Cowes Week definitely knows how to ensure that the competitors have a great time. There were three regatta villages, with the largest in the middle at Cowes Yacht Haven where we were tied up for the week. There was a second village further down the marina (this village staged most of the big parties), and a third village toward the Royal Yacht Squadron where the public was truly able to interact with the racers. Every day, both of the marina villages had their own temporary night clubs set up that stayed open till 2 am. There were live bands playing days and evenings, and the main village had a 100’ long beer bar with over 50 taps, so there was never a huge line- even with 6,000+ folks looking for a beverage. The regatta sponsors had their own booths set up, and hosted parties every night, and there was a huge viewing screen where the public and crews alike could watch live finishes and check results.
The following day, our navigator was cleared to sail and so we were able to just concentrate on sailing fast while he made sure we steered well clear of any issues (like shoals!) With the navigator on board, we were able to get a strong lead at the first mark and continued to extend on each leg. Our crew work got even better as we pulled out to a 2-3 minute lead which we managed to hold until the finish.
Over the next few days we sailed a multitude of race courses and distances with remarkable success: we won all of the races that we started, and we managed to lead our division around almost all of the mark roundings along the way- until the Thursday race.
The race on Thursday started the way the others had: we managed a solid start, and then with excellent boat speed and crew work we pulled into the lead by the first mark. We rounded in the lead for a few more marks, and set off on a half-mile reach under chute towards mark 6.
Unfortunately, most of the 181 marks on the Solent look very similar, and unfortunately, we actually missed the correct mark. The entire crew had been getting ready to go back to the jib, getting the deck sorted out, before we finally realized that we had gone much further than the half mile distance to the next mark, and when we looked at the GPS we saw the distance to the mark growing, not shrinking.
We quickly started our maneuvers to get the spinnaker down and the jib up, but by the time we had worked through all of this, we had sailed nearly a quarter of a mile past the mark, and we could see the next three boats in our class closing in on the rounding. We sailed the boat back as fast as we could, and managed to round within a couple of boat lengths of the now-second-placed boat. With only a handful of marks left and very little runway to use as passing lanes, we first began match racing the 2nd place boat, and after a few more tacks, using our great boat speed some smart tactics and crew work we managed to pick off the second-placed boat, leaving us just one more to catch. It took a few more maneuvers, but with our better pointing mode, we got ourselves back to the front of the fleet- and only a little more than a mile into the beat.
From that point on, we continued to extend our lead over the next two legs until we had stretched back out to a lead of around 4 minutes. However, on the horizon we could see some storm clouds and squall lines brewing, and in the back of our minds we knew that we were finally about to get some of the crazy English weather we had heard about. Sure enough, a squall line hit within a minute or two of rounding the third-to-last mark, bringing 35+ knots of wind and driving rain.
Even though we had seen the storm building, we decided to stick it out and run with the 138% Genoa (which was very tired and worn-out after three extremely hard years and hundreds of tacks). As the breeze lines roared down the course, we considered making a headsail change- but the time needed to do this, and the fact that the next leg was a 2 mile reach, left us with no choice but to stick it out with the 138%. After a few minutes of truly hardcore breeze, things settled down to around the mid 20’s (for us, typical Antigua conditions) and we powered on to the last marks of the course, extending our lead slightly over the next few miles to finish first by about 6 minutes. With the win in this race we had locked up the overall Beneteau 40.7 class win, and while technically there was no need to sail the last race Friday, we were going for the overall regatta win, so we would be racing Friday.
As we hit the starting line Friday, though, we found ourselves struggling to get the boat up to speed as we had in days past; heading for the first mark, we were in 4th place, with a pretty good deficit to try and make up. After passing a boat on the first run, we rounded the 2nd the mark in 3rd place.
The third leg was a tight spinnaker reach with a load of current, so crew work was paramount (and would ultimately decide this race.) We rounded the 4th and 5th marks, each time closer to the two boats ahead of us. Finally we had an even tighter spinnaker reaching leg to the finish.
We had a great gybe at the last mark that allowed us to grab a high lane towards our best escape route out of the current. The second-placed boat had made a wide turn, and while it took some time, because we were able to escape the current faster, we managed get ahead of him.
This left us just one boat to catch, and they were directly on our line as we both sailed towards a shallow rocky outcropping. The boat ahead had won the class the previous year, and her crew grew up sailing exactly where we were heading, so we knew that if they get there first, we probably wouldn’t get another opportunity to pass them, so we started trying to work our way above them every chance we had. They would come up with us, trying to block our path, but the first time their spinnaker collapsed, we gained a nice overlap. The scrapping continued for another half mile or so until we finally hooked into a good puff and kept our spinnaker flying (thanks to the grinders) while the other team’s chute collapsed again, and we quickly rolled just to windward of the other boat, and soon had pulled ahead by a few boat lengths. Continuing to work extremely hard, we pulled out to around a 100 meter lead just as the wind started to die.
Sailing against the 3 knot current in the dying breeze was definitely a challenge, and the lead we had worked so hard to achieve proved vital as we managed to slip across the finish line under chute before the shifting breeze forced the following boats to change from chutes to jibs and tack up to the finish. We had pulled out our 7th win of the regatta, beating the second-place boat across the line by around four minutes.
We had such a convincing class win, with all first place finishes, we thought we might have a chance at winning the overall Black Fleet win with our perfect score card. However, it was not to be; a British J-109 with a record of 6 firsts and a fourth took the overall prize, ostensibly because there had been four more boats in their fleet than had been in ours. (Maybe if we had only had a few Brits aboard, we might have taken the big prize!) So in the end, while we may not have gotten the overall Black Fleet victory, we did take the Beneteau 40.7 fleet by storm- and had a great time doing it.