Almost one year after capsizing in the RORC Caribbean 600, the 53-foot Paul Bieker designed rocketship “Fujin” is back at it, winning the inaugural Caribbean Multihull Challenge last weekend in St. Maarten. This is more than just a story of a sailboat winning a race, though. It’s a story of redemption for both the boat and the host island.
The start of last year’s C600 happened to fall on the last day of the 2018 Miami Boat Show. I was stuck in Miami, still working at Gunboat (where I was pretending to be a businessman), so I was unable to race in the C600. I had total FOMO, and was geekily checking out the entries and weather leading up to the event. The forecast on the morning of the race was for absolutely honking conditions, 25-35 knots, big seas, squalls. I turned to one of the owners of Gunboat/GLY and told him, “Something is going to happen in this race. I don’t know what… a flip, a dismasting, a boat breaking… but I know there will be a “breaking news” headline that comes out of this race”. Sure enough, within 12 hours Fujin‘s Yellowbrick race tracker stopped updating in the lee of Saba. Their AIS signal had stopped transmitting entirely. Gunboat 60 “Flow” had parked up, seemingly rendering assistance. There was a fishing boat circling the same area. Something had happened…
I’d raced against the guys from Fujin on my Formula 40 “SOMA” many times, and I’d raced with them a handful of times as well. The nicest crew I’ve sailed with, mostly from the Seattle/Vancouver area. All I could think and hope was that everyone was ok. Then word went out from RORC, Fujin had flipped, all were ok, the boat was under tow.
Fast forward a year, and the boat is back and better than ever. The owner Greg Slyngstad’s commitment to the boat and racing never wavered and they went straight into fixing her. The crew, Andrew and Gina, methodically put the boat back together in Antigua. The mast, systems, electrical, winch motors, etc have been replaced. I was lucky enough to have been invited to race with them again for their first race since the flip and to compete in the very first Caribbean Multihull Challenge last weekend in St. Martin.
Like Fujin, St. Maarten had recently had a pretty massive catastrophic event. Sixteen months ago Hurricane Irma rumbled over the NE Caribbean as the strongest hurricane in Atlantic history with 185 mph winds, making landfall in St. Maarten. Today, everywhere you look, you can see signs of damage and recovery. I’d heard the airport was barely functional, there were boats still washed up ashore, and hotels still rebuilding. That’s why I was so surprised to see the announcement that there would be a new multihull-only race in St. Maarten. Some of the folks who had made the Heineken such a success decided multis needed their own event. Having competed in countless Heineken Regattas in the multihull class I knew I had to attend. I couldn’t have hoped for a better event or a better time.
The event drew a fantastic assortment of boats. In addition to Fujin, Class A was heavy with Morrelli Melvin designs, including the newest Rapido 60 trimaran “Ineffable”, HH66 “R-Six”, and the MM51 “Shooting Star”. The rest of the classes were as diverse as you could hope, including the crowd favorite Tryst (50 years old!), the F50 Arawak, a KL28, and some cruising boats like a Neel, a Fountaine Pajot, and a couple of Leopards.
Day 1: Atypical for February, we had light winds and lots of squalls for the 2pm start. Crews were tentative on the line and we managed a perfect start, unfurling our code zero at the horn. It was a short reach to the first mark, then an A2 run to the bottom of the island at Basse Terre. We were 2nd around the bottom mark behind the former race boat, now charter boat “Arawak” (who’d started ahead of us). There was some debate aboard as to whether or not “Arawak” had left the mark to port or starboard, but a quick check of the SI’s confirmed we had to pass the mark to starboard. We dropped the kite, unfurled the code zero again, and left the mark to starboard. Reaching off quickly towards Anguilla, we looked back over our shoulders to see the rest of the fleet setting up to pass the mark to port. A quick fire drill later and we had unwound ourselves and correctly rounded the mark. Turns out the SI’s, course diagrams, etc were in conflict with one another and we had checked the wrong info. Oh well. We carried on, sailing towards a growing squall with Arawak a little below and ahead of us and the rest of the fleet well behind us. As the squall developed, Arawak and Fujin sailed further and further into a header. We got skunked under the cloud and the rest of the fleet managed to take a couple of miles out of us by the time we lead the fleet around Blowing Rock. From there it was a fast reach back to the finish line on the shortened course. We took 1st on elapsed but 3rd on corrected (which was lucky considering how much time we’d left on the course). The HH66 R-Six, who have been remarkably good since launch, took first in the first race with the Rapido in 2nd.
Day 2: An early bridge out of Simpson Bay Lagoon and we were ready for a 9:30 Warning Signal. The RC had expressed an interest in two races, the first taking us out towards St. Barth’s, then to Molly Beday Rocks off the E. Coast of the island, and finally back to Simpson Bay. The start line saw a bit more action on the second day but we still managed a clean start. A short reach was followed by a LONG beat to St. Barth’s. Fujin‘s upwind code zero allows you to fly a hull at about 12 knots of wind, and we were skimming the weather hull all the way to the Groupers (a collection of rocks near St. Barths). We rounded the Groupers well ahead and unfurled the A3 for the hot reach across to Molly Beday. It’s fun to be all wicked up in 12-15 knots of breeze on a 7-ton boat, and that A3 had us doing 24+ knots. We opted to keep the A3 for the zigzag gybe/gybe around the tip of the island and back to the finish. In hindsight, a peel to the A2 might’ve been advisable, but we managed a 1st on elapsed and corrected despite. The RC had overestimated the speed of the fleet and, despite the fact that it wasn’t yet noon, the RC was forced to cancel the 2nd race (since 1/2 the fleet wasn’t even halfway through the course). We hitchhiked to shore while we waited for the 3pm bridge opening. The party that night was on Kim Sha Beach at Buccaneer’s. There’s something pure about standing in the sand, drink in hand, eating BBQ as the sun goes down. The big events like Heineken, Antigua, and Les Voiles are almost victims of their own success with big crowds and a corporate vibe. Saturday was what racing in the Caribbean should feel like. Perfection. Now, normally I’m indifferent to regatta swag, too cool for school. This felt different, though. This felt like the start of something really unique…. and suddenly I had to have one of the souvenir Mount Gay Rum hats.
Day 3. The RC had telegraphed that they intended to run an around-the-island course for the last day. That suited us just fine. We were one point out of first behind R-Six and had to beat them. Their strength was in light winds and big breeze beating. Sunday’s around the island race was going to see plenty of reaching and was going to be the breeziest of the weekend with a forecast of 16-20 and clear skies. Sure enough, the call came on the radio that we’d be going around the island. The start line was again contested yet we squeaked out another good, fast start. Another short code zero reach, another bearaway to the A2, and we were way out in front. Jonathan McKee had asked me to join him in calling tactics and I’m proud to say we sailed a flawless race. The wind angles were all perfect for us and we were flying a hull on all points of sail. We won by over an hour on elapsed, completing the course in under 2.5 hours. Sunday’s sailing makes my shortlist of best days on the water. At our racing debrief Jonathan asked what we could do better. I felt like quoting James Carville’s character in “Old School” after debating against Will Farrell “I…I have no response. That…. that was perfect”. The party that night was back at the Yacht Club. As someone commented, the vibe was more Wednesday night beercan than a corporate event. Everyone mingled. Awards were handed out. Drinks were drank. The weekend was, for lack of a better word, perfect.
Going into the event I was a little curious if the guys on Fujin would be skittish or have any PTSD after the events of the last year. If anything, they were sailing the boat as hard, or, harder than I’d ever seen them – and there was more than a little gallows humor about the events. It’s not that they didn’t take seriously what had happened…but they were all adults and knew that bad things happen. Sometimes you can’t prevent them, and you certainly can’t undo them. The owner was still having fun, the crew were still as close-knit as they come.
As for St. Maarten, they’re getting there. I was amazed by how far the island had come. An event like the Caribbean Multihull Challenge I’m sure was a great distraction from the day-to-day drudgery for the recovery and the island is 100% ready for business. As for the event itself, it was fantastic to get back to what really makes sailing fun.
This event is already on my calendar for next year. It should be on yours, too! Anarchist Nils