serious rolex

If, as I recently reported, the Heineken St. Martin Regatta is all about fun, St. Thomas Yacht Club’s Rolex International Regatta hits the other extreme; racing takes center stage for this one.  There’s a lot of history to explain the big differences, but they mostly come down to the people running the show.  STYC’s long time manager Bill Canfield and his team of extremely professional PROs know they have a reputation as being the ultimate Caribbean regatta, and they don’t screw around.  And thanks to that reputation, the 40-year old Rolex Regatta has the distinction of being not only Rolex’s first foray into sailing ever, but it’s possibly the longest-running title sponsorship of any sailing event – period.

Don’t let my focus on the racing make you think there’s no party action – quite the contrary.  But in contrast to the Heineken and the BVI Spring Regatta (until this year, when they tightened up their social plan), every Rolex party is right on the beach at the STYC.  Instead of having to run all over an island via taxi, dinghy and bike, every night, pretty much the entire fleet anchored in Cowpet Bay honks for the launch (named Three Blasts for their calling card) so they can fill the unique little slice of paradise that is the STYC with dancing, drinking, and telling stories.  It’s definitely not St. Martin or Antigua – there’s precious little to do near Cowpet without a cab ride or a long walk down treacherous roads – but the relatively chill nature of the onshore activities is part of the Rolex’s charm.  Besides, if you just finished 5 races (like the IC24 class does each day of the event) or 4 (like we did on the Melges 32), you probably don’t have the energy for St. Martin’s 3 AM pub, club, and stripper crawl…

Like most Caribbean regattas, the Rolex has seen fleets shrink over the past few years; just 68 boats were on the line for the 40th anniversary of the regatta, well down from a 2003 high of 97 teams.  Fortunately for us (and everyone else there), it’s not because the racing standards have dropped. In fact, a little investigating revealed that a big part of the problem is the same Border Patrol/Immigration bullshit that plagues any foreigner trying to come to a US territory; if you come on a private boat, you need to take weeks or months and spend plenty of money to secure a special visa, and quite a few boats either couldn’t or wouldn’t subject themselves to it.  At least three of the headlining maxis that have always come down to this event – boats like Ran and Bella Mente – couldn’t get it done, and another couple of maxis turned around and went home when they realized their only competition would be maxis from another era, worlds apart in speed and competitiveness.  More of the usual Rolex competitors are 4,000 miles away in California preparing for the Transpac.  The beach cats were also down, and our own Melges 32 one-design class was quite a bit smaller than expected, with 9 boats instead of an originally forecast 15 or so.

Canfield tells me that he expects a rebound over the next few years, with the TP52s seriously trying to make a Caribbean circuit happen in 2014, with the Rolex as a centerpiece.  New race-specific charter companies are helping to fill the gaps, STYC is finally getting a grasp on the power of social marketing and the internet, and we’re told a more aggressive marketing campaign is in the works; all good news for an event that should be on every racer’s bucket list.  Now if they just drop the almost unbelievably awful TP2 video people and replace them with a videographer from the 21st century, they might be able to show everyone just how good the racing really is…but that’s another story.

Almost Famous

Last year, Jaime Torres missed out on the Rolex by a heart-wrenching half a point with the old Smile and Wave, a Beneteau First 40.  This year, there would be no repeat performances; not with a 9-boat fleet with a crew list that was a Who’s Who in pro racing.  Still, we were definitely anticipating some more bare-knuckle brawling in this most competitive of fleets; we’ve been training hard since our first event at Virgin Gorda, both in the gym and on the water and we knew we could take some scalps, even if we were unlikely to win any races.  With newcomer Ngoni in the fleet and a new spinnaker in our quiver, we might even have a shot at second-to-last.

That was until we saw who former private army owner and oil tycoon Tony Buckingham had aboard the Ngoni; Camper skipper Chris Nicholson, Ran/Pinta/Artemis stud Chris Hosking, and the guy doing my job aboard:  Ross Halcrow.  Two Cup victories, a VOR win, and widely regarded as one of the best sail trimmers in the history of the sport.  And that was who we had to beat to avoid a DFL.  Shit.  Never mind the other guys doing my job on the other boats; Olympic silver medalist Mike Wolfs, four-time VOR vet Richard Mason, Anthony Kotoun, Federico Michetti, and so on, and so on…

We struggled in the unusually light air for the first 6 races; lots of current in picturesque Pillsbury Sound didn’t help.  But when the breeze came up, Smile and Wave came on, with Torres and main trimmer Marty Kullman getting in a serious downwind groove.  We passed boats on most runs when there was surfing or planing to be found, and finished the regatta with a strong 4,6,7,5 scoreline – beating every boat at the event at least once. Well, every boat except for 21-year old Rolex winner Dalton Devos’s Delta…and we missed them by about an inch in race 9.  Had we found our speed a little earlier and had those kinds of results from the beginning, we’d have finished in 6th or 7th.  As it was, ngoni took us by 4 points

We left feeling damned good about our performance, and proud that we are so close to proving our point: You do not have to be a billionaire to compete in the Melges 32 Class, and you do not have to be a billionaire to have more fun than all of them.  Case in point: When we learned we were overlooked when STYC made dockside room for the entire M32 fleet but us, we built our own island in the anchorage…our 42′ catamaran HQ was flanked by the M32 and our pitman’s Beneteau 38, with inflatable docks holding a pair of RIBs, two Open Bics, a pair of SUPs, six hot hardbodies, and a pile of laughing kids jumping all over it.  The adults got in on it too – Robertissima tactician Vasco Vascotto challenged Argo’s Cameron Appleton to a Bic match only to find that his waterlogged toy kept flipping over.  And yes – Italians yell as much in an Open Bic as they do in a TP52.  Still, our little world was hotel, playground, and miniature marina; the envy of everyone at the event, and it all cost less than Delta’s RIB.  The ultra-rich proved they can party too; Robertissima’s army of Italians is gorgeous and hilarious; Richard and Twirler (happy birthday, mate!) and all the rest on Inga From Sweden are a total panic, and Argo’s entire team nearly ended up in a BVI jail cell after a late night, Mount Gay-fueled RIB attempt to party all the way at Willie T’s without clearing customs or having any ID for any of the crew aboard…

Next up for Smile and Wave is this week’s BVI Spring Regatta, where three M32s will race on handicap against who knows what. We’ve got some more big guns filling in though; Pauly Atkins is back, and longtime New Waver Judah Rubin is joining us on tactics.  And then in April, we have our final test; the most exclusive regatta of them all; the Peter Island V.I.S.S. event.

And we’re not coming in last fucking place.

You can follow our exploits by liking the Smile and Wave Facebook Page, and you can check out the cool BVI Spring Regatta page here for what we expect to be some epic racing.  Meredith Block gets credit for the photos in this piece with 44 more of them here, and huge thanks to Ollie and Beech for the lift.  An equally big thanks to Alec at Velocitek for shipping out a Pro-Start at the very last minute after we lost ours; great service as usual from our pal in Hawaii, and where would we be without the Pro-Start?  In fact, our worst starts came when we didn’t pay attention to it…