Philippe Falle reports from the front of the fleet at the Voiles de St Barths where there was big breeze and drama aplenty

For the first two days of St Barths regatta the racing conditions were not what the brochure had promised as the typical trade winds had been replaced by unusually light and variable wind. The sailing proved to be tricky and tactically demanding as 30 degree wind shifts were not uncommon and finding yourself on the wrong side of one of those, as we did on day two, proved extremely costly.
Coming into this regatta I was slightly sceptical of the concept of the 30 pre-designed courses that take the fleet around the many rocks and Islands that surround St Barths. I am more used to the concept of the traditional and arguably popular windward/leeward courses. However, after the first race I had been completely sold by the course setting. By 0800 the race office had published the course which can range in distance from 13 – 39 miles with a variety of different wind angles on sea states on each leg.
The courses are interesting and make the navigation much more fun as there is a constant need for a combination of modern techniques using tactical software and a tablet combined with more traditional techniques like depth contours and visual rock spotting as we round the many small islands. The scenery throughout the races is spectacular with the added excitement of being just feet away from massive lumps of rock in crystal clear waters. The variety of wind angles makes it more interesting for the entire crew with the constant sail changes and gear changes that are needed, which has required almost every sail on board in the three days so far.
At the end of day two the form boats were becoming clear throughout the classes as the mighty JV72, Belle Mente, took two bullets in the Maxi class, as did we on Ramanessin/Quokka and Lazy Dog the superbly sailed Melges 32 in their respective classes.
After the much welcomed lay day the trade winds returned in vengeance. With 25 – 30 knots forecasted we knew it was going to be a big day and headed out to the start area with caution. On Ramenessin I am sailing with a top Irish team that is made up of some extremely experienced and successful racing sailors. I was particularly impressed how their main emphasis for the day was on safety with performance firmly second. I was asked to give a MOB brief which everyone listened to and contributed to with enthusiasm. It was decided very early on that lifejackets were mandatory on board. I was very pleased to see such a healthy attitude toward safety.
A stark reminder as to how quickly things can happen in tough conditions came minutes before the Maxi start. In 27 knots of breeze we heard a massive bang on our port side. It was that spine shuddering crack of splintering carbon. By the time I had turn around to see what it was Belle Mente’s mast had already crashed into the sea. It was a heart-breaking moment as just moments before we had all been marvelling at the sheer power and beauty of the yacht as she would storm around the pre start area hitting speeds in the high teens perfectly in control with some of the top sailors in the world.
Now she sat in the 2 metre sea motionless with all her grace and power gone. There was a moment where the entire team was too stunned to move but then there was a rush of the luminous green shirts as the team cleared the rig and were safely separated from it in minutes with a very impressive display of seamanship and professionalism.
Following this the race committee made a great decision to postpone racing and sent everyone back to the shelter of Port Gustavia to take a breather, reconvene and mentally prepare for what was going to be a tough day of racing. They then set a shorter course and told the Melges 24’s to go home for the day for safety reasons. The race management at this regatta has been first class and extremely professional.
Finally we started day three and it delivered everything we expected from the Voile de St Barths. There were beats, an A-sail kite leg and a massive downwind leg over the top of all the outlying rocks and Islands in a big three metre swell and 25 – 28 knots of winds. It was a bold course, it was fun, it was exhilarating and it was fast. Hitting speeds of 13 knots it was also a sail makers dream as boats all around us were blowing out spinnakers and mainsails. This race was yacht racing at its best and we did not even mind getting wet as the water temperature was 26 degrees and the sun was out.
There were smiles of satisfaction all round on Ramenessin/Quokka as we finished a fabulous day of racing, crossing the line in first and securing our third bullet in three races.