Sue Pelling joined the 20-strong crew aboard Peter Harrison's 115ft ketch during a windy two races at Antigua Sailing Week

It didn’t take too much persuading for me to accept an invitation to join the 20-strong crew aboard Sojana, Peter Harrison’s new Farr-designed 115ft ketch during the penultimate day at Antigua Sailing Week yesterday. However, with two 14-mile races scheduled and strong winds forecast, something told me there wasn’t going to be much lounging around on deck, sipping champagne to celebrate Peter Harrison’s birthday, instead it was going to be a full-on day battling it out against the likes of Mike Slade’s Leopard of London.

Although she was launched last September and sailed from the UK to Antigua in some fairly testing conditions, this is Sojana’s first big racing experience. For the regatta, and like he did for the GBR America’s Cup Challenge, Harrison has selected a top class racing crew including the likes of Richard Sydenham on the helm, Justin Slattery at the bow, Ian Budgen on trim, Mark Fizgerald as navigator, John Brinkers and Jamie Boag (tacticians) and Johnny Melbon.

It was only really as we cruised out of Falmouth Harbour to the staring area setting our full main and staysail, did the size of Sojana really hit home. Everything around us shrunk out of all recognition with Swans and MaxZ 86s looking more like racing dinghies than big racing race. The only one to dwarf us was Mari Cha IV. Visualance, not surprisingly became our priority.

Negotiating the start in 28kts of breeze with the likes of Leopard just to leeward and a scattering of smaller yachts (86 footers) all around, was definitely no place for the feint hearted. High-pitched, slightly panic-stricken shouts echoed around the boat as we jostled for clear air and headed upwind to the first mark.

Already looking two legs ahead, Brinkers and Boag had planned the kite drop situation even before it had been set. Meanwhile, I was still visualising the scenario hoisting the 600sq m asymmetric kite in 30kts of breeze. Interesting was one word that came to mind as I concentrated on my very important job of flaking the metres of spinnaker sheet ready for the hoist. Fortunately the boys in charge made light work of the hoist and we were at the leeward mark dropping the kite in no time.

Although we used the staysail instead of the genoa in the first race, it was decided to swap for the next race in an effort to improve her upwind performance. Fizgerald explained: “We don’t like using the genoa we have because it doesn’t look good when it’s furled/reefed and of course it doesn’t perform so well but it is, however, set at the front of the boat which is always better. We tend to use the staysail because it looks better trim wise but doesn’t accelerate as quickly and it doesn’t point quite as high and keep as much pace. We did intend to have two racing genoas, a full-size Code 2 genoa and Code 3-4 genoa which would be capable of being furled down to a Code 5 and that’s the sail we would have used today and we’d have been a lot faster. We’ve had a few issues in trying to tune the rig, we’ve put more rake into the main mast and slightly more into the mizzen and chopped around the cruising sails to make it all fit before we spend big money on 3DL sails. We’re pretty much sure now that the rig’s right and the tune’s pretty good and we’re almost ready to order the racing sails.”

As predicted Sojana’s upwind performance improved in the second race and with a good last beat by locking into the shifts – bang in sequence with 10-15 degree shifts – while Leopard missed out, we were able to pull out and beat her on the water for the first time ever. Peter Harrison celebrating his birthday in style said: “This is the perfect birthday present.” And recognition from Leopard’s crew as we crossed the line and the 20-strong chorus singing happy birthday from Sojana certainly did make it a day to remember.

According to Mark Fizgerald who’s spent a great deal of time on the boat including the delivery trip from the UK it seems there are several significant areas which make sailing Sojana totally different from other boats. Getting used to not doing things perfectly is probably the biggest thing to get used to. Fitzgerald said: “It takes so long to do things your sail trim is never going to be perfect because you physically can’t do it. You have to learn to get the best from what you have. It takes so long to manoeuvre you have to think two legs ahead. When you make a mistake in this boat it very hard to retrieve it because the guys like Justin Slattery – one of the best bowmen – is still only 85kg and one man physically can’t do it. It doesn’t matter how good you are at this scale, people are a bit irrelevant. If you can’t get it on a winch and do it, you can’t do it. The key crew are spread about the boat and are in charge of their own departments, so whatever happens they’ll just react and do whatever they have to do.”

Richard Sydenham on the helm of this 96-ton vessel has arguably the most stressful job of all, weaving his way in and out of the multi-class fleets and relying totally on his team-mates to feed him the correct information. On a boat like this there is no room for error and reaction has to be positive and sharp. Speaking after the race about the boat’s performance Sydenham said: “She very different to anything I’ve helmed before and because she’s a cruiser/racer you can’t turn it as quick as a out and out racer. Having said that she’s fast, and pretty easy to sail fast too. And interestingly, when you’re on the helm during a race you totally forget she’s a fully-stocked cruising boat.”

When having the boat designed Harrison wanted to create a powerful cruiser/racer that had a fast hull, was a fast performance boat and, above all, was comfortable. All cruiser/racers are a compromise by definition but Harrison seems to have succeeded in developing what he set out to do. Harrison said: I’m exceptionally pleased with the boat and she seems to be proving herself in all aspects. On the Atlantic trip over here we did 2,867 miles to Barbados in 9days 10hs, 31mins averaging over 13.1kts and the fastest speed we got was 24kts. When I was helming I got 19.6kts surfing the waves and I was really pleased with that. What was terrific was the consistency because every day for eight days we got 300-miles plus a day.”

As well as her exceptional sailing performance in cruising or racing mode, her interior design evokes the spirit of the old J-Class – a sort of gentleman’s club – which races with all the gear below including a 12-place bone china dinner set, crystal glasses and decanters. But don’t be fooled into thinking she’s going to be just an entertainment yacht because behind her glamorous interior lies a serious racing yacht which has yet to show her full potential.