RORC member John Burnie explains what to expect on the course

Friday 17th February

John Burnie has been racing and cruising
the Caribbean for decades. A long-standing RORC member, John was on board ORMA
60 Region Guadeloupe, which flew around the course in 40 hours 11 mins 5 secs
in 2009 to set the multihull course record, which has stood to this day. There
are few people who know the course as well as John especially as he was one of
the creators of the first and only Caribbean 600-mile offshore race.

This year, John will be competing on Sir
Peter Harrison’s Sojana. However John is so enthusiastic about the race that he
could not resist offering up some precious tips and tricks about the course:

“An early look at the weather and it looks
like we are going to get normal trade wind conditions with a wind direction
just slightly north of east, classic ‘600 conditions provided the weather
pattern holds as it is.”

“This year, the start line will need to be
significantly longer because of the size of the superyachts that have entered.
It will be a magnificent sight from Shirley Heights. The yachts will tend to
tack as close into the cliffs as they can to get a huge lift off the headland
and there is a lot of current inshore. The yachts will want to get out of that
adverse current. Once around Shirley Heights a close-fetching yacht can almost
lay Green Island in one tack.

The leg up to Barbuda could well be a
powerful reach but a good tip is that many yachts tend to over-stand the North
Sails mark at Barbuda. After Codrington Point the wind can free off enormously
as you run down the side of the island. The wind also tends to accelerate there
and it is usually a monster reach-to-reach gybe.

The downwind leg to Nevis is usually not
too tactical but it is especially worth looking out for squalls. I remember on
Region Guadeloupe we overtook ICAP Leopard there because we got the right side
of a squall and they didn’t. Significant gains and losses can be made in
squalls. Look at the cloud formations as you approach Nevis. If the clouds are
moving briskly that is a good sign of breeze, but if they are static the signs
are there is a big wind shadow and it is probably best to head further west before
turning the corner. In general, the best policy is to stay a bit offshore
around the back of Nevis and St.Kitts, then try and lay Saba in one tack.

Although Saba is a small island it does
have a fairly large wind shadow but it is usually a tough beat afterwards and
you would tend to try to keep as much height as possible. The sea state can
really pick up there due to a significant current. It is the first real taste
of harsh ocean sailing for the crew and yachts. After making St.Maartin there
are still 18 miles of short tacking. It is a hard-hitting part of the course,
especially at night for the smaller yachts. What’s more, there are a lot of
rocks that the fleet will need to be especially careful of.

The reach down to Guadeloupe is the first
real chance for crews to get their heads down in the race but the start is a
significant point tactically, getting the right angle after St.Barths can be
crucial. In my opinion, you should stay slightly high on your course, as if the
wind does go south of east, you could end up beating. Montserrat is on the
layline and there is talk of leaving Montserrat to port, but in my opinion when
there are normal trade wind conditions you shouldn’t benefit from going west of
Montserrat, especially as in doing so you would have to sail a lot more miles
and in foul current.

The approach to Guadeloupe is a key area of
the race. There is typically a
significant wind shadow on the north west corner of Guadeloupe, especially at
night. Having said that, during the day you can actually experience a westerly
sea breeze there. It is so variable that it is best to look at the clouds over
the island and also keep a watchful eye. I always get my binoculars out before
approaching Guadeloupe to see how other yachts are sailing up ahead. I have
been trapped in an area of no wind, north west of Guadeloupe and watched as 30
knots was blowing through the channel, just two miles away. Many yachts may
choose to put someone aloft to take a good look, but a good overall strategy is
to stay well off, keep your distance maybe five miles offshore, sail a quarter
of the way to Dominica so that you can lay Les Saintes.

Îles des Saintes marks the most southerly
point of the course but I would really advocate turning back towards Guadeloupe
after rounding Les Saintes, if the wind is in the northeast. Beat back towards
Cappisterre but watch out, there are thousands of fishing floats. I wouldn’t go
in any further than a depth of 50-100 metres. However, there is a massive lift
inshore because the wind cascades down to the `north of Soufriere with the wind
going to the south. Once inshore, stay there is my advice, don’t go out towards
Marie-Galante or you will lose out.

Les Desirade is the most easterly part of
the course and that is always a place with a rough sea state. Very confused
seas with a lot of current, smaller yachts need to be mindful of the conditions
that can be expected. After rounding, the yachts will come off the breeze, a
big bare away and another time when crews can get there heads down, as it is 90
miles to Barbuda and there are no real tactics coming into play there, other
than avoiding over standing the North Sails mark, which we have already

Barbuda to Redonda is normally a very fast
reach with yachts belting along going for line speed. It is worth keeping an
eye out for squalls. Redonda is only a small island but it can throw out a
significant wind shadow. I have seen races won and lost there so avoiding
getting too close to Redonda. After rounding the last island of the course, no
messing about, get right on the wind and head for Cades Reef on the north west
coast of Antigua. There is a shelf extending out from Antigua some 16 miles and
taking this route will be an advantage for less foul current, then work down
the west coast of Antigua along the edge of the reef until the finish.

The RORC Caribbean 600 starts 1100 local
time – Monday 20th February 2012.