It was the final day of a busy month aboard the new Carkeek 40 “Decision”, and what a finale! 20 knots of beautiful breeze switched on for the Royal Bermuda Anniversary Regatta – the event making up the final two races for the prestigious 50-year old Onion Patch Trophy – and we were just a few points out of the silver. We’d need a perfect performance – something we hadn’t had yet in the first two pieces of the Onion Patch puzzle.
Sailing as trimmer, I was part of a struggling crew in the drift-fest that was the NYYC Annual Regatta, the first part of the series. We managed a terrible result over two days of racing, trying to find the ‘go’ button for a boat that’s more Volvo 70 than inshore IRC-optimized racer. The sexy new Ker 43 “Ptarmigan” showed her light air chops, trouncing us in the Annual. We’d return the favor in the second and most highly weighted of the Onion Patch events- the Newport to Bermuda Race.
I’ll have a more detailed report from the Bermuda Race later in the week; suffice to say that conditions could literally not have been better for our ‘micro-maxi’, and our crew sacrificed body and mind to push the boat as hard as humanly possible. Our reward was crushing the fleet under IRC, the rating system used for Onion Patch scoring. Decision’s corrected time was good for overall victory over the entire St. David’s Lighthouse fleet (no pro-drivers, only two pros allowed aboard), and only four boats – all of them over 70 feet long and all in the pro-driven Gibbs Hill Division – came ahead on corrected time. We were the top Onion Patch boat in the race, putting Decision back in the running for the trophy, albeit in fourth place behind the Swan 601 “Stark Raving Mad,” the aforementioned Ptarmigan, and the US Naval Academy’s TP52 “Invictus” (nee Samba Pa Ti).
We had a few things going for us, though: Decision had come through the insanely fast Bermuda Race almost completely unscathed, despite launching off huge waves at speeds in the high teens and more than a couple of wipeouts. The electronics would become a casualty of the hundreds of gallons of water we’d taken down below during the passage, but strangely, owner Stephen Murray Jr. seemed quite a bit faster on the short-courses in Bermuda once the numbers stopped distracting him. Our second weapon was crew: Other than the loss of navigator-extraordinaire Alex Clegg, our well-tuned crew from the big race was all ready at their stations for some much easier inshore work. Tyler Black on bow, Dave Shriner on main, Tyler Baeder on jib trim, Billy Willman on the pedestal, Will Gammell on the charts, Stephen Murray on the helm, and yours truly on spinnaker trim. Clegg’s replacement was up to the task, to say the least. Sailmaker and performance guru Steve “Benj” Benjamin would take on tactician responsibilities, and as one of the guys behind the development of the Carkeek 40 and new High Performance Rule (Benj has a C-40 coming in July called “Spooky”), he certainly knew how to get the most out of the boat. Benj has also made a career out of beating up on bigger boats in handicap races, and with one windward/leeward and one ‘round the island’ tour on the schedule, his perception and sneakiness would be invaluable. We also grabbed one of sailing’s biggest cheerleaders and one of the most quiet yet influential faces in ocean racing to take over the pit; blazing ball of Teutonic energy Ralfie Steitz would take over the pit for Gammell. We rounded out our crew with runner man Doug Mitchell – owner of the last great giant killer in ocean racing; legendary Reichel Pugh super sportboat The Cone Of Silence. An all-star group, to say the least.
It would be Decision’s biggest test yet – with the kind of breeze she was designed for and a rock-solid crew, could she sail to her IRC numbers against serious, grand-prix teams?
Turns out she could – and then some. By the end of the second leg in the six-leg sausage, we knew we had only one thing to focus on: Staying in it on the upwind legs. As long as the longer boats were in the same zip code at the top mark, they were toast on the run. Ptarmigan (who we owed a minute and change to) and Stark Raving Mad had nice first beats, though we were on them by the second beat and rounded the top mark for the second time just behind. We split on the run, and Benj brilliantly put us right on Ptarmigan’s leeward quarter as we gobbled up the track to the final bottom mark on port. You could see a little glint in his eye when he called for the gybe – a fast, well-executed maneuver that squirted us ahead of Ptarmigan – and more importantly, got us through two cruiser/racers plowing their way to the buoy. Ptarmigan got caught behind and yard saled their way around the turn, and we held on for the bullet, with our competition mostly buried.
The final racecourse was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever sailed. Short reaches, long beats and runs, all ping-ponging around Bermuda’s Great Sound – a flat-water paradise with crystal-clear water and tiny islands dotting the horizon. Once again, the Carkeek showed off her downwind pedigree, hitting 17 knots at times (when the electronics were working) as she chased down Ptarmigan and Stark Raving Mad after the long first beat. Ptarmigan watched us gobbling up their lead, and with most of the race gone, we were just a few boatlengths behind on a long run. Ptarmigan gybed to cover us with the pressure on and they came out of it too hot. The boat went over, the kite collapsed and filled with a snap, crackle, pop, and a once-pretty spinnaker became two battle flags streaming from the mast and sprit. We went on to nearly pass the much faster-rated 60-footer at the finish in front of the RBYC as a fast ferry struggled in vain to get around us, and Decision corrected out over the fleet for another bullet – enough to win the Onion Patch and the Henry B DuPont trophy – by just a half a point.
It was a spectacular way to round out an intense month of prep, practice and racing, and I’m indebted to the Murrays for having a hack like me aboard for such a great adventure, and to Shawn Carkeek for designing a boat that is fantastic in every way. Photo credits to Talbot Wilson – not only does he do a stellar job of PR for Bermudian sailing, but he shoots, too!