Philippe Falle reports from the YW Round Antigua Race as the Quokka team try to defend their title
As we slipped our berth in the historic Nelsons Dockyard, where Admiral Horatio Nelson served for four years, I knew that it was going to be a good day out on the water. Whilst there were a few people suffering from pre-race nerves the mood was good and a high degree of focus prevailed. It was one of those days where everything seemed to just gel as the benefits of our three training days paid off.
Last minute changes were made to the rig settings before we set off up-wind to get the sail settings sorted before a short downwind blast back to the start area in plenty of time to be completely prepared and ready for a great start. As flag X-ray was displayed, signalling a premature start, we listened intently to the VHF as we were only half a boat length behind Sleeper, the first boat over the line. Luckily for us they were the only boat re-called meaning we had had a top start.
Our team this year for Antigua is a group of individuals who came together last year as a team for the first time. There are varying levels of experience on board but with a keen enthusiasm and desire to succeed the teamwork has developed very quickly and skill sets improved greatly in a very short period of time.
Quokka’s boat speed off the line was encouraging and in clear air from the gun we extended our lead upwind demonstrating the potential for the forthcoming week. In 13 – 15 knots of wind Quokka was on fire and all pre race nerves were a thing of the past as concentration levels soared and everyone settled into their first race extremely well.
As we rounded Green Island there was little time to take in the beautiful scenery as the code zero was hoisted with the fleet hot on our heels. The race was intended as a warm up training race for Antigua Sailing Week but with a healthy lead that idea was firmly on the backburner as extending the lead and winning was clearly at the front of our minds.
For a team that do not race together regularly the teamwork proved to be slick under the expert guidance and leadership of crew boss, Ash Harris. Ash brings a healthy approach to running the team and every mishap is met with an endearing smile that brings calmness to the boat and restores confidence in everyone, including me.
For most of the Caribbean racing season so far I have had varying roles on board Quokka other than my normal role as helmsman. Whilst it has been great to have the opportunity to do other things it was a pleasure to be back behind the wheel eking every hundredth of a knot out of her. The exhilaration of flying down the West coast of Antigua with the Code Zero fully powered up in 20 knots of breeze hitting 11 knots is one of the special moments that make races like this so memorable.
For most of the day I had been on a high loving being back at the helm of Quokka, thoroughly enjoying the slick teamwork and taking great pleasure in the stunning boat speed was being delivered. Sometimes though the dice can be rolled the wrong way and the outcome is not quite as the pre race visualisation had suggested. As we approached Sandy Island a small but significant wind hole turned the race inside out for us, and others.
We sailed into a hole with 1-3 knots of wind and in the choppy sea it was impossible to see where the route was around it or out. Tactically we got it wrong and we were not quite slick enough to get through, it was heart breaking to watch the fleet sail around us. As massive despondency set in it was difficult to understand what had gone wrong but what I did know was that it was a disaster for us and with only a seven mile beat left there would be no way back into the race for us. The defence of our title was over and our moment of glory on the stage would not be happening.
It is always difficult to pick oneself up from moments like that but I was very impressed with everyone on the team as the situation was put behind us and training resumed with great effect. We worked extremely hard to further improve the upwind performance and came away from the race with the knowledge and confidence that Quokka was quicker on the water than any of our rivals. A few small issues were identified and those will be worked on this morning in our pre race training session before Antigua Sailing Week gets under way.
It was a fantastic day out on the water with many highs, lots of lessons learnt and much confidence created. After eight hours of racing combined with the lingering disappointment of the result tiredness had crept in and an early night was in order. The team had given everything and pushed at full capacity right up until the finish line demonstrating great strength of character in a difficult emotional situation.
Today is another day and an enthusiastic team are on their way to Quokka to resume battle with our main rivals who we suspect will be El Ocaso and Lancelot, which is being sailed by Richard Matthews and Harold Cudmore.