To go behind the scenes of a well-run major regatta is to wonder at a marvel of organizational skill. Going behind the scenes at the 2020 Caribbean Multihull Challenge held off the island of St. Maarten this past winter, not so much—and that’s a good thing. Gathered around the scoring table up in the second-floor conference room of the Sint Maarten Yacht Club—host of the event in its first two years, and set to host the regatta again in 2021—one of the first questions was whether our sole handheld VHF was working. It was already blowing in the mid-20s out on Simpson Bay, with gusts up to 30-plus and the occasional squall, and the scoring crew was understandably curious as to who exactly it was milling about in the general vicinity of the race committee—not to mention the time of the first start.
All was eventually made clear, though, and the next thing we knew, the roughly 20 boats taking part were off and running, battling their way through a combination of sharp seas, gusting winds and rain. First off the line were the three red-hot racers in the MOCRA multihull section. These included Jeff Mearing and Scott Klodowski’s 63ft trimaran, Shockwave, and the MOD 70s Argo, owned by Jason Carroll, and Maserati, under the leadership of Italian sailing legend and Vendée Globe veteran Giovanni Soldini. After that came the rest of the fleet, a wide assortment of multihulls that included everything from the Dick Newick designed trimaran Tryst to the Joubert-Nivelt 52, Arawak, and a handful of Leopards and Outremer cruising cats.
To call the scene a dramatic one would have been an understatement, to say the least, and we of the scoring crew—and press—had a front-row seat from the second floor of the Sint Maarten Yacht Club. Setting off on a special 60-nautical mile race with an eye toward establishing a new record for what has been dubbed the “three-island course,” the MOCRA class, in particular, left a trio of wakes that had to be seen to believed. However, they had scarcely passed out of site beyond one of the headlands guarding the approaches to Simpson Bay when Soldini’s Maserati hit a fish trap lurking in the area of the first mark. This in turn not only forced the Italians to retire but return to port quick as they could to begin effecting repairs. Undaunted, Argo and Shockwave went on to battle it out, with Argo taking line honors, thereby establishing a time to beat of 3 hour, 19 minutes, but Shockwave getting the win on corrected time.
As for the rest of the fleet—including the magnificently named “Pirate” class—they also had the time of their lives duking it out with both the elements and each other, amid the wind, spray and rain. Suffice it to say, Maserati was far from being the only DNF (did not finish) that day. Nor was the Maserati crew the only one with repairs on its afternoon to-do list.
Still, for all the carnage, a good time had been had by all if the smiles, boasts and general good will back at the bar in the Sint Maarten Yacht Club, were any indication—which if you stop and think about it, is the reason the fleet had all assemble in St. Maarten in the first place, finish times be damned. One of the fun things about a regatta like the Caribbean Multihull Challenge is the intimacy of it all. Pretty much the entire fleet was able to crowd around for the latest racing instructions that evening. Race officers, skippers and pretty much anyone and everyone else you could think of was all hanging out having drinks together.
At an event like the Caribbean Multihull Challenge, what you see is what you get. Hanging out with the rest of the crowd, drinking an ice-cold Carib beer, watching a megayacht thread its way through the impossibly narrow drawbridge into the Simpson Lagoon, thinking back on the events of the morning I was beginning to think I liked this kind of racing.
Into the Breach
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the following morning, it was yours truly's turn to get beaten up by the wind and waves. The evening before, local broker and charter skipper Ian Martin, owner of the Leopard 45, Spellbound, had agreed to have me aboard for the race around the island to the French side and a finish in Baie de Grand Case. Also aboard were local sailors Rein Korteknie, Brian Deher, Tony Burn and Garth Steyn. The latter is not only a veteran racer and sailor, but director of Kidz at Sea (kidzatsea.sx), a St. Maarten-based sail-training organization dedicated to getting young people out on the water who might never otherwise have a chance to try sailing. Better still, he’d brought along three of his more experienced trainees—Shaeeza Ramjiawan, Randy Singh and Yves Semexant—a good thing since we needed all the help we could get.
Once again, it was breeze on, with a solid 20-plus knots with gusts to 30 blowing out of the east-northeast and scattered rain. Suffice it to say Martin, who is not only originally from South Africa but a Whitbread veteran with a number of sailing records to his name, does not like to reduce sail—and we still put a reef in the main. Similarly, in the MOCRA multihull section, Maserati may have been back in action, but before the day was done it would be Shockwave’s turn to retire early on after breaking her boom, ending her regatta for good.
Fortunately, things went far more smoothly aboard the good ship Spellbound. After a bit of a snafu at the start, we were off and running, bearing away in hot pursuit of George Coutu’s Leopard 50, La Novia. Soon we were passing them and then hardening up at the second mark for a rollicking beam reach on a heading just west of north toward the top mark off Blowing Rock near the tip of Anguilla.
From there, it was a long beat to the finish in Baie de Grand Case, another exhilarating sail. Though nominally a cruising cat—and in the day-charter trade no less—Spellbound ploughed her way through the now sun-dappled seas like the thoroughbred she thought she was. In the end, it was Spellbound first, La Novia second. We’d barely crossed the line before I was making sure Martin would let me tag along for the rubber match on day three as well.
“Of course, love to have ya!” he said, as we set a course back to Simpson Bay and another round of Caribs on our mooring before returning to the bar at the Sint Maarten YC.
Fast forward to the start of said rubber match, and the following morning found us arriving at the line in Baie de Grand Case under a low overcast sky and yet more wind. Reefed mains were the order of the as the fleet started off with rain squalls and winds out of the east again blowing 20 knots plus. Crossing the starting line, we immediately put up our spinnaker and took off at 12, 13, and we were soon running away from the rest of the fleet, which had all elected to sail under jib-and-main, including our arch-competition La Novia. (Did I mention yet Martin likes to carry sail?)
Unfortunately, midway to the first mark we were hit by a short rain squall packing another 5 knots of wind. After that came yet another squall packing 5 knots more, leaving us little choice but to take down the chute—after which things, of course, went light again.
Another 10 minutes after that we put the sail back up again, but the damage had been done. Over the course of the long reach down from Blowing Rock round the western tip of St. Maarten, we were able to hold on to our lead. But hardening up toward the finish in Simpson Bay, La Novia slowly but sure reeled us back in again.
Thanks to a couple of well-timed tacks in the final stretch to the finish, we were eventually able to beat them across the line by about 40 seconds. However, they still ended up winning on corrected time by a little under a minute. Game, set, match for La Novia—congrats on a well-sailed regatta guys.
As for the crew of the good ship Spellbound, while the end result came as a bit of disappointment, it didn’t take long to get back into the groove of things as we returned to Spellbound’s mooring and then relaxed a little with another round of Caribs. As Martin, who was still kicking himself from time to time for having decided to take down the spinnaker earlier, put it, “Losing it hard, but it’s less hard when you’ve been sailing against a good boat that was well sailed.”
To which I say, “Amen!”
Not only that, but back at the Sint Maarten YC that evening for the awards ceremony I suspect there was not a sailor among the entire of the fleet who didn’t feel the same. It was really was a wonderful scene, dozens of sunburned sailors and their friends all packed in together laughing and joking about the great time they’d just had. Again, it was all just so wonderfully intimate, so “real,” so to speak.
Watching the festivities going on all around me I found myself thinking about the upcoming Sint Maarten Heineken Regatta due to begin in a few weeks’ time, an event that draws seemingly as many boats as the Caribbean Multihull Challenge had sailors. Don’t get me wrong, I love big regattas as well. The 2020 Heineken would also prove to be an especially good one for Spellbound, with Martin and company winning the regatta’s “Most Worthy” multihull prize. Still, there’s something about the camaraderie and sheer joy of a more intimate regatta that can’t be beat.
I also couldn’t help wondering whether in future years, this brand-new event might come to join the pantheon of stopovers now comprising the spring Caribbean racing circuit. I’m sure it’ll still be a lot of fun, if or when that happens. However, I’m also pretty sure I won’t be the only one sidling up to the bar at the Sint Maarten YC and telling those around me, “Ah, but you should have seen it back when…”
Ed Note: For more Caribbean Multihull Challenge, including the third edition set to take place Feb. 5-7, visit smyc.com/caribbean-multihull-challenge. For more on Kidz at Sea St. Maarten, visit kidzatsea.sx or go to the organization’s Facebook page
MHS Winter 2021