A varied fleet sailed the fourth-annual RORC Caribbean 600 in perfect conditions. The largest boat was line-honors winner Hetairos, a 141-foot Baltic ketch drawing 30 feet with her drop-keel fully extended. The smallest was Bernie Evans Wong’s Mumm 36 High Tension.
The 600-mile course is an interesting one, to say the least, consisting of 10 different legs on all points of sail and in conditions varying from standard tradewinds to light and variable breezes in the lee of various islands.
Shoal water presents another challenge. From Saba, for example, there follows a 33-mile beat to St. Barth, then a fast 8-mile reach to St. Martin, where you have to be careful on the south coast from Cole Bay to Point Basse Terre and on the north coast from Basse Terre to Rocher Creole. Here the charted depths are from leadline soundings taken in the 19th century, which have yet to be updated or corrected.
The shoals off Basse Terre are particularly worrying, as they seem to have been extending westward in the 55 years I have been sailing in the Caribbean. During the Heineken Regatta they place a temporary buoy in water deep enough to provide safe navigation for the deepest draft entrant. But in the RORC 600 there is no buoy, so deep-draft boats have to do some careful guesswork. Eyeball navigating is possible on boats drawing up to 9 feet that sail at 8-9 knots. But when you’re doing 12-14 knots on a boat drawing 15 feet or more, eyeball navigation is useless.
Before I wrote my cruising guide to the Lesser Antilles in 1966, the guide I used was Norie & Wilson’s Sailing Directions for the West Indies, which was published in 1867. This states: “When passing to leeward of the high islands of the eastern Caribbean pass within two pistol shots distance (50 yards) or seven leagues (21 miles) of shore.”
My greatest success sailing in the lee of the high islands has been at slightly more than two pistol-shots distance—say 100 to 150 yards off. A number of times sailing north direct from Grenada to Antigua, passing 15 miles to leeward of Dominica, I have run into a hole and sat for four or five hours bouncing, rolling and slatting in a rough chop with no wind.
If you look at the tracks of all this year’s Caribbean 600 boats passing Basse Terre, you will note that all except the 180-foot schooner Adela stayed within about four miles of shore. Many complained about falling into holes, while others only a few hundred yards off continued to make progress. Some tacticians studied their AIS receivers, noted where other boats were falling into holes and then altered course to follow the boats that held their wind.
As for Adela, by passing 12 miles west of Basse Terre she dropped the 155-foot schooner Windrose of Amsterdam, with whom she had been match racing, and sailed by much of the fleet that was stuck closer to shore. Ultimately Adela finished sixth overall, which was an amazing performance considering the many grand prix boats she was racing against. For complete race results go to caribbean600.rorc.org.
Photo courtesy of RORC Caribbean 600/photoaction.com; map illustration courtesy of Kerstin Mueller/RORC