Sojana is the largest yacht competing at Antigua Sailing Week 2017. Captain Loz Marriott explains how the crew manage her complex sail plan through racing manoeuvres

Sojana racing in the Peters & May Round Antigua Race ©Paul Wyeth PW Pictures

Sojana, the 115ft Farr-designed ketch belonging to businessman and philanthropist Sir Peter Harrison, is the largest yacht competing at Antigua Sailing Week 2017.

The event, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has once again attracted an eclectic mix of visiting and local boats with everything from the Swan Stay Calm, a Gunboat and HH66 fast cruising catamaran, the original maxi Kialoa III, right down to a mix of production racer-cruisers, unusual one-offs such as the highly modified 6-metre Biwi Magic, and a host of bareboats under charter.

Dotted around the island there are plenty more for boat spotters to tick off their list, with Sojana moored two spots down from the latest generation J-Class Topaz, and the pontoons outside the yacht club hosting everything from the Perini Navi Rosehearty to Maltese Falcon. Immediately after this year’s Antigua Sailing Week is a new Antigua to Bermuda offshore, which some 22 boats have signed up to take part in, while many of the superyachts are biding their time on the island before heading up to Bermuda for the America’s Cup and Superyacht Regatta next month.

Solana leading Class CSA1 at Antigua Sailing Week 2017 ©Paul Wyeth PW Pictures

The biggest class of the event is CSA1 Ocean, which sees the Finot-Conq 100 Nomad IV lining up against Sojana, Stay Calm and some Volvo and Open 60s living out middle age in the sun. Sojana are here to win – Sir Peter Harrison’s team last took the event win in 2011, and he would like to repeat it. They started the week attempting to crack the Round Antigua island record win on Saturday, on the owner’s 80th birthday no less, which eluded them by just one second. However, the team had taken three straight wins over the first two days of racing – I joined them onboard for the second day.

Breadth of experience

The crew is an all-star cast, with the race team run by former Vendée Globe skipper Jonny Malbon alongside the boat’s captain Loz Marriott. Several of Harrison’s GBR Challenge crew remain, including helmsman Richard Sydenham and pitman Mo Gray. They are bolstered by talent around the boat including Paul Larsen, world speed sailing record holder, and Helena Darvelid, together with other MOD70 crew such as Tom Dawson trimming. Volvo Ocean Race sailor Laurent Pages works with Malbon on tactics and nav.

The most striking thing onboard is that, despite the extraordinary depth and breadth of talent onboard, Sojana takes everything this crew have to get her around the course. Besides the mainsail and forward spinnakers and genoas, there is also the mizzen main which requires constant trimming, two mizzen foresails which go by the names of ‘Black Betty’ and ‘Big Jonny’ (apparently you’re not allowed to ask why), and additional reachers on the forward inner forestay.

Trimming the mizzen is Paul Larsen, working with Helena Darvelid and foiling kite racer Gina Hewson in the complex mizzen mast area. The multitude of combinations require near constant releading of sheets, an armoury of powerful snatch blocks and jammers, and enormous potential for error. Spinnaker trimmer Colin Murray asks if I’m happy to get involved in the drops because frankly, he says, he can use every single hand that he gets.

Boat captain Loz Marriott explains that the two teams onboard have to run almost independently, linked by slick timing through the manoeuvres.

“People would thinking gybing with five sails up would be the trickiest thing, but it’s the dropping of those five sails at a leeward mark, coming round to a Kiwi drop where you’re dropping the spinnaker, you’re unfurling the jib, you’ve just got rid of your spinnaker staysail, you’re gybing the mainsail, you’re dropping what we call the ‘Big Johnny’, the big spinnaker at the mizzen, and gybing that mizzen… and also you’ve got all the hydraulic power and all the noise that’s going on, those manoeuvres are really, really tricky.

“Generally the mizzen team go first on the drop, because we need the helmsman to be able to see clearly, so we get rid of a sail and keep the power up forward. The timing for drops has been developed over the regattas, you start off with five minutes to drop a spinnaker and end up with two minutes. To hoist a mizzen staysail and unfurl it we know it’s 20 seconds, but we started with two minutes. You’ve just got to do that until every team understands exactly how long it takes to do each manoeuvre.”

Watch Loz Marriott explain how the challenge of running a race team of nearly 30 people through manoeuvres here:

Sense of occasion

Race one is slick, with Sojana finishing first by 15 seconds on corrected. The crew refresh with fresh coconuts onboard, which even they admit is a pretty superyachty thing to do.

But race two gets off to a trickier start. A vintage round the world 60-footer is above us on the line, we need to tack soon after. When the Sojana team ask the skipper if they can cross, their answer is “Your call”. It doesn’t inspire confidence, and we give them a relatively wide berth.

Big seas on Day 1 of Antigua Sailing Week 2017 for the 115ft ketch Sojana ©Paul Wyeth PW Pictures

At the first critical hoist a riding turn halts progress, and boat captain Loz Marriott over-rides the race commands, calling for all hands clear of the enormous electric winches until the problem is resolved. Shreds of Spectra on deck after the tangle has been cleared provide a little aide memoire as to why. But just above us, Nomad IV had an issue on board too. There is some shouting, and their gennaker doesn’t launch either. The game is far from over, as Sojana’s waterline sees her pull away. As it transpires, their corrected lead is even wider at the end of the second race of the day.

Owner Sir Peter Harrison makes sure to take the wheel as we sail back in. Harrison, a history buff as much as he is a keen sailor, has invested heavily in the restoration of some of Antigua’s key historic buildings through his charitable foundation. Antigua is clearly just the place to spend your 80th birthday, and this is an event he would very much like to win.