out­stretched to a foot brace. Af­ter a while my leg starts to quiver vi­o­lently and I can’t tell why. Fear? Cold? Fa­tigue? Com­bi­na­tion? I read re­cently that it’s a way for the body to re­lease adrenalin. I’ll buy that.

I hold out as long as I can on my perch but max out at three hours. The race is long, but if I’m sleep de­prived, I can’t per­form at 100 per­cent, the boat’s per­for­mance suf­fers and my role is di­min­ished. I yell for some­one to swap with me.

It’s my turn for a break. The boat’s in­te­rior looks as if we’ve had a wa­ter-bal­loon fight down below. I’ve never seen Para­dox’s cruis­ing in­te­rior in such a state of dis­ar­ray. On longer races we pay a great deal of ef­fort to keep it liv­able down below, but all rules are off in a mad dash of 600 miles.

The te­dious process of go­ing off watch be­gins by re­mov­ing the tether, then PFD, hat and gog­gles. La­tex wrist seals peel over chapped hands, and the la­tex neck seal is gnaw­ing through the skin on my neck. It’s painful, but it’s ac­tu­ally much worse when putting it back on. I go to grab a nap, but it’s not a good one. I dream about the peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wich I made my­self be­fore leav­ing.

I HAVE AS FEW WRAPS ON THE TRAV­ELER WINCH AS POS­SI­BLE, SO I CAN DUMP IT QUICKLY, HOLD­ING ON TO THE ABRA­SIVE SHEET AS TIGHTLY AS POS­SI­BLE.

I wake when I sense the boat has come to a com­plete stop. It’s sun­rise, and we’re only do­ing 10 knots, wal­low­ing in the lee of Guade­loupe. The long reach down to Guade­loupe, and whether you get to play through or sit wal­low­ing in the is­land’s ex­pan­sive wind shadow, are two of the most an­tic­i­pated mark­ers in the race. The slow­down lasts long enough for He­lena to strip her kit and hang it out­side to air. But soon I see a dark rip­ple of pres­sure ahead and help her to pass ev­ery­thing back down below. We’re about to get wet again.

At this point, we are ahead of the record, but as we plod along near Guade­loupe, the record slips away. By our later cal­cu­la­tion, we man­aged an av­er­age of 17 knots to Phaedo’s record-set­ting pace of 19. Not bad, con­sid­er­ing we still had our cush­ions to sleep on and a work­ing re­frig­er­a­tor, stove and shower.

As evening falls, we set a gen­naker for a run to Re­donda. I take an­other op­por­tu­nity to recharge and hit the bunk. I study the back of my eye­lids to force sleep, but Jonny soon wakes me with a shout that we have a com­plete electronics black­out. Bar­rel­ing along at 24 knots to­ward the loom­ing dark mass known as Re­donda with­out in­stru­ments for radar is dis­con­cert­ing. Jonny and Jeff have per­formed nu­mer­ous re­pair mir­a­cles during the race, but this one will be a big­gie.

Our elec­tric winches are still work­ing, for­tu­nately, al­low­ing us to furl the gen­naker and get the boat under con­trol. We slow the boat and give our wizards time to work their magic. While they do so, Ram­bler is draw­ing ever closer. Only a 30-mile beat to the fin­ish re­mains. We later es­ti­mate that we spent more than an hour of slow­ing to 6 knots or less to deal with dif­fer­ent is­sues on board. We can only hope that every­one else is deal­ing with break­ages. This much we know: Con­di­tions aren’t be­ing kind to the fleet. Of the 84 boats that started, 41 of them will re­tire.

We cross the fin­ish line first af­ter 37 hours on the course, re­turn­ing as happy, al­beit bro­ken, sailors. We’d set a few lofty goals months be­fore, which in­cluded, in or­der: Fly to the Caribbean. Beat Ram­bler around the Caribbean 600 course. Win cask of rum. Con­sume cask of rum with friends.

Mis­sion ac­com­plished.

Ed­i­tor’s note: The au­thor, a Volvo Ocean Race vet­eran with Team SCA, is set­ting out to be the first per­son to sail all seven seas and climb the seven high­est moun­tains of the world’s seven con­ti­nents. www.sara.blue

BY SARA HAS­TRE­ITER

PHOTO : TIM WRIGHT / RORC CARIBBEAN 600

Para­dox over­takes the fleet early in the race be­fore cap­tur­ing line hon­ors in the 2018 Caribbean 600, com­plet­ing the course in 37 hours, five min­utes and 16 sec­onds.

PHOTO : COURTESY SARA HAS­TRE­ITER

The au­thor has sailed thou­sands of miles aboard Para­dox, in­clud­ing a Transat­lantic Race, the Rolex Mid­dle Sea Race and three pre­vi­ous Caribbean 600s.

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