UPDATE: Brad Baker's take from the Caribbean 600 capsize aboard 'Fujin'

UPDATE: Brad Baker’s take from the Caribbean 600 capsize aboard ‘Fujin’

2/17/18: It’s Saturday morning and I’m at the Miami airport for a three hour layover before catching our flight to Antigua for the Caribbean 600 Race on Monday. I’m pretty darned stoked to be racing aboard Fujin for this race — which is a Paul Bieker designed, very fast catamaran. The weather report looks favorable for a pretty windy and fast race with lots of reaching, which is Fujin’s specialty. Fujin’s last race was the Vindyard race on Long Island Sound, where we screamed through the course sailing 240 miles in a little over 15 hours, smashing that races record by 5 hours!

The aptly named Caribbean 600 is a 600 mile race starting from Antigua and sailing around several of the nearby islands.

I plan to send updates from the boat.  You can also follow our progress on the race tracker.  And if you like you can race us in the virtual yacht race! Stay tuned, for pictures from Antigua and the race. Also, here’s an interesting video regarding tactics about the race:

We arrived in Antigua and made it to the boat at about 5:30 p.m., just in time to have a beer and go over the to-do list before the skippers meeting. At the skippers meeting we were briefed on some of the safety items etc, and the former navigator for Vestas Wind gave us a weather report. The report is keeping wind in the forecast.

There is a fairly strong high in the North Atlantic causing a strong pressure gradient here in the Caribbean. An upper level low will likely cause a fair amount of instability in the atmosphere and we can expect fairly active squall activity. The 900 mb winds are blowing quite strong so when we have mixing (read squalls) that wind can be brought to the surface. This could mean some pretty aggressive wind in the squalls.

After the skippers meeting we finished up some boat prep work, with still plenty left to do tomorrow before we go out for a practice sail. Then it was off to dinner. Did I mention we did all this during a fantastic sunset?  I’m not in Ballard anymore! Time to hit the sack, looking forward to a good practice sail on Sunday in prep for the start on Monday.

2/18/18: We went for a practice sail today and had a few things on the list that we wanted to accomplish. Our first order of business was to swing the compass. Next we beat upwind with the jib and a full main and went through a few tacks. The wind was blowing about 20 knots give or take. The race looks as though it will be windy, with an average of about 25 knots. This means it will be fast, but we will have to be on our toes, thinking ahead and making sure to take our foot off the gas pedal before it gets too windy.

With the outlook of big breeze, we did some reefing practice, then bore away and put up the Code Zero. We needed to do this anyway since the Zero is on a furler.  The sail had been put away folded up off the furler, so we needed to hoist it in order to furl it. Fujin screamed and we saw boat speeds consistently into the 20’s. After the Zero, we deployed the A3 spinnaker. This sail is also on a furler and had been stored folded. Our top speed was 29 knots and we really weren’t trying that hard. After A3 we decided to go upwind with the staysail, which also works as a heavy air sail. It was a good learning experience as we tacked upwind with this sail and decided we’d need a bit of wind before using it (which we may actually get). All and all, it was a great practice day and we all feel pretty darn good entering the race tomorrow.

After the practice and back at the dock, we continued with boat projects. I concentrated on the adding chafe protection to the mainsail, while others split off to accomplish various tasks around the boat. The race starts tomorrow morning and you can track us aboard Fujin at the website’s tracker:  http://caribbean600.rorc.org/Tracking-Players/2018-fleet-tracking.html

2/20/18: Unfortunate news from the race course is that Fujin capsized last night near Saba. Fortunately, all crewmembers are safe. We’ll have an update from Brad when it becomes available.

RORC Race Manager Chris Stone issued a statement:

“On Monday February 19 at 20:20 AST, Fujin capsized close to Saba Island and the eight-man crew were observed standing on the up-turned hull. All of the crew are now safe. Stephen Cucchiaro’s Gunboat 60 Flow stood by while rescue agencies co-ordinated the rescue efforts. Jens Kellinhusen’s German Ker 56 Varuna altered course to assist, but has now continued racing. The Coastguard at Fort De France Martinique has been co-ordinating the rescue.”

2/22/18: Here’s the final report from Brad after arriving safely back home in Seattle…

I’m sure many if not most the readers already know, but Fujin did not finish the RORC Caribbean 600. At about the 150 mile mark we capsized. Here is a brief description of my perception of the race and events during and after the capsize.

The morning of the race we did final arrangements and prep. The forecast was for stronger winds 25-30 with gusts to 40 and bigger seas. Prep included a trip to the marine store, a safety meeting (turned out this was key) and lots of various little projects before pushing off.  The race required that we motor by a safety inspection boat with all crew present on deck and wearing their personal safety gear (lifejacket, harness, tether, etc.)

The conditions at the start were 20 knots average wind speed into the upper 20s with higher gusts. The sea state was pretty aggressive with the bigger waves easily reaching 4 meters. We started on port tack near the port end of the line. We had a clean start and the race was on.  After a short beat around the east end of Antigua, we bore off onto a beam reach. Conditions strengthened to a 25 knot average and we did see winds as high as 39.5 knots in a squall on that first 35 mile reach to the turning mark. Top boats speed was 31+ knots. We turned the corner and were on a 49 mile run to the next island. Wind speed hung in the mid to upper 20s with gusts into the lower 30s. Things remained sporty!

With the big sea state the drivers had to concentrate on keeping the bow from stuffing the waves in front of us. We rounded the southwest corner of Nevis Island and were again on a beam reach.   The next turn was to be around the island of Saba.  On the reach to Saba in the lee of Nevis and then St. Kitts islands, we had some fast, flatter water reaching as nighttime set in.  Wind speeds averaged in the low 30s with more above 30 knots then below.

At roughly 5 square miles, Saba is small but its 3000-foot tall volcano that drops straight into the ocean makes it quite noticeable.  Winds were changeable in the lee of the island — dropping into the teens at times during lulls and then nearly doubling and lifting 15-20 degrees in the puffs. In anticipation of the beat and the stronger winds we had reduced sail to the heavy weather staysail jib with one reef in the main. There is a small reef/shoal at this turn and we needed to make a decision to either sail inside it or to go low outside. In the lulls we weren’t making it and we elected to go lower.

I was acting as navigator. Mike Leslie was at the computer in the cabin, and I was relaying navigation information. So I was in the cabin when it happened. As we came out from the lee of the Island Wind speeds increased to 27-28 knots and puffs in the 32-34.  No one knows the wind speed for sure at the time of the capsize, because it happened so quickly, but we were hit by a strong lifting puff likely in the 35-40 knot range (Later we heard from the catamaran Flow that they saw puffs to 40 knots in the same vicinity).  We did not react quickly enough to ease the mainsheet, traveler and jib and the boat went over. It happened quickly and the capsize paused when the mast hit the water. Within seconds the leeward shrouds broke and the boat quickly turned turtle.

It’s a bit fuzzy but I remember my first thought as I realized we were going all the way over was being unhappy about not being able to finish the race. That thought quickly changed to survival mode as the cabin rapidly filled with water. Mike, who’d had a pretty good tumble as we flipped, had the quick mind to turn on the outside lights. This was huge and enabled all of us to quickly get our bearings with the main salon and the cockpit illuminated.

We did have air to work with in the top one or two feet of the cabin, but this reduced in height fast. We migrated aft to the cockpit and did a head count. There was a brief worry when not all hands were immediately found, but soon we had eyes on everyone (except Fritz Lanzinger who was already outside and on top or should I say the bottom of the boat). Fritz was able to yell to us and let us know he was safe. From there we made our way out the back and were helped up by Fritz to the bottom of the boat. Everyone was in pretty good shape.

One lesson learned was that automatic inflating PFD’s may not be the best choice during a capsize. Everyone got out fine, but there were some worrisome moments with the PFD inflated and the need to swim under and out. I had changed to a manual PFD so did not inflate my own until I was safely on the bottom (outside) of the overturned catamaran.

Of course, we didn’t want Fujin to capsize, but I have to say that I cannot think of a better group of sailors to find myself in this predicament with. Calm, cool heads prevailed and everyone made it out safely.

With all of us safely out, our attention turned to being rescued. Some of the crew fired off our personal AIS EPIRBs. I was later to find out that those signals were almost immediately picked up. First by a sailboat named Varuna that circled twice, verified the number on board and that we were all safe and I assume communicated this back to the race committee and Coast Guard. We later found out that another cat, Flow, stood by as well.

The first rescue vessel to arrive was a dive boat from Saba, then a fishing boat. We eventually inflated the life raft and transferred four at a time from Fujin to the fishing boat. Once all were aboard the fishing boat, a tow line was connected to Fujin and we headed for the safety of a small harbor on Saba. The tow took all night. It was only a little over 2 miles, but with current and wind it was a slow slog to the Island. We eventually made it and I am happy to say that Fujin is on a mooring and planning is well underway for her recovery.

Fujin will sail again!

Finally, I want to say how wonderful the people of Saba were. Quite frankly, they renewed my faith in people, as they were all super friendly and went out of their way to help us out. Even the folks who didn’t know we had just been rescued were very friendly and kind. Everyone who passed by always offered a wave and a smile. Even though Nick, the skipper of the Fishing boat, had been up all night with the rescue. He and his wife continued to help throughout the day, arranging for a dive boat to go retrieve personal gear, gave use of their personal phone to call loved ones and eventually gave us a ride to the airport for a flight back to Antigua. I can’t say enough about their generosity and support. This is a beautiful island with wonderful people and I plan to go back.

I know there will be a lot of talk on the Internet about the safety of a boat like this and the fact that we probably pushed too hard, which is undeniable since we did capsize. There are inherent risks to sailing a high-performance cat.  But with all that said, armed with what we learned, I would not hesitate to step onboard with the crew we had and do this race again aboard Fujin.