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a cat in a lion’s den

on board

a cat in a lion’s den

A-Class Cat gun Bob Hodges checks in with a feel good story from the Heineken St. Maarten regatta, aboard the Gunboat 66 “Coco De Mer.” Who wouldn’t feel good after a week racing on that bad boy? Photos from Tim Wright.

The 2012 edition of the Heineken St. Maarten regatta was truly a regatta in paradise, with sunny skies, warm temperatures, and plenty of wind for the competitors who this year numbered over 200. The regatta and race management on and off the water was fantastic and the parties onshore (as usual) were a lot of fun with great entertainment. Combine that with an island population that welcomes the sailors with lots of hospitality and you have an event that any sailor should put on their “to do” list.

I had the wonderful opportunity to race on the Gunboat 66 Coco De Mer owned by UK-based Angus Ball. This was my second time racing with Angus on Coco, after sailing together at last year’s Antigua Race Week. Angus puts together a team of friends to race on Coco each year with the intent to have a lot of fun and if we happen to place well in the racing, that’s just extra “lagniappe” as we say at my home in Louisiana. We had nine sailors on board for this event that included Angus and myself, John and Catherine (Coco’s captain and first mate), Angus’s friends Bill and Betty, Chandler Collins (a former Gunboat employee who now works for On Deck sailing charters and sailed with us in Antigua last year), Greg (a Cape Town-based sailor John recruited to our team who is part of the crew on a large cruising yacht that was on the same dock as Coco in St. Maarten), and finally my fiancé Elise who shares a Corsair trimaran with me.

Many sailors are familiar with the Gunboat series of performance cruising multihulls. Peter Johnstone founded the company in 2003 and it has been very successful in creating the benchmark for performance cruising multihull designs. The company has been very successful in marketing and building the Morelli and Melvin designed Gunboat 48, 62, 66, 78, and 90 designs and is now looking to the future with its next generation based on the Gunboat 55 and Gunboat 60 both designed by Nigel Irens.

Coco De Mer was the first of the Gunboat 66s built – that’s the same model as the Lloyd Thornburg’s famous Lamborghini Orange “Phaedo”. She is all carbon-fiber construction , including Marstrom carbon rig and standing rigging. Her total displacement is approximately 17,000 kg. Our sail plan for the event was based on our mainsail, a roller furling Solent jib, a roller furling screacher that we could use at apparent wind angles of 50-80 degrees, and a snuffer-launched asymmetrical spinnaker for apparent wind angles deeper than the screacher. All of the controls for trimming the sails are from a center cockpit just in front of the main cabin house. The boat has two steering stations. One is inside the cabin house, the other is just in front of the cabin house in the center cockpit. There are three winches in the center cockpit. The two primaries are electric powered with foot pedals and they are complimented by a smaller non-powered secondary two speed winch located just aft of the mast.

The Solent jib is self tacking with a curved track in front of the mast to set the lead angle for different points of sail. With this setup, the boat can be sailed easily by two people. Coco is primarily a cruising boat. For this event, we had a full freezer and refrigerator because eight of our team were staying on the boat in the four staterooms and a forward crew compartment with all of our gear stowed on board. The only items removed from the boat for racing were some snorkeling gear, kayaks, and we left the boat’s dinghy at the dock during the races.

For the racing, we were put in the Multihull 1 class which had eight boats competing. Our main competition included the Iren’s designed 63’ trimaran ORMA 60-derived Paradox, the Corsair 37 trimaran Blanc, the Formula 40 trimaran Dauphine Telecom, a du Toit 51 catamaran Eagletours, and Triple Jack, a BVI based 40’ trimaran. The ratings used for our class are assigned by the regatta organization and the only critical feedback I would offer about the event is that it appeared Paradox got a really “gift” rating. She was by far the fastest the boat in the fleet yet she was owed time by all of our main competition except for us and Eagletours. While we were the longest boat in the fleet, we were (by far) the heaviest boat in the fleet so it would be interesting to see how the different boats performances sorted out on the water. There would also some be some fun racing around the CSA 1 and CSA 2 monohull classes who started five and ten minutes each day respectively after our start. The CSA 1 fleet consisted of the racing maxi’s at the event that included a Volvo 70, a Volvo 60, an STP 65, and a Reichel-Pugh 78. The CSA 2 fleet were the cruiser/racer maxis and they did not disappoint, as that fleet had several 80-100 foot long yachts that were stunning to watch on the water.

The first race of the event was the Round the Island race which is a clockwise circumnavigation of St. Maarten. We sailed the longest 32 mile course option. The race started near Simpson’s Bay and after a short upwind leg and short offset leg to get boats out of the starting area traffic, we started the clockwise circuit around the island. The conditions were fantastic for this race with winds between 15-18 knots from the east-northeast for the entire race. We had a great start near the leeward end of the line with a clean lane. We rounded the weather mark behind Paradox and the Formula 40 trimaran (as expected) and then held that position until we turned downwind for the offwind leg along the southern side of the island. The day before, we had been out and seen big bands of backing pressure as you neared the SW shoreline and turning mark which we felt would make it very hard to carry the chute. Angus was relying on me to make the sail calls so I called for the screacher instead of the chute. While this leg was only 4 miles long, I felt like I had made a big mistake as it was a bit too broad initially and we got passed by both Blanc and Eagletours who had put up their chutes. As we approached the last mile leading to the turn to head up the west side of the island, the backing pressure we had seen started happening and Blanc and Eagletours could not make the turning mark with their chutes and were forced to sag off to get the chutes down. We made up half the lead they had gotten on us so I felt somewhat redeemed.

The next leg of the race was a 15 mile beat to and across the top of the island before turning downwind for the run along the eastern-windward side of the island. The strategy here was to find pressure and smoother water. We had been advised to not dig too deep to the western leeward shoreline until we got past the bay at Marigot. That seemed to work OK as we passed both Blanc and Eagletours using this tactic. The wind started to lighten up as we sailed across the northern end of the island and some of the larger CSA 2 maxi’s started to catch us. We rounded the mark at the top of the island and found the leg was perfect for the screacher for the run down the east side. We were consistently keeping the boatspeed in the 14-19 knot range on this leg and we started to catch back up to the CSA 2 maxi’s that had passed us on the top of the long beat. We rounded the final mark at the SE end of the island for a short main-jib close reach fetch to the finish and shortly afterward were delighted to learn we had finished 2nd on corrected in our class. We celebrated that evening with a scrumptious curried chicken and shrimp dinner Catherine prepared for us sitting on the back deck of Coco and enjoying the sunset while anchored in Simpson Bay.

Day 2 was basically Day 1’s course in reverse (and about the same length) for our fleet except we would finish the day in Marigot and we would also sail further west after rounding the top of the island and use a landmark called Blowing Rock as the final turning mark to the finish in Marigot Bay. The wind forecast was calling for the breeze to increase into the low 20’s with 2.5 – 3 meter seas. We got out on the course an hour before our start and sailed upwind for 20 minutes and saw over 30 knots apparent across the deck so we decided to go with the first reef in the mainsail. We got another great start and after a short run on starboard towards the shore, we tacked to port and started the 9 mile beat towards Table Rock which was our first landmark to leave to port. We determined quickly that this was the long tack to the mark and we pressed the bows down on Coco for speed which seemed to work well. Our boatspeed was consistently staying in the 11-12 knot range. We seemed to be close to the VMG of Dauphin Telecom who was sailing for most of this leg about ¼ mile to directly to weather of us. Coco really handled the seas and wind extremely well especially as we saw some pressure bands where the apparent wind across the deck was approaching 40 knots. The breeze was fairly steady in direction but to our delight we got a nice 8 degree header shortly after we cleared the southeast tip of the island that allowed us to tack and lay the turning mark at Table Rock. We got to Table Rock in third overlapped with Signature Idea, the Reichel Pugh 78 from CSA 1 that started 5 minutes behind us. Coco seemed powered up perfectly on the next leg which was a beam reach to the top of the island. Under reefed main and Solent, we consistently stayed in the 14-18 knot boatspeed range and put some distance on Signature Idea and the other maxi’s that were right behind her. A very fun leg to sail for sure but we were caught off guard by the smaller tri’s in our fleet Blanc and Triple Jack cutting deeply into the lead we had on them at Table Rock, they must have been hitting close to 20 knots on this leg.

Reaching the top of the island, we set the chute but made an error trying to match the lower angle the maxi’s were sailing (about 120 degrees AWA). We lost ground to Triple Jack and Blanc and after we did our first jibe, Eagletours came blazing up to us. At this point, we heated Coco back up to 90 degrees apparent, the boatspeed went up 3-4 knots and we started matching speed and angle with our smaller competitors, lesson learned (keep her hot and ripping). The remainder of the leg we stayed in contact with our competition and after the turn at Blowing Rock, we reeled Blanc back in and almost passed Eagletours before the finish in Marigot Bay. We were pretty confident we had again corrected out to 2nd in class and after anchoring and having lunch were happy to learn we had done just that. It made the rest of the afternoon relaxing on Coco pretty sweet before we headed into Marigot for a fantastic dinner at Café Paris in the beautiful Marina Royale complex.

The final race of the series started off Marigot Bay and had us sail again to the top of the island followed by a downwind leg back to Blowing Rock and then a close reach to a turning mark at the SW tip of the island followed by a 4 mile beat to another turning mark, and a final 2 mile close reach to the finish line in Simpson’s Bay, total distance around 26 miles. There were a lot of rain squalls in the area as we sailed to the starting line and the forecast was pretty much the same as the previous day. We did a short upwind to check our settings and sure enough we were getting puffs and bands of wind that had us seeing over 30 knots apparent so we decided to go again with the first reef in the mainsail. Even though the first leg was a beat, the course included a short upwind hitch to a mark that you really did not round but had to keep to port. We favored the committee boat end of the line and after some exciting moments trying to get around some smaller boats from other classes that had entered our starting area we got an excellent start to weather of the fleet at full speed at the gun. The breeze stayed pretty strong for the 10 mile beat to the top of the island and we were happy we had chosen the reef. Once again, we got to the turning mark at the top of the island right with Signature Idea. After setting the chute, we stayed with our gameplan to sail at 90-100 degrees AWA and Coco loved it. We were keeping her consistently at 15-18 knots and on surfs down the swells, we rolled up to the low 20’s (our top speed on this leg was 24 knots). Coco felt almost like a big F-18 beach cat when her bows turned down a swell. On our first jibe back to the fleet, we converged back even with Signature Idea and we were holding our lead on Eagletours, Blanc, and Triple Jack who had passed us downwind the previous day.

Our good luck had a lapse when 2/3rd down the leg, the top splice on our spinnaker halyard failed and the chute went into the water. Our team jumped into action and kept the corners on the boat and quickly got the top of the chute back on the foredeck. We then got our screacher going for the remainder of the leg but our boatspeed dropped off 3-4 knots from what we had with the chute. This allowed Blanc, Eagletours, and Triple Jack to pass us but we were still in contact with them. At this point in the race as we rounded Blowing Rock, we were converging with the other classes who were sailing shorter course options so there was a lot of traffic. This leg was both very fun and kind of scary. We had rounded just to the inside of the gorgeous 90’ CSA 2 class Swan maxi Nefertiti and as we both set our bearing to the next course mark, we faced a line of probably 40-50 smaller boats ahead of us that we had to sail through. With the breeze gusting to over 20 knots on this leg, we were blasting along at 14-19 knots and the looks of some of the crews on the boats we passed as we “threaded the needles” through them was (excuse the cliché) priceless especially since we were sailing with Coco’s windward hull just flying with Nefertiti right on our heels.

The sailors who were our loudest cheerleaders were the crews on the Melges 24’s racing the event (thanks guys for the thumbs ups as we went pass you). We were making some time back up on Eagletours and on the final beat to the finish, we had a fun match race with them and just got by at the final mark for the reach to the finish. We saved our time again (after losing the chute) for another 2nd in the series and 2nd overall. We wrapped up our Heineken regatta with a great time at the awards party followed by a team dinner at Jimbo’s just down the street. It was very hard to catch the flight home the following morning – a problem I know many other sailors had too.

Thanks to Angus for his generosity in inviting Elise and I to sail with the Coco team, thanks to the 2012 Heineken Regatta organization and race management team for putting on a superb event, and a final thanks to Peter Johnstone and his Gunboat design and build teams for their commitment to producing the ultimate performance cruising multihulls.