The RORC 600 is no walk in the park. I know this having done it twice before. The race comprises of a 600 mile weave around rugged caribbean islands large and small, ploughing through two metre seas and dodging squalls. Of course none of us can complain about the temperature and its a heck of a lot nicer getting drowned in caribbean waves than it would be if this was the Fastnet Race but still its a tough one. Typically the fleet will experience healthy trade wind conditions, an easterly or thereabouts between 18 and 25 knots with each island delivering its own local effects to enhance or diminish the gradient breeze. Since the Dorade team reassembled in Antigua on the 18th February, the trade winds have been reasonably strong at around 20 -22 knots however it looks like next week may be a touch lighter. We anticipate seeing 10-15 knots of wind during the first 36 hours of the race. We are all pretty happy about this, now if we could just flatten the sea state out a little too it would be perfect.
But what is it that makes this race so challenging? Well firstly there are a lot of corners to turn. We start out under the cliffs of English Harbour and tack our way up to the SE corner of Antigua. For the more modern yachts this means short tacking close to the shore to stay out of any current and take advantage of a lesser sea state. On board Dorade however we do not point as high and our rate of turn and acceleration is not as quick as others so tacking is costly and our strategy for this first leg needs to consider this. Once we are clear of the reefs we can ease sails and head for the inflatable turning mark laid off of Barbuda. This will be our first opportunity to launch a big reaching sail or a large jib. We will probably also begin to run into squalls towards the end of this leg which may require reefing and headsail changes. Another sail change will be needed as we turn Dorade towards Nevis and sail downwind under spinnaker. It is pretty much guaranteed that we will experience squalls during this time so the on watch crew need to be vigilant. From Nevis we head north again up to the towering island of Saba. As we begin this reach we will experience gusts and lulls associated with the topographical effects of the mountainous islands to our windward side before we sail into the wind shadow cast by Saba. Here we have the transition from reaching to upwind and could well experience a reversal effect caused by wind tumbling off of the island. Thankfully it is only small and the shadow is usually passed within 30 minutes. Back on the breeze, we race towards the corner of St Barths in a lumpy sea state and it is here we will need to keep our eyes open for traffic in the form of faster boats making their way back south again. A turn around the rugged rocks outlining off St Barths will have the Dorade crew hoisting the spinnaker once again to run downwind leaving St Martin to starboard. This usually starts as a pretty wild ride with some large waves to surf. It is unlikely the crew will have had much sleep yet and we will be sailing pretty close to the rocks so the coffee machine will be greatly appreciated at this point.
If we don’t make it past St Martin in daylight, we will need to navigate our way down the Anguilla channel and past the tiny island of Tintamarre in the dark. If the trade winds are strong the sea state pounds against the sharp, vicious rocks that mark the eastern point of the island and usually this is passed with little room to spare. Next comes the longest leg of the race which is often the only leg during which the crew can get any kind of decent rest. A blast reach of 160 nautical miles with a true wind angle of somewhere around 80 degrees. It is possible we may see yachts rounding Redonda for their final beat to the finish. It is likely this leg will take us somewhere between 16 and 20 hours so once again we can expect to have to contend with squalls. The trickiest part of the racecourse is found off the SW corner of Guadeloupe. With a mountainous landscape towering to over 4,000 feet, a huge wind shadow extends to leeward of the island. Some will attempt to sail around this, some will hug the shore. Time of day usually plays a part in the decision making. On board Dorade we will not be shy about taking a risk here if necessary. The faster boats will be out of sight so we have little to lose. One thing we will want to avoid is sailing too many extra miles to try to skirt this area as it will ultimately make the the next beat around Les Saintes and up to La Desirade even more arduous. We will no doubt see the new wind seeker sail come into play as we try to coax Dorade through this shadow. The trick here is to keep any momentum we have without frantically changing through the sail wardrobe as brief zephyrs of wind swirl around fuelling any optimism before dying again to be replaced by the dreaded sound of slatting sails.
The transition from calm to crazy however is rapid. I have had major sail damage at this corner through not being prepared. The wind accelerates along the southern coast of Guadeloupe and can easily exceed 30 knots. In daylight you can see it coming on the water but at night it can catch you unawares. We will be vigilant here and will need to have Dorade reefed and ready for strong upwind conditions and the crew will need to brace themselves for a heavy sea state again after a brief respite from the Caribbean swell.
As we pass close to La Desirade its time for a reach back up to Barbuda on the second longest leg of the race. Another sail change and another mode to sail in. Depending on conditions this can also be an opportunity for some crew rest. It is likely it will be an A3. By now all the big boats will have finished so for us on Dorade we just need to keep focused on the job in hand and enjoy the final two legs off the breeze before the big push to the finish. From Barbuda we gybe around the mark and head for Redonda, a bare aggressive looking rock situated some 35 miles downwind of the finish. Redonda will give us a small but vicious wind shadow and then if we were not already soaked to the skin, the last beat will make sure to do the job. Bear in mind, it is 35 miles in a straight line and unless we get really lucky with a wind shift, it could well take us around 10 hours to reach the finish line.
So there it is, 600 miles of corners, sail changes, wind acceleration, wind shadows, big seas and high temperatures. It is punishing for both boat and crew and it is only a fool who underestimates this race course. It will certainly be the most challenging race that I have sailed on board Dorade so far but right there is the attraction. Looking around the marina at the carbon rigs, pedestal winches and wide transoms of the modern race boats, Dorade stands out. Yet it is Dorade that people want to come and see. It is Dorade that has that ‘wow’ factor. This will be a very different experience for me from the previous 600 races that I have done. It will certainly be slower and without doubt it will be tougher. We may not be able to boast of average boat speeds into the twenties when we finish but better than that, we hope to show once again that even at 85 years old, Dorade is still undeniably one of the finest ocean going race yachts ever built.