Racing

Caribbean Class

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How do you spot a happy European sailor?

The Caribbean tan.

How do you spot a happy American sailor?

Surely you have my drift.

When it’s overcoat weather in St. Tropez or Green Bay, it’s time for Martinique. St. Barts. St. Lucia. Key West. Any place from Florida south. And if you’re looking to race, no problem. The 7,000 isles, reefs, and cays of the Caribbean are first of all a cruising paradise. Not to let that go, the Caribbean has definitely gone racy. There are scads of opportunities, and you switch cultures and cuisines by the mile.

Blue sky. Caressing breezes. White sand. But you know that. You may not know that Britain’s Royal Ocean Racing Club is inaugurating the RORC Caribbean 600 this month, with an English Harbour, Antigua, start and the expectation of a considerable fleet including the first matchup of 30-meter Maxis Leopard and Speedboat.

You may not know that Stanford Antigua Sailing Week has added a day to the racing calendar in 2009 and added longer races to create a regatta within the regatta, the Antigua Ocean Series, aimed especially at the big class.

You may not know that the St. Croix International has been so tickled by the reception for its spinnaker-class award—the winning skipper gets his weight in Cruzan Gold Rum—that in 2009 the organizers are awarding an identical prize for the most competitive cruiser-racer division.

You may not know any good reason to miss out on all this, but if you have a reason, our condolences. The high-end racing is growing, the classics racing is booming, and there are lots of people having good times on charterboats, which, true, don’t carry go-fast goodies. But sometimes, mon, that’s not what it’s about. You can race around buoys or race around islands. And when you come to the Caribbean you might toss a few special items into your kit. A blender, for example. Snorkeling gear. A kite (the non-spinnaker kind). So that after you’ve given the competition what-for, you can rest up from the slaughter.

The first European on the scene was, of course, Columbus. Of his inaugural voyage the explorer wrote, “Following the sun, we left the Old World,” and so they did. How dazzling it must have been for the sailors of the Nia, Pinta, and Santa Mara to arrive in the New World—unjaded by glossy travel brochures—and behold the sparkling waters and bright sand beaches of the Indies. Columbus congratulated himself thus: “By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”

Um, right. East Indies, West Indies. Picky, picky, picky.

You, however, will want to be picky. There are low-key events where a funny hat could define success. There are high-end deals, Antigua Sailing Week for example, where you will need embroidered crew shirts just to blend in—that or sufficiently developed self-confidence to shrug off that stuff. Antigua, out on the Atlantic-exposed flank of the Leewards, has a reputation for serving up 20ish-knot winds and unbroken ocean waves. Nothing wrong with that, unless you’d be happier in the more-protected waters of the Virgin Islands.

Which could take you to: The BVI Spring Regatta, starting at Nanny Cay and racing up the Sir Francis Drake Channel to Virgin Gorda and the Bitter End Yacht Club, followed by a couple of days of limbo-dancing, relaxing by the pool, and dinghy racing, followed then by a race back down to Nanny Cay, which completes the warm-up, and after that you’re in for three days of the real BVI Spring Regatta.

Or the Virgins could mean the USVI and the International Rolex Regatta, a tradition since 1974. St. Thomas Yacht Club bills the event as “the friendly Caribbean regatta” and asserts “simple is how we make it.” Frankly, though, that could serve as a rallying cry for all the regattas of the Caribbean.

On this big blue planet of ours there are few patches of water predictable enough for a race committee to prescribe a course ahead of time and apply the label “downwind start.” But that’s life at St. Thomas, and that’s life under the trade winds (averaging 15 to 20 knots, January–April), and that’s life all over the Antilles. St. Maarten/St. Martin is half Dutch, half French, but the annual Heineken Regatta is all Caribbean.

Want a unique experience? Choose the Anguilla Regatta. In this tiny British Overseas Territory, even cricket runs second to the passion for boat racing. In the annual Mix Up, visiting sailors take the locals out to race, then go racing on the locals’ colorful wooden craft. These long-boomed sloops derive from the fisherman’s tradition, but now they’re devoted to—what did we say?—the passion for boat racing. If the breeze is steady as usual and free of headers, your Anguillian crew will look ahead and tell you “nuttin bafflin.” And if your story follows the typical arc, you will have your grins and your own Caribbean tan, and, come time to return to that other life of yours, when someone asks “How was it?” You will say “Fine.” And a smirky inner voice will whisper “nuttin bafflin.”

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