On the 24th February, the start gun will fire for the RORC Caribbean 660 from Fort Charlotte, Antigua, and the largest fleet of yachts ever to race offshore in the Caribbean will begin their high speed adventure. Racing around 11 Caribbean islands with warm breeze both day and night, coupled with adrenalin-pumping surf conditions, the RORC Caribbean 600 is designed to thrill.
RORC Caribbean 600
Starting on the leeward side of Antigua, the upwind start takes the fleet past some of the most spectacular bays and cliffs of Antigua. Tactically, inshore gives relief from current, but in recent months there has been a tendency to get a lift offshore. It has also been exceptionally windy in Antigua since December; be prepared for three metre swell. A cracking start into heavy seas will soon dispel any thoughts of an easy trip.
The sea state on the windward side of Antigua is very agitated at the moment and the wind direction has been almost due east for a long time. This should provide a roller coaster, power reaching ride in full-on ocean racing conditions to Barbuda, with a spinnaker set just off the spectacular coral island around the only laid mark on the course.
The spinnaker run to Nevis in trade wind conditions provides the downhill ride that all the crews were imagining when they signed up. It is a chance for those downhill flyers to show their pace and stretch their legs surfing downhill into the setting sun.
As night draws in, the fleet will be two-sail reaching from Nevis to Saba in beautiful flat water along the leeward side of St Kitts. Fast, but not furious and time to take stock of the surroundings and the beautiful night sky, with the odd wind shadow from the towering islands to disturb the reverie.
Saba up to St.Barths is the first of three tough beats in the race and, for the front runners, will be negotiated in the dark, with confused sea conditions and worthwhile wind shifts to keep the team concentrating. In the past, gains have been made by heading north of the rhumb line, to get a lift from the coastline and the flat water in the lee of St Barths. Rounding St Barths requires caution as it is a lee-shore festooned with rocks and reefs; navigators will really need to be on their toes, as will all of the crew, to keep a watch out for faster boats which have already rounded the top of St Martin and are making their way down to Guadeloupe. Once clear of the rocks, spinnakers are hoisted and a glorious downhill sleigh ride can be enjoyed by all on the way to St Martin.
Rounding Tintamarre, northeast of St. Martin, marks the halfway point in the race and the beginning of the longest leg in the course: a 170-mile reach to Guadeloupe. The yachts may well be power reaching, close to top straight-line speed, and for those yachts without power winches this can be a real work out. The crew will be beginning to feel the effects of fatigue after long periods of concentration and the physical exertion of both numerous sail changes, and continually adjusting the sails.
The rhumb line course passes close to the amazing volcanic island of Montserrat. The volcano erupted again in 2010 and as a result it is probably not a good idea to get too close as the island is still growing!
Negotiating the west side of Guadeloupe adds another tricky twist to the race as the island throws out a huge wind shadow and it has been the downfall of many a potential race winner. Also, the shores around the island have several shallow spots, festooned with lobster pots. There is a freely available radar of the island to spot squalls here.
The beat from Les Saintes to La Desirade can be toughest part of the course and rounding La Desirade to the East of Guadeloupe can be extremely rough as the yachts feel the full force of the Atlantic.
The reward for escaping the clutches of Guadeloupe is a fast shy spinnaker reach to Barbuda, but once again clouds and rain squalls will make this another tough leg for those with winning aspirations, as quick sail changes can make the difference to a top podium place.
After rounding the laid mark off Barbuda it's a fast downwind spinnaker ride, pretty close to red lining, and the surfing fun should last all the way to Redonda. This small island, the remnant of a volcanic cone ,rises to nearly 1000ft and is yet another small windless trap.
It is an energy sapping 40-mile upwind slog to the finish from Redonda but the crews will be dreaming of a cold drink and a hot Antiguan roti! As always, all of the competing yachts will receive a warm greeting from the Antigua Yacht Club volunteers, offering a cold beer on arrival.