The Class 40 Vaquita screamed across the Atlantic in 12 days, trouncing boats twice her size. It’s the ARC, but not as most know it. And Elaine Bunting discovers it’s not for the faint-hearted

Fish caught… 0

Freshly cooked meals …0

Books read …0

Sunbathing hours …0

Sundowners… 1

Vaquita was sailing so fast she sounded as if she were electrically charged. “We were permanently planing and there was so much foam and air under the boat that it was buzzing all the time and jumping,” said the skipper, Andreas Hanakamp.

This was relentless. More than once the crew ticked off 1,000 miles in three days. Nothing was allowed to stop them. While the 1,200 other crew in the 2012 ARC were preparing meals, fishing, meeting for sundowners, reading books and sunbathing, Vaquita’s were living to sail.

It took them just 12 days for one of the smallest yachts in the ARC to trounce all comers – the next to arrive was the Swan 80 Berenice, a yacht twice Vaquita’s size.

This fabulous David versus Goliath conquest was one of the most remarkable performances I can remember in more years of covering the ARC than would be seemly to admit.

Hanakamp, former Olympic Star sailor and Volvo Ocean Race skipper on Team Russia in 2008, together with the boat’s owner Christof Petter and a crew of hotshot dinghy racers, did it by blazing an extreme northerly route. And never letting up.

“We were consuming five per cent of our energy to stay alive, so we could contribute 95 per cent to sailing fast,” he says.

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From the moment he left Las Palmas on the ARC rally to Saint Lucia, the analytical Austrian’s strategy was to go west, bash to windward for 36 hours and seek out the reaching angles that bring this Class 40 yacht to life and scorch across to win the racing division. At its highest latitude, their route took them around 180 miles north of the starting point in Las Palmas and they sailed a considerably longer distance than the rhumb line.

No doubt about it, this was a gamble.

This is not the ARC as you’d normally think of it. But the racers have always existed as a minority party, sitting in comfortable coalition with the cruisers. This year there were 30 yachts in the racing divisions. These crews don’t normally soak up the limelight, but this year was different for two reasons: first, nearly all the cruisers took up the option of a two-day delay to the start owing to bad weather, so the racing divisions and their tactics were highlighted, showcased even.

Second, because of the special performance of Vaquita and the huge pay-off of their northerly route.

Taking the high road

The high road is always an option for transatlantic yachts. It can be faster, especially for lightweight racing yachts like Vaquita, which are readily able to plane on reaching angles. But it comes at a price: this way can be rougher, you can encounter headwinds, get stuck in light winds convergence areas, even get caught by developing tropical storms. It’s a risk, but the potential is there for a fast crossing if you have the right kind of boat and a crew up for it.

Vaquita was not alone going north. A week after she left, the maxi Rán-Leopard (Mike Slade’s Leopard chartered by Skype billionaire Niklas Zennström) likewise took a northerly route on a different race between Tenerife and Virgin Gorda, BVI. Like Vaquita, the crew actually made 250 miles of northing to reach faster wind angles and they finished in 7d 8h – average speed: 19 knots.

Niklas Zennström and his wife Catherine chartered Rán-Leopard

Niklas Zennström and his wife Catherine chartered Rán-Leopard

The tactics in both cases are fascinating. To find out more, read Chris Tibbs’s analysis of the two yachts’ routes and his mini weather routeing guide for the ARC.

Stripped-out and simple

Racing in the ARC is like living on another planet from the family cruisers. Life on Vaquita was, like the boat herself, stripped-out and simple. The crew of six men – quite a crowd on a Class 40 – included Austrian Olympic 49er helmsman Nico Delle-Karth and they were there to sail fast. Four hours on watch were about steering or trimming.

49er sailor Nico Delle-Karth tucking in

49er sailor Nico Delle-Karth tucking in

There were to be no distractions. All the meals were freeze-dried and carefully organised. Hanakamp had prepared to a fine detail: every second day a vacuum-packed bag included a kitchen towel, every third day a new washing-up sponge, every fifth day a fresh binbag. “So nobody has to spend any energy or resources that could have been used before the race,” he explains. He had calculated nutrition – 3,500 calories a day – as enough for crew requirements but with minimal waste.

Sail, sleep, eat, sail, sleep. In Hanakamp’s case, get weather, sail, eat, sleep. He says he was spending six hours a day downloading and analysing weather files (the satellite bill came to about €500). Life on board centred almost exclusively on output and, as such, any unnecessary effort was senseless.

Sleeping on the rail

Sleeping on the rail

If you wanted to wash, you could take a bottle of fresh water and soap on deck. The heads was not used – “it’s in a confined area with little ventilation and it’s not pleasant,” Hanakamp says. Before long it seemed too much trouble even to use the bucket, so they would go to the transom and squat over the back, between the lifelines, or pee from behind the traveller.

“There is so much water everywhere it just goes out,” Hana-kamp observes, obligingly demonstrating for me the transom-hanging technique.

“Maybe it’s strange for some readers, but when you live on a boat, people make it very simple for themselves.”

Stripped-back life

Hanakamp had chosen energetic, instinctive, bright-burning young dinghy racers on the assumption that they would push as fast as they could and fit right into this stripped-back life. “Nothing was expected except to sail fast and enjoy it,” Hanakamp says. Two of the dinghy racers had not been offshore before. Nico, the 49er Olympian, was a natural. “You could tie one hand behind his back, hang him upside-down and give him a sleeping pill and he’d still helm well . . . He got into it.”

The other younger crewman didn’t.

“He was successful on lakes and he wanted to try it, but it didn’t work out,” Hanakamp maintains. “He suffered from seasickness for a week and although he recovered, he wasn’t able to contribute a lot.

“My theory is that some people get really drained actually being on a moving object. He didn’t adapt to the boat’s motion.”

Mopping out

Mopping out

In a bid to understand why this crewmember was unhappy on board, Hanakamp asked what he had expected. “He said: ‘I can’t say. I read so much; I read all the articles. I want it to be authentic.’ So I asked: ‘Give me an example of what you mean.’ He said: ‘For example, sundowners.’

“We didn’t have any alcohol on board, but that day I found some milk powder and I mixed it with cocoa and gave him that.” A sundowner that was, in fact, a cold hot chocolate.

But Hanakamp insists: “This is for the joy of it, the simplicity of it. Here, the way it was, was perfect.”

It doesn’t matter whether you are racing or cruising, the gap between what people may be expecting and what they actually experience is the commonest reason for unhappiness and sometimes even trouble on board. Often, though not always, it’s because a skipper who runs a boat a certain way hasn’t been crystal clear about what the routine entails.

Potential for discontent

But nowhere does it become a hotter problem than on racing boats. There may be a long list of repairs, a feeling of pressure and expectations of performance. The potential for discontent is even greater on the charter boats, where crew who are not hugely experienced may all want slightly different things, but are paying equally for the experience.

A woman I spoke to from one racing charter yacht told me she hadn’t done much helming. When they were sailing fast and rolling heavily downwind under spinnaker, she wasn’t deemed skilled enough. Then when there were light winds she wasn’t quick enough. She says the skipper told her: “If you’re slow, I’ll kill you.” So her role had been confined mainly to cooking – not what she’d expected when she paid to race across the Atlantic.

Confrontations and minor spats are not uncommon. On one racing boat after several lengthy repairs and a persistent leak, tension about the navigator’s long lie-ins grew so fraught that they exploded into a confrontation.

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Putting up with confinement and discomfort is much easier to accept if you’re getting a good result – you get in quicker and the deprivation is over sooner. The opposite is true as well.

But competition exists right through the fleet. “The emphasis may be on fun, but the cruising divisions also have a competitive element with a handicap system we’ve developed,” says World Cruising managing director Andrew Bishop.

When I ask Roly, a New Zealander crewing on a 53-footer, if they were racing anybody he laughs and says proudly: no, they were cruising. But when I enquire: “Who did you beat?” he immediately points out two neighbouring boats and tells me how many hours separated them. Everyone has friendly rivals they’d like to beat if they can.

Intrepid Bear

At the opposite end of the scale to Vaquita is Intrepid Bear, a Catana 431 owned by James and Sara Simpson. Yet their story is every bit as extraordinary, and in many ways much more ambitious. “We were in Saint Lucia this time last year and we saw a yacht anchored off and I thought that looked fun,” says James.

Although he had sailed dinghies as a child, he had never been on a larger boat. His wife knew nothing about sailing. They bought their boat in the UK early last year and at Easter James did an RYA Day Skipper course and organised nine months away from his work as a banker in London to cross the Atlantic with their three children, Milly, 9, Thea, 7, and Harry, 5.

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Until this summer, the longest trip the family had done was 40 miles from their home port, Gosport, to Poole. They took longer weekend trips with an RYA instructor on board and sailed across Biscay with him. For the Atlantic crossing they took along two young university students they contacted through the World Cruising crewfinding site, both of whom had Yachtmaster qualifications.

A comfortable crossing

The Simpsons are obviously smart people and their decisions sound considered and wise. “We’ve been fairly comfortable with everything we’ve done and we don’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” says James.

They deliberately went south from Las Palmas. “We had an appreciation that we had kids on board and we took quite a southerly route,” he explains.

Nevertheless, I notice they were proud to be in the top 15 per cent of finishers and the first boat with children to arrive. They admit they were delighted to find themselves first among the multihulls for a time, and even after they were overtaken by a similar-sized Lagoon catamaran, they were keen to try to catch up. “It was nice to have something to focus on and to finish promptly,” says James.

But like most crews the Simpsons are sailing for a life experience and not, like Vaquita’s, living for a sailing experience. When Intrepid Bear ran out of wind for two days the family went swimming. Looking underwater with goggles, they caught a glimpse of a minke whale gliding underneath the opposite hull. It was one of their highlights.

They have marked a tick in all the traditional ARC boxes: they ate well; they caught fish; they read books; the children had lessons on board. They celebrated Thea’s seventh birthday with a party and a treasure hunt. They had sundowners.

The Simpsons crossed in 13d 19h. That is a fantastic time for a 43ft cruiser. Their passage was two days longer than Vaquita’s, but those were a completely different sort of day.