Leo Goolden on the sights and sounds of a weekend racing aboard Adela in the Caribbean
Not only is it almost unrecognisable as a harbour from seaward, which meant that from the early 1700s the fleet was hidden from the French Navy and from bands of pirates, but it is also extremely sheltered from all directions – a hurricane in 1723 wrecked 35 ships in various ports in Antigua, whilst the two ships moored in English Harbour suffered no damage.
These days, it is still difficult to make out the entrance to this natural harbour, but as you get closer you might see some clues that the French Navy would certainly not have missed – dozens of enormous masts visible above the hill, stacks of lit spreaders, and red lights on mastheads.
Times have changed and buccaneers no longer rule the oceans, but after a period of neglect, Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour is once again a site of cultural heritage as well as a centre for international superyachting.
Throughout the Caribbean winter you can find all manner of yachts – old and new; sloops, ketches and schooners – lined up stern-to along the old wall, but in place of naval officers with swords on their hips, these days you will find squadrons of superyacht crew with multitools and radios on their belts, or large platoons of tourists armed with cameras roaming among the rejuvenated 18th century buildings scattered around the dockyard.
On this particular weekend in early February there were even more large sailing yachts along the dock than usual. Crews hustled and bustled in their uniforms, moving gigantic sails around and tinkering with their rigs. The first morning of the 2017 Antigua Superyacht Challenge regatta saw the tradewinds blowing, and ten tremendous yachts getting ready to face each other on the racecourse.
The Superyacht Challenge has been going strong for six years now, and is unusual in that it does not have any corporate sponsors. It is intended as a platform for yacht owners to enjoy their boats in a competitive yet laid-back environment, without endorsements or pressure from charters.
I was lucky enough to be racing on the beautiful modern-classic schooner Adela, and once on board, I spent the morning with the crew packing spinnakers, running headsail sheets and getting to know what leads where.
Eventually we slipped our stern lines, picked up the anchor, and motored out of English Harbour into the rolling Atlantic swell. As we rounded up into the wind to hoist the mainsails, our competitors did the same – like a flock of birds taking flight, all around us huge yachts were hoisting canvas and unfurling headsails, falling off the wind and gaining momentum.
Bearing away we hoisted the J2, the second largest jib in Adela’s arsenal and the schooner came alive and began to roar through the water. We tacked back and forth, gauging boat speed and our approach to the start line, getting the crew comfortable with their roles.
Race one was a pursuit race and as our start time approached, we watched the smaller yachts – Zig Zag, Acadia, Wild Horses, Kawil and Maramar – cross the line before it was our turn. We crossed just a few seconds after our allocated time. The race was on!
The tradewinds were blowing a solid 20 knots from just north of east, and with a three-metre swell running, the racing was exciting and very wet.
Both classes (the ‘Corsairs’ and the smaller ‘Buccaneers’) stayed in tight formation for the fetch to the first mark.
The second leg was a beat to windward, in which three boats tacked early to get clean air, but it was the 90ft/27m modern-classic sloop Acadia, fresh out of Claasen Shipyards in the Netherlands, which crossed just ahead of the whole fleet on starboard to be the first boat around the top mark. (more photos on the next page…)