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Donkin on Sailing

May 2007 – Antigua Week

I like to think I can punch my weight in a game of strength, but stepping up to the grinder on the Open 60 racing yacht, Artemis, when boats are neck and neck just after a race start is as big a test as you are likely find in the most gruelling gym session.

“Left hand on the inside, right on the outside,” says Gringo. “If the handles spin you out don’t try to get back in. You could get hurt.” It’s hard, it’s explosive and it’s soon over, but just as you get your breath again, the boat gybes and it’s straight back to the handles.

“Get involved as much as you want,” says skipper Jonny Malbon. In reality that’s not so easy on an unfamiliar sophisticated boat where a practiced crew hand always seems to reach a rope first. So I sit on the rail in a searing sun, rubbing in the factor 50 that’s washed off no sooner than it’s applied.

The invitation to crew on some of the world’s wildest racing boats in Antigua, a Caribbean yacht haven that’s made for sailing, had been too good to miss. But as my pale over-wintered legs turn from pink to beetroot red the idea of a drizzly day in the Solent seems suddenly quite appealing.

It was just such a day off the Isle of Wight that I had last seen Artemis, eight months earlier, when our yachts had been lining up for the start of the Seven Star Round Britain and Ireland Race. We had watched its sails disappearing in to the distance from the deck of our Reflex 38.

Seven days later it was first across the line, a full week ahead of our own finish. The Open 60s are quickly establishing themselves as the Formula One yachts of ocean racing, capable of speeds of up to 30 knots in the right conditions. That’s speed-boat power under sail.

As the name suggests, the “open” rule allows a variety of innovative features within certain limits. “This means there’s so much scope for development,” says Simon Rogers, head of Rogers Yacht Design and Artemis technical director who has been commissioned to design a new Open 60 for the team, one of a number of new builds emerging to contest next year’s Vendee Globe, the Everest of single-handed round-the-world sailing. “I’m excited about the new design. It’s a big step up in performance,” says Rogers.

The Open 60s are built for single-handed racing but Malbon has teamed up with long term sailing partner Graham “Gringo” Tourell to enter the double-handed Jacques Vabre transatlantic race later this year.

The Stanford Antigua Sailing week is different. This is the biggest week in the Caribbean yacht racing calendar attracting crewed entries from the so-called bare boat charters to the world’s leading ocean racing yacht – ABN Amro One, winner of the last Volvo Ocean Race.

It’s full on racing by day, full on partying by night. At one party, high above English Harbour where the super yachts lay straining at their moorings, women in blush-pink sarongs and wraps usher guests to the table where the forked-excavations of early arrivals had already removed the upper flank of a good-sized fish known locally as a mahi mahi.

On closer inspection the sarongs turn out to be scraps of spinnaker destroyed in a yacht race the previous day. This sort of thing happens all the time in race week. Day three has barely finished before one boat has been dismasted and two crew members have been pitched in to the sea, though no-one is seriously hurt.

Even the practice days can go wrong. On the eve of race day I sail with Pindar, the former Volvo ocean racer now owned and raced by the Pindar graphics group based in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

Andrew Pindar, group chairman, has been one of the pioneers of running yacht racing teams on similar lines to those of motor racing’s Formula One teams. The team serves a dual purpose, marketing his Scarborough-based graphics business while supporting some of the best young talent in yacht racing.

On this day his boat is awash with sailing talent, from Ian Willams, leading the world match-racing rankings on the helm, to round-the-world racers Alex Thomson and Brian Thompson in the afterguard – the tactical nerve centre of a racing crew.

The idea is to run through all the manoeuvres the boat will face in the race but the strong trade winds have delivered a heaving sea. The boat hits a big wave and we can feel the shock jolting through the mast.

A piece of rigging – one of the rigid diagonal struts above the second spreader – bursts apart, snapped like a chicken leg. These are crucial supports and failures like this so often lead to the loss of the mast. A quick drop of the sails, however, relieves the immediate pressure and the boat is able to motor back in to port.

Andrew Pindar shrugs his shoulders when he hears of the rigging failure. “You have to expect these things in sailing,” he says.

The next day, back on Artemis, lining up for the first race the nervous tension is almost tangible as the clock ticks up to the starting gun. A constant conversation accompanies the count down as skipper and tactician strive to gauge the speed to the line, matching the manoeuvres of competitors, watching for sudden tacks, building boat speed.

It’s a good start but Artemis, along with the other big boats, can do nothing to match the surge of power from ABN Amro One, a class above anything else on the water. This is the end of a Caribbean swan song for its skipper, Mike Sanderson, who has just been appointed director of Team Origin, the next British America’s Cup entry.

Here in Antigua away from the Valencia spotlight of the Louis Vuitton races that decide the challenger for the America’s Cup in July, Sanderson’s presence adds some spice to the racing where not a few potential contenders for British crew places are going through their paces. Little wonder the racing is serious.

“We’ve been practicing out here all winter and the chance to race against this kind of competition is invaluable in our preparation for some of the big races later in the year,” says Malbon who already has a non-stop round-the world race to his credit on the Maxi-catamaran, Doha 2006.

Antigua race week is an opportunity for the team to entertain its sponsors, Edinburgh-based Artemis Investment Management, a fund management company. The company has been drawn in to top class sale racing for the marketing opportunities although there is no question that it is competing to win.

“We’re a growing business and like to see ourselves as a vibrant company,” says Derek Stuart, one of the company founders. “We wanted something that matched that. Sailing attracts a lot of high net worth individuals so it seemed to have the right fit. We’re delighted at the way the team has gone so far.”

Before cutting short its presence in race week to begin the transatlantic qualifying distance for the Jacques Vabre, Artemis is in close contention for a podium finish after some close fought duels with Pindar and Chieftan, the Irish Open 50. On the second day of racing Pindar pips us after one of those long converging tacks where the boats come together near the line.

But for a few mishaps during the jibes the order might have been different. Even the best crews make mistakes.

The sunburn ends my race week early but there is always time for another party. One of the best is run by the Nicholson family who started the race week 40 years ago, taking advantage of Antigua’s reputation as a safe haven from hurricanes.

Today the island is the winter home for many of the world’s super yachts. Mirabella V, at $300,000 a week, possibly the world’s most exclusive charter yacht, was here before heading off to the Mediterranean for the European summer. So was Felicita West, the largest aluminium-hulled yacht afloat, and so too was the three-masted Maltese Falcon owned by Tom Perkins, the computer industries billionaire.

A few of the big Newport-registered yachts were still there, basking in Falmouth harbour, their highly lacquered hulls twinkling in the wave-reflected sunshine; but most had already gone. Antigua week signals the culmination of the winter holiday season in one big Caribbean blow out.

The super yachts are fine for cruising but these sailing leviathans are built for luxury. The Open 60 is built for speed. Its inky black interior is not for the claustrophobic, nor is it for those who need their conveniences. The lavatory is a bucket.

At the end of racing I step off Artemis for the last time. Even as her crew cosset her boom and dagger boards in matching blue covers, she looks every bit the sleek ocean thoroughbred. It’s been a privilege to race on her even if my involvement has been largely confined to the rails.

I end the week, like all good parties, soothing my legs in the Pindar house pool. Leaning back in the silky water under a perfect Caribbean moon you can see why sailors come here. Antigua has it all.

See also: Curacao

and: Round Britain and Ireland Race

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved