What is it like to sail in the BVI Spring Regatta on the world’s fastest ocean racer, winner of the 2005-06, round the world, Volvo Ocean Race?
For me, it rates up there as one of the most exciting, exhilarating and fascinated sailing experiences of a lifetime.
In my job as press officer for the BVI Spring Regatta, there really are not many perks. While all my friends are out racing in the near perfect BVI waters, I’m organizing the boats and lunch for the press, chasing race officers for information, and answering queries from the press who could not attend.
Once my friends are in for the day and enjoying a brew at the Regatta Village, I’m running around getting interviews, doing my best to make sure I have the latest copy of the day’s results, and hanging around the judges’ tent anxiously awaiting the outcome of the protest hearings.
And, while my friends are enjoying dinner with or without a great bottle of wine, I’m squirreled away in some hole doing my best to produce a press release that captures the essence of the day for three race areas, 150 boats and somewhere around 1,000 sailors.
Sounds like fun? No, it really is more like work. So, it was a bit of a no-brainer when Kate Fairclough, press officer for ABM AMRO, the winner of the last round the world race, had a spot available for Sunday’s racing. I jumped at the chance.
I met the boat at West End as it draws more than 20 feet and cannot get into the channel at Nanny Cay, home of the BVI Spring Regatta. Even though I have probably sailed on more than 100 different boats during my 30 plus years of competitive sailing, getting out of the car and approaching this high tech marvel filled me with trepidation. After all, ABM AMRO had smashed the World Sailing Speed Record for distance covered by a monohull during the 05-06 Volvo Round the World Race. I knew I was out of my league and worried that those around me would soon realize the same thing.
Somehow I managed to make it down the dock without drooling or tripping. Standing at the end of the T, next to the boat, was a cast that included the 14 professional crewmembers, five shore support and four lucky racer-chasers (me and the other guests). We, racer chasers, did our best to look cool and stay out of the way. The others were all quite busy prepping the boat, checking each bit of rigging, which included sending a man up the 103 foot mast to check all the fittings aloft, the sails, deck hardware and a instrument package that wouldn’t look out of place on the Starship Enterprise.
Standing on the dock, it is impossible not to admire AMN AMRO. The stylish Volvo 70, painted primarily in black, green and yellow is a sleek beauty with a flush deck and large dagger boards which are raised and/or lowered depending on the tack the boat is sailing. The deck is relatively clean, with an open transom, running backs and (if you can ignore 12 foot high dagger boards) looking a bit like a Melges 24 on steroids.
Although not obvious from the deck, there is a canting keel that can be canted up to 40 degrees either to starboard or port, depending on the tack. This not only increases the ability of the boat to sail to weather (towards the wind direction), it also improves the stability. The sails are all made from the highest tech fabrics, but due to their incredible size still weigh enough that it takes several crewmembers to move them around the boat. The spinnaker is most likely the lightest sail on the boat and, at 500 square meters or nearly 5700 square feet, weighs about 100 pounds. The mainsail, perhaps the heaviest, weighs in the neighborhood of 300 pounds.
With all crews members focused, it took only a few minutes to ready the boat and then we racer-chasers were herded on the boat. Once away from the dock, it was obvious that the crew were not on board for our entertainment. They worked as a well-oiled machine executing each maneuver with speed, accuracy and a minimum of talk as each professional knew his job, anticipated the next step and performed flawlessly.
As it turned out, I am proud to say that I was given a job to perform and like the professional crew, I too performed flawlessly. As we sailed out from West End to the course off of Cooper Island, I did my best to stay out of the way and offered a few words of explanation to some of the less experienced racer-chasers. I’m not sure how good any of my explanations were but I must have done a great job of staying out of the way because I was given the task of making sure that all the racer-chasers stayed out of the way. In essence, while the pros tacked and jibed the boat, I tacked and jibed the guests and throughout the day not one of us got caught on the wrong side after a tack, found our feet tangled in the jib sheet or managed to get our hair caught in the running backs.
The day turned out to be a spectacular example of why I love BVI Spring Regatta. The sun was bright and warm, the trades blew a consistent 20 knots, the seas flat and the Sir Francis Drake Channel was alive with sailboats ranging from the 14 foot Lasers to Titan, a Reichel Pugh 75’. There were two races on Sunday and each was exciting in its own way. In the first, we were off the starting line with the six other boats in our class. The course led us around the buoys, with relatively short legs of only about a mile. This is when I could really see just how good this crew was as this massive machine was maneuvered perfectly while jibs and spinnakers were up and down in a blink on legs that took only five to six minutes.
At one point, we were barreling downwind at about 22 miles per hour when Cynthia Ross, on 30 foot J Doe, inadvertently got in our path. Although the pros on ABN AMRO were cool, calm and collected, even from a distance, I could see Cynthia’s eyes were as big as saucers as she screamed at her crew, “JIBE, JIBE, JIBE”. Death, disaster and splintering fiberglass were averted as J Doe jibed in the nick of time.
The second race of the day was a little less dramatic but fun just the same. This time, the race committee chose to send the fleet on an abbreviated tour of the south barrier islands. The course was one big loop with long legs and AMN AMRO had a chance to stretch her legs. Titan, our archrival in Division A, quickly started to fall behind and it was not long before it was obvious ABN AMRO had handily won.
It would be nice to be able to report that it was my extraordinary performance on Sunday that led AMN AMRO to the division victory in the 2007 BVI Spring Regatta. Although we did win both races on Sunday, AMN AMRO had won the previous six races sailed and thus, by Sunday, was the easy favorite to win. Regardless, even for an old salt like me, it was an incredible day on the water and one of the few times sailing I could say with confidence, “Catch me if you can,” and know that no one could.