Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Antigua and All That

Team SAIL went to the races a couple of weeks ago. Along with colleague David Schmidt and a gnarly crew recruited from the waterfronts of Marblehead, Mass, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Annapolis, Md and New Orleans, I’d chartered a 50ft Beneteau from Sunsail at the mecca of all warm-water regattas, Antigua Sailing Week. I had been surprised to discover that charter boats made up a healthy proportion of the fleets in the Caribbean regatta circuit. In fact, of the nearly 300 boats entered in the Heineken regatta in St Martin back in March, 130 were spread through seven bareboat classes. When nearly one in two boats in a regatta is a tubby cruiser, you know you’re on to something. Here is a way for Everyman to race at a competitive level alongside some of the hottest boats in the world, in some of the best sailing areas in the world.

You might think the average charter boat is more fun at anchor than under sail, and up to a point I’d agree. If you’re one of that small contingent who only sails hot racing boats you won’t find much to whoop and holler about on a boat with five toilets and bunks for ten vacationers. But for us mere mortals, the thought of punting a 40 foot Jeanneau or 51 foot Beneteau through warm Caribbean waves seems pretty attractive.

And it’s not as if people don’t take this kind of racing seriously. I’ve seen anchors and chain piled up on the docks, stoves and tables removed and stashed ashore, water tanks drained. The leeward mark roundings can be pretty hair-raising; no wonder the charter companies ask for a hefty racing deposit – 5,000 Euros in our case. There are even ways around that. We met one skipper at Antigua who had insured against his deposit being lost. Thankfully, he was in a different class. Crews tend to come back year after year, often chartering the same boats. Some even have sails made just for the regattas. It’s not easy to win a bareboat race.

Most of our competion was European. The boats weren’t decked out in corporate logos the way they were in St Martin, but the crews generally sported team uniforms that matched down to the Speedos. Some also evidenced an unfortunate predilection for getting naked at every opportunity, chief among one boat full of middleaged Germans that we found anchored next to us on a couple of occasions. You can carry the bareboat concept a bit too far.

I won’t tell you how we did on our Sunsail Beneteau 50, because the report’s in the July issue and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say we learned a few things, not least among them that the bareboat class is a wonderful way to check out the hot boats. We started before the fast guys and they usually caught us before the leeward marks, so we got to see plenty of spinnakers and some interesting takedowns. We even got asked kindly to move out of the way, once or twice.

We did our best to sample some of Antigua’s legendary parties, but only got to two of them. The other nights we kicked back on board, grilled steaks, and drank a bit too much Wadadli and Carib beer and rum laced with Ting, a local soda. I had never realized that Wadadli, the island’s national beer, was actually brewed in Denmark, while the maltier Carib is made locally. Luckily, neither was proof against aspirin.

In spite of these temptations we emerged at the end of a solid week’s racing happy, tanned and more-or-less healthy, if you discounted the inevitable boat bites and cruises. Winds had been unusually light, not topping out at much more than 20 knots, and more often around 12-15. The five races were all around 20-22 miles long, favoring the beautiful south and west coasts. By the end of the week we were starting to get the hang of the place.

This was one of the best weeks of sailing I’ve had in years. To top it all off, I got home to find that my wife had refinished all the floorboards on our boat. Truly, does life get any better?

No comments: