Ahh, winter. When November arrives I get a certain pang as I sense the St. Barthelemy Cata-Cup drawing closer. The Cata-Cup is one of a kind beach cat distance race event where the 500 Euro entry fee covers lodging on the island for a week, as well as five star lunches at Nikki Beach. The organizers put in a tremendous amount of work to make it happen and many private homeowners open their doors to competitors for a week. As soon as we stepped foot on the island we saw posters and signs for the event everywhere.
After earning sixth last year, I was determined to improve, with a better boat and intense training leading up to the event. This year the Cata-Cup was an incredible journey for us where we worked on executing a game plan and staying relaxed when in bad positions.
Two days before the event we were picked up at a private airport in Tampa by Patrick Eudy, owner of the GP 42 Big Booty, in his Commander twin engine seven seater. Patrick’s team chartered an F18 for the regatta. At 25,000 feet instead of the usual 50,000 flown by commercial jets, we could play the island name game on the way to St. Barth, which is about 140 miles east of Puerto Rico. The water was so clear from above it appeared as if the boats were floating on air, their shadows cast on the ocean’s bottom.
After arriving, we had an extra day to explore the island while our container was clearing customs. We hit all the naked beaches and checked out a couple local bars in the port Gustavia. A little advice: If you pick up a hitchhiking local who offers to pay you back with a shot of some ‘real’ Caribbean alcohol, make sure you know your way home first.
Thanks to Bernuth Lines, who sponsored us and gave us our own container at the last minute, our boats arrived as planned in St. Barth. Itching to get out in the premier conditions, we promptly put together the U.S. team’s F18s and sailed them around the island to Nikki Beach, where all of the 43 F18s called home for the week. During the beach delivery, I sailed with Ed Norton, the boat captain of Big Booty, who had some real talent on the mainsheet.
On Friday the committee boat, a 50’ cruising cat, left it’s mooring by the cliffs of Nikki Beach, and it was on. Dalton and I had a simple plan for the three day event: Sail Smart. We had plenty of speed, but during the Canadian F18 championship we made some poor decisions while our heads were in the boat. We also had a simple plan for the first beat: Take Control of the Fleet. I know, easier said than done.
The course for the first long distance race was first a beat to a rounding mark on the north side of the island, sail around a small rock (Il de Beuf) about five miles downwind on the west side of the island, then around another bigger rock three miles away (Pain de Sucre), back around Beuf, around the turning mark, then finish. About 17 miles total. We did have a small advantage on some of the fleet; I did the race before and knew the obscure landmarks.
We started the first race and executed our game plan in the 15 knot tradewinds. We were first at the turning mark by 100 yards, and then extended on the downwind, with the AHPC C2 performing in the steep waves. The aesthetics were incredible behind us, with the Maltese Falcon sailing around the island providing a backdrop to the F18 spinnakers, glistening blue water and rocky island contour. We did have an ‘oh shit’ moment when we were becalmed on the lee side of the island only to watch the second place Cirrus F18 flying a hull towards us, gaining every second. Our teamwork was on point though as we pulled back away upwind on the dash to the finish.
The second race was a sprint race around some rocks on the north side of the island. It was a warm up to the real race around the island later in the day. Our teammates, Robbie Daniel and Gary Chu, also on a C2, led the way and nipped us at the finish.
The race around the island had views straight out of Nat Geo. Again, we had great upwind speed and rounded the rocky island edifice with a nice lead. After a short reach it was time to pop the kite again. There is nothing like surfing in window pane clear warm water. That’s when what we thought was disaster struck. Our spinnaker bail blew out, which meant the kite was pulling at the turning block attached to the very top of the stick. The mast was bowed like double jointed yoga instructor. Crap, I had to put on a ton of mainsheet to act as a backstay slowing us down with no flow on the top of the main. That’s when we went back to our Smart Plan. We waited for a nice pressure patch and gybed in closer to the island for flatter water. It worked as we were able to increase our lead on the tight knitted pack as they battled hard with each other.
Lucky for us, there were two turning marks on the south side of the island located at the naked beaches we frequented a couple days before (Saline and Governors Beach). We recognized the beaches and found the marks. Sometimes being in the lead during these distance races is a detriment. You lose time while looking for the turning marks. Not today!
When we popped the kite again after leaving Governors we thought we were going to get passed by a few boats. We were joking about being wounded to try and ease the pain. We had to go twin wire with the spin to make Pain de Sucre, which I was worried about. If I dumped any traveler the aluminum mast would fold like the Magic’s Nick Anderson on the free throw line in the ’95 NBA Finals. Unlike Nick, the mast held together and we led into Gustavia Harbor. The turning mark was well inside the harbor though and we sat, again, windless watching our one mile lead on the pack shrink to absolutely nothing. While exiting the harbor we were passed by Olivier Backes, the current world champion, but again our upwind speed to the finish proved the deciding factor in the race.
The race win put us into a comfortable lead going into the last day with a 1-2-1. The fanfare was incredible as we celebrated our second daily win with women dancing on tables and cameras flashing. We were given a bottle of St. Barth’s finest coconut rum, which was absolutely off the charts good and strong as hell. We passed it around and it was empty before sunset.
We were uneasy about the last day. The forecast was dead nuts on. The wind and seas had built to 25-30 knots and 9 feet. Even though the RC had done an excellent job leading up to the final day, we didn’t know what to expect. Sure enough, they offered us up to the angry seas. Promptly four boats were on their side and half the fleet decided not to participate. In our roundup to the start we almost ate it! We had our worst start of the regatta and were rolled by about five boats (Oh crap! Nick Anderson syndrome?) The whole event we were hitting the right side by the cliffs anyway so we tacked out and ended up fifth at the top mark.
My Magic Marine teammate Mischa Heemskerk hit stride and rounded first, only to have a slight navigation error to the wrong channel mark which put him back in the pack. Then, on the reach to the next mark, Yvan Bourgnon, ace ORMA 60 sailor and current holder of the Mediterranean crossing record on a beach cat, stuck the bow in the back of a huge wave so hard his spinnaker pole blew up putting him out of contention. It was getting to be a game of attrition. Once in third, we backed off the gas and held it together for the finish. J.C. Mourniac, whom I sailed with on the EX40 in Alicante, and his helm Chistopher Jonsson, flew to the finish for the win, followed by Robbie and Gary, then us.
And that was it! With half of the fleet on the beach and various teams drifting sideways the committee made the call to send us in. With a 1-2-1 after the throw we captured the Cata-Cup and some really nice Pirelli watches. It was magnificent for us. We had a gameplan, executed it, and it worked. The prize giving ceremony was second to none with radio, TV, and cameras truly unmatched for a beach cat regatta! The event was so well run and published it made it into the three best French regattas of November (really well put together video with carnage!) with the Route du Rhum and Louis Vuitton Trophy. To put it over the top, Olivier Bernaz of St. Maarten bought our boat on the beach. Congrats Olivier!
Now comes the traveler’s worst fears part. Monday, after the event we packed up and took the planned 10:30 ferry to St. Maarten to meet up with the Big Booty crew to catch our flight back to the mainland on Patrick’s Commander. They decided to bail on the last day and hang out in St. Maarten instead. Everything went as planned. We took the ferry then a taxi to the airport. We walked into the security building of the private airport and Dalton handed them the TLC business card when they asked who our handler was. The two porters looked a bit perplexed and I had a feeling something was wrong. They asked what plane we were with and we told them. They porters looked at each other and back at us and said in French island tone, “I’m sorry, but the plane has left.” One of the porters also said he asked the owner of the plane if they were expecting any other passengers and the owner said ‘nope.’ Just as the porter said that, Dalton, looking out the window, pointed and said, “Hey, isn’t that them taking off!” I’ll be damned. Our hearts ripped out and pumping, we exchanged burning glances, picked up our bags and headed to the ‘little peoples’ airport to complete our journey.
Special thanks goes to my friends Christophe and Pascale from St. Barth Properties who again opened their home and fed us every morning (love those fresh chocolate filled croissants!). If you want to vacation on St. Barthelemy they are the ones to call.
Here are the results.
Incredible event pics from Pierrick Contin Photos.