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April 21, 2014

Jason’s Carroll’s “Elvis” Gunboat Team of Chad Corning, Scotty Bradford, Dave Allen,  Dave Hazard, Weston Barlow, Anthony Kotoun, John Baxter and Sam Rogers red-lined our experiences both on and off the water at A Voile de St. Barths…

Growing up in tornado prone Minnesota, there are a few safety measures that are engrained in the psyche when summer weather sirens are sounded.  If caught indoors, find a stable structure to ride out the storm like a basement, bathtub or when all else fails a doorway. While racing the 62 ft Gunboat “Elvis” at Voile de St. Barths this past week, I didn’t imagine a scenario where deploying tornado safety measures would be needed, but on a windy Day 3 danger found us, and I found the doorway.

For cruisers and racers alike, Gunboat catamarans are an appealing option. For cruisers, the modern, chic layout and design both inside and out allow the boat to hold its own in the swankiest harbors in the world.  Staterooms are comfy and roomy, there are plenty of nooks for relaxing, and as anyone who has stepped foot on Elvis knows, there is space for a sizeable party, complete with an impressive sound system synced with disco lights, and a dance inducing 16 gallon rum tank.

At 62 ft long, 30 ft wide, with all carbon fiber throughout and a full compliment of racing sails, the Elvis easily transforms into a Grand Prix Race Boat that can do 15 knots upwind, and touch high 20s when sheets are cracked. Being used to boats of this magnitude having a lead bulb underneath them, experiencing the sensation of flying a hull with nothing to stop our momentum if things went wrong, I quickly found myself on the lap of Anthony Kotoun when we lifted off for the first time.  The comfortable mix of cruising and white knuckle sailing attracts owners like Jason Carroll who are looking for more than a standard racer/cruiser.

Our practice session and the first two days were in 11-15 kt tradewinds with moderate seas that gave Voile competitors idyllic Carribean racing in and around the surrounding islands of St. Barths. Racing the Elvis at full steam took the max effort of 9 capable sailors, as we ran the gamut of our sail inventory on the winding courses.  The bow team was busy on the trampoline completing sail changes, as well as the pit/trim team managing sails, dropping and raising boards and pushing to maintain max vmg at all times. With a favorable rating on a Seacart 26, we found ourselves with two 2nds, and 2nd overall heading into the lay day.

The lay day is exciting moment for sailors. For some it provides a relaxing evening followed by a day of exploring which is often not afforded at most regattas, and for others it essentially is a hall-pass for a night on the town without a harsh wake up for boat call.  After a fun night at Baz Bar, we posted up at noon for a regatta sanctioned “lunch” at the famous Nikki Beach, gawked at the menu listing 30,000EU bottles of champagne and washed down our body surfing sessions with magnums of Rose’.  Yes, Rose’, its what they do in St. Barths, and we were in no position to question it.  If we knew what was awaiting us on the racecourse the next day, we may have opted for an herbal tea with a nerve calming element.

Sipping our coffee on the morning of day 3 from the perch of our villa we saw the Tradwinds in full effect, and it was obvious from our distant view that the Carribean Sea was at full noise.  With my experiences on Elvis being new, different and very smooth up to this point, I had veiled excitement as we headed to the racecourse; I did not know enough to be nervous.  With the wind instruments reading 25-28 and monster seas rumbling through the straight between St. Barth and St. Maarten, it was enough to drop the rig on the mighty 72 ft. Bella Mente.  Still not fully grasping the potential of the Elvis in this condition, our sails were raised and we put her on the wind.

Once sheeted on, the speed ticked up quickly, and from the comfort of Anthony’s lap, I felt our starboard hull lift for a few moments, then gently touch down.  Racing 38 ft scows that can touch 25 kts on a lake and easily capsize, or a Melges 32 in big breeze does not make me nervous.  The magnitude of racing a 62 foot Gunboat in the Carribean Sea that has the potential to capsize made me nervous, and I instantly felt the weight of this for the first time.  With a monster puff descending on us and entering it unprepared on a fat angle without sheets ready to ease, we lifted off again but this time we kept going, with the heel angle reaching 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 degrees….

It was a forgone conclusion that we were going over as the worst case scenario loomed. With some braver team members reaching for their knives and winches to cut sheets or find a last ditch effort at salvage, others braced for impact, and when we reached the point of what I thought was no return, I found the nearest place to ride out the situation which happened to be the windward cockpit door frame, finally putting my childhood tornado education to use.

From our estimation, and from a handful of other sailors who witnessed our starboard hull rising from the water the heel angle reached somewhere in the low 40s before it stopped, held for a few moments, and quickly descended back into favorable numbers, like 0.  As the Elvis sat for a few moments, sails totally luffing, our team stared at each other in a mix of nervous laughter, and total shock that we were still floating upright.

Seeing steady breeze in the high 20s, the Bella rig go down, and potentially our near capsize, the always fearless Carribean/French RC sent all racing boats to shore for a postponement.  With every crew-member wound like a coiled spring ready to explode at any back-pat, sound or hint of trouble, we motored to Columbie’ (a beautiful beach lined natural harbor around the corner from Gustavia). Once we got settled, the team quietly separated to different areas of the boat, reflecting on what went wrong, what could have been, and how fortunate were to have our only damage be bruised egos.

In the end, our momentary lack of respect for the boat and conditions got us close to capsizing.  Being too cavalier, pushing the boat at 100% while not being prepared with having everyone in their racing positions, with someone calling puffs full time, and the driver and trimmers ready to react to the smallest wind increase or direction change was careless, and we fully understood that.  The Gunboat is a very fast, exciting boat that can be sailed in big heavy seas, but if a team is going to push it as hard as we intended, everyone needs to be on high alert any time the sails are trimmed; you can’t race this boat in the same way that you party on it.

With a few hours at anchor to calm our nerves, thank our respective spiritual leaders and share some more nervous laughter, we headed back out at 2:30 for a start in a breeze that had died slightly.  Pushing the boat at 85%, we completed the course and slowly got our confidence back to tame Elvis in 20-25 kts.

The final day saw similar conditions, and using our experiences from the day prior, we came to the racecourse more prepared, pushed harder, and enjoyed the sailing.  Once the magnitude of the boat and the conditions were fully understood, the Elvis seemed perfectly at home in similar conditions that caused us trouble a day earlier. With satisfaction that we could push the boat hard and get it back to the harbor in once piece, we returned to our mooring in Columbie’, relaxed on the comfortable layout of Elvis, put on some reggae, clicked on the ice maker and watched the gauge on the rum tank slowly go down.

After an amazing week of Red-Lining our sailing and on-shore activities on the Elvis team, and it is very apparent St. Barths and Gunboat sailing are a stellar combo.  It might just be the perfect place for the first ever Gunboat World Championships in 2016…who’s in?

Awesome video of Elvis hitting 26 knots with our code zero here – http://vimeo.com/92445173

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