We rounded about four boat lengths behind the same boat we’d followed around the course for three days, but on the final day of the four-race Heineken Regatta we’d picked up a bit of a secret weapon; former Bliksem World Champ mastman and 18-foot skiffy Pauly Atkins joined the ragtag crew of the Melges 32 Smile and Wave for just one race.
After three days of finishing close behind the talented crew of of Mark Plaxton’s INTAC, Pauly’s knowledge and enthusiasm had our team fired up as we set the reaching kite on the long leg from Marigot to the reef, and with the first real breeze-on conditions of this St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, we knew it would be a fun ride regardless. We caught the first big puff rolling off the mountains during our gybe, and stayed in it as we worked our up to Plaxton’s line. Whether it was inspired driving from skipper Jaime or the extra 200 pounds of man-meat INTAC was carrying for the long upwind leg I don’t know, but we were finally breathing down their necks, and we rolled over the top of them as five-time Olympian and tactician Richard Clarke called for the kite drop to reach up to the next mark. We might not have rolled them had they not been doing something a lot of people did last week – going for the wrong mark – and we might have won the day if we’d held on to our kite for another quarter mile before stretching and blowing our way up to the turning mark, because we didn’t know which mark to round either.
Eventually we all figured out where to go, and by just a few boat lengths, we rounded ahead of INTAC. Could we hold them off for the long close reach and even longer beat to the finish at Philips Bay? No one else in our class was even visible; new-to-them M32 Kick ‘Em Jenny had shown some brilliant moments earlier in the regatta but the bigger breeze had them back with the 24s on this one. We had only INTAC to worry about, and finally – FINALLY! – the Smile and Wave handicap racing team was ahead of the stacked pro crew on INTAC and our morale was at an all-time high. Our ‘A-Team’ had beaten INTAC and a few other boats during some of the one-design races at the first Virgin Island Sailing Series event a few weeks earlier, but that was one-design, ultra short-course stuff, where a great start can get you a long way up the course. And that was with the brilliant Marty Kullman on the main instead of me, and with Italian M24 racer Riccardo Papa on tactics instead of a combination of me, Pauly, Fernando, Nano, and Ivan. It was looking good for a while, but when Plaxton sailed up to our lee and fought to break through, I clearly heard INTAC main trimmer and umpteen-time multiple class national and world champ Max Skelley easing and trimming the four mainsail controls like an octopus while I struggled to keep the boat on her feet, and I heard Olympic silver medalist Mike Wolfs working the jib through each puff and lull while hiking out. And I leaned down and saw Bermuda Gold Cup and Monsoon Cup champion skipper Taylor Canfield calling puffs and hiking like only a pro does…and I knew we were screwed.
Sure enough, they blew through our lee in just a few minutes and we followed them in, somehow missing a mark on the way and losing our second-in-class in the process, but it didn’t really matter; that battle for the lead left its mark, giving us our first really great racing moment in a regatta that is far less about the racing than it is the partying. In fact, as insanely fun and wild the parties and island were (as usual), it was the first real on-water moment of the Heineken that I’d enjoyed as a racer. In my second year at the event, I decided the racing here just ain’t my speed, at least as it is today.
The Heineken is the biggest regatta in the Caribbean not because it attracts hundreds of crack teams of windward-leeward one-design racers. It’s attractive primarily because it is a massively interesting, intensely fun island, and because organizers have worked hard to brand themselves as the event that encourages excessive consumption, endless dancing, and lots of mingling with the opposite sex; “Serious Fun,” as they call it. And exactly what piles of European and American racers and charterers are looking for at the tail end of the dark Northern winter. But the racing is also tailored to that charter crowd, as well as to bigger boats and multihulls with crews that aren’t looking to turn a corner every 14 minutes.
Compared to the racing at the Rolex, BVI Spring, Antigua, or the legion of other Caribbean events (many of which I’ll be reviewing as
the season progresses), the Dutch organizers of the Heineken sail a paltry four races over the course of the three-day regatta. The standalone Gill Commodore’s Cup provides three decent windward/leewards the day before, but even those leave a lot to be desired: Long, lazy start lines in the middle of the course with a closed start/finish line, a lack of downwind gates, weird class starting orders that increase the likelihood of nasty mark traffic, and long legs in light air don’t make for the kind of intense racing that I learned to love during my M24 days and that all M32 crews love today. But for us, it was far better than the long, reachy ’round the island’ race that made up the first light-air day of the Heineken; we had a grand total of about 25 minutes of kite work over the course of the four-hour race. The Gill event was also better than the long, reachy race to Marigot and the subsequent 3-mile windward-leeward race on the French side of the island. And despite our moment of glory at the reef, the Gill racing was still better than the long race from Marigot back to regatta HQ in Philips Bay, especially with it ending on an hour-plus long beat into short 5 foot waves and 15-20 knots of breeze. Oh yeah – we had another kite run of about a quarter mile just before the finish…not enough.
It’s not like I won’t be back though, because the party is just too good, and the attitude of the organizers too inviting. PRO and all-around nice guy David Campbell-James tells me his Race Committee is looking at offering something more for guys like us, especially if the Melges 32 and 24 Caribbean fleet grows the way they seem destined to. To my mind, it would be great if they would add shorter W/L courses for classes that want it, with perhaps a mix of three passage races and three shorter four-leg sausages rather than three passage races and one long windward-return. Whether that happens or not, he assures me that they will do a better job of communicating on the start line, and that future Sailing Instructions and course layouts will be far less confusing. And if they do that, and do it consistently, the Heineken should pretty easily attract more of the one-design sport boat and TP52/Maxi crowd that currently ignores it, and climb back to some of their glory days when 300+ boats raced the Heineken.
In contrast to my bitching and moaning, the Gunboats loved it; the reachy Heineken is just about the perfect event for the big multihull fleet, and Peter Johnstone and the Gunboat owners capitalized on this with I think the biggest Gunboat class ever raced – six or seven boats from 62 to 66 feet. Jason Caroll’s stacked and heavily modified GB 62 Elvis crushed the fleet (with one of our favorites; former SCOTW Molly Baxter aboard), but judging from their smiles and stories as we raided the late night club scene together, everyone on every Gunboat had a ridiculously fun time. The island’s mouth-watering cuisine, posh villas, and laissez-faire attitude is perfect for what’s become the best cult in the Caribbean, and I may need a few weeks in Gunboats Anonymous after spending a couple of nights hanging out with that group…If I only had a few mill…
I won’t call the daily videos or photos great, but they’re entertaining and SnW features heavily in lots of them. Have a look at the video channel here and the official photo gallery here. Photos in this piece are from yours truly, event photog Bob Grieser and local photog Jim Johnston; his gallery is here.
Michele and Martine at the Heineken Regatta for being such good hosts and for giving Jaime the Sportsmanship Award – very classy of the organizers for recognizing one of Caribbean racing’s biggest cheerleaders.
Musto for making the one spray top that lets me leave everything else home, even when I have to tow a Melges 32 hundreds of miles between islands through squall after squall.
Jaime, Alma, Miranda, Gretchen, Nano, Fernando, Henry, Rosa, Ivan and the rest of the Ricans for helping me fall in love with their country.
Gill for sponsoring the Commodore’s Cup, which has given us enough tight racing to forget about the long reaches during the Heineken.
Pauly and Des for buying lots of Heinekens, loaning me lots of singles and for chartering a plane to get Pauly here for just one day.
Plaxton for being such a gracious winner
Lee and Anne and the rest of Kick ‘Em Jenny for saving us with a tiller extension and being great fun on and off the course.
City Island Leigh and Adar for filling in so well when we lost our Megs.
Azure and Jolicious from ESPN for giving good exposure to the SnW team
And finally, PJ, Megs, Cristal, Forrest, Bailet, Scotty, Ferrar, Rachel, Richard, and the rest of the Gunboat family for including me in the obscene amount of fun that follows them around.
This was our fourth regatta aboard Smile and Wave and our third handicap regatta. Three events remain, and they are all one-design VISS regattas. The next is in St. Thomas, and I’ll be reporting on the series, on the state of the M32 class in general, on the progress of a team that’s proving it doesn’t take the world’s best or a huge budget to have respectable finishes and an incredible time in the Melges 32, and on how Jaime and the other four M32 Caribbean owners are going to establish a strong, fun, Caribbean M32 fleet. And Mer will be with me for some of it for her customary great shots of the racing. It won’t suck!