After twelve months of ups and downs and a roller-coaster ride of emotions, trials and tribulations, Quokka has finally found herself back on top as she picked up an array of silverware at Antigua Sailing Week. For me the last twelve months has been somewhat draining and to be honest I have regularly questioned our future plans and the direction to take moving forward. I have a passion for my racing, coaching and building race teams that continually drives me forward but it is fair to say my resolve has been tested to the limits with so many of the unforeseen obstacles that have continually presented themselves.
As the final countdown for Antigua Sailing Week begun I started to become more and more excited as the team took shape, the plans started to come together and Quokka was looking in fine shape. A huge amount of effort was put into the campaign and I was adamant that Antigua Sailing Week was going to be the highlight of the Caribbean season. This regatta was one where absolutely everything fell into place, ran like clockwork and exceeded all expectations!
I collected our Wrangler Jeep on day one and drove to our luxury crew villa to check it out in anticipation of the arrival of the team. After a fun drive along the one mile dirt track I walked through the front door of our villa and was instantly taken in by the architecture, design and luxury. The views over Mamora bay were stunning and at that moment a good feeling set in and was to stay for the duration of the fortnight. As the excited team started to arrive over the next two days the smiles increased and the atmosphere was natural but fun as the partying began and the team had the chance to bond for a couple of days before even getting on the water.
The great thing about everyone arriving so early for Antigua Sailing Week was that it gave us time to acclimatise to the tropical heat and enjoy a great social life without it affecting our sailing and preparations for the regatta! Having said that, we possibly over indulged on the night before the first training day on the water, the result being rather amusing as a couple of the team fell by the wayside with sea sickness, a mistake that everyone vowed not to make again.
After three solid days of training our first taste of competition was to be the Round Antigua Race. The focus of the team was outstanding and we had the added pressure with the presence of Digby Fox, a cameraman who was filming us for the event documentary and Matt Sheahan of Yachting World, who was nominated as our tactician for the first four days, whilst he was contemplating what angle his feature in the magazine would focus on. I think it is fair to say we gave him plenty of ammunition and he wont struggle for a story for a variety of reasons!
Quokka flew out of the starting blocks and ripped most of the fleet apart with a perfect start and great pace. Lancelot 2, skippered by Chris Jackson, was our closest rival as we had an intense match race for eight hours which resulted in a tie between us for first place overall! Our campaign had gotten of to a flying start and we all realised what Quokka and the team was capable of, filling us with confidence going into the first race of the regatta.
Over the next few days we had some close, exciting, fun and highly competitive racing with the two First 40′s, Lancelot 2 and Southern Child, our closest rivals. After two bullets on day two we were top of the leaderboard and somewhat excited! Then on the last race of day 3 disaster struck as we were deemed to be OCS and subsequently disqualified! Our saving grace was that there was a discard once six races had been sailed, but there was no room for any further mistakes. Suddenly there was an immense amount of pressure on us moving into the second part of the regatta. But first there was to be a lay day and it will come as no surprise that we went out and partied that night away in true Quokka style! It was sore heads all around the next morning but the atmosphere amongst the team was unbelievable.
With three races left we had a lot to loose and could quite easily have ended up off the podium. The decision was taken to be more conservative on the starts, which came with the risk of being out gunned on the start line. In the second race our extremely bad start was to become one of my many highlights of the week. We were spat out at the back of the fleet and rounded the first mark in 8th position, which put us well out of contention for the chocolates at that moment. However, with pure determination, concentration and exceptional sailing from everyone on board we ground down the fleet to make a remarkable recovery, taking line honours and 2nd place on corrected time. We were back at the top of the leaderboard.
Ash, my fellow pro on board and I worked really hard on the light wind performance of Quokka during the week, a wind strength that had become a weak spot for us. With much playing around with sail setup/selection and rig tuning we cracked it on that penultimate day, just when we needed it most. This gave us a huge amount of confidence going into the last race of the series with a forecast of just 5 – 7 knots of wind.
We had been warned that Southern Child, the only boat that could now beat us, was going to attempt to sail us down the fleet, Ben Ainslie style; if they could get us into sixth position they would win the series no matter what position they came. The psychological game began with 15 minutes to go as they started hunting us down to demonstrate their intent. I had rehearsed the start over and over again in my mind, had a game plan and executed it to get a great start with plenty of separation between us. The teamwork and boat handling was outstanding which enabled us to get our nose into clear air and we never looked back. Everyone held their nerve in a hard fought race that could have gone so very wrong. We crossed the finish line an hour later to score our fourth win of the week. The atmosphere on board was electric as we celebrated our victory, I was ecstatic and boy was it a good feeling to be back on top.
The prize giving in the historic Nelson’s Dockyard was the final highlight for me. We were called up onto stage to receive our prize for winning the class, what I was not expecting was to be told on stage that we had also won ‘Best British Yacht’ and ‘Best Charter Yacht!’ Wow, what a surprise. The morale was at what I thought was a high when during our celebrations we heard Quokka’s name called out again! We knew we had to get back up on stage but had no idea why. At the bottom of the steps to go onto stage I saw Ross Appleby of Scarlet Oyster who has a massive smile on his face. I quizzed him as to what this was for and he responded ‘it is for 2nd overall in the entire regatta, now get on stage you idiot!’
OMG what a feeling that was, it was one of the best emotions I have had in my sailing career, probably only rivalled by the news that we had won the ‘RORC Yacht of the Year’ in 2009. You can probably guess how hard we partied that night. What a night, what a week, what a year and what a team! This goes down as my best inshore regatta ever and more than makes up for every bit of heartache of the past twelve months, in addition and most importantly, I have made many new friends who I cannot wait to sail with again It has all been worth it and Quokka is back where she loves to be, winning races.