“Every knock is a boost,” Ben said as the crew passed pancakes around the table. It was the day before the first of our Regatta Time in Abaco Mother Tub-class races and the lighthearted inquiry, “What is your motto?” was posed to each crewmember over breakfast. Some folks concocted a motto on the spot. Others adopted their mother’s or father’s, but each was accompanied with a colorful backstory. It was meant as fun, just an engaging talking point over pancakes. Little did we know how these succinct life philosophies would come back to bite us during the race.
Before you race in the Bahamas, though, it seems you must party. As a novice racer, that was the first rule I learned, and I never saw a full-blown party-parade quite like this—the famous “Stranded Naked Cheeseburger in Paradise” party, which might be better described as the day 500 people buzzed up to a remote island for free rum punch and cheeseburgers. Hundreds of dinghies, powerboats, center-console skiffs, daysailers and trawlers littered the cove at Fiddler’s Cay. Our crew—Kiki, Steve, Ty, Sara, Captain Ben and I—picked its way through gunwales and anchor lines toward speakers blaring Jimmy Buffett, ramshackle booths and swarms of what appeared to be four decades worth of MTV Spring Breakers. It was amazing to see such a raucous gathering in such a remote place. It was like a rickety pop-up party with a wide range of suitable attire. Many gals wore swimsuits consisting solely of straps and what I can only describe as a stern jewel. Watching them duke it out in a three-tier hula tournament sure makes the two hours in the cheeseburger line go by fast. The burger itself was a stiff, sun-soaked grease patty, but it paired well with the free rum.
The crew and I took in every sight, sip and stern jewel we could before making our way to the captain’s meeting for the next day’s race. Ben and Sara have sailed their 46ft Beneteau, Cheval, for 12 consecutive years in the Abaco regatta and placed nearly every time, which meant there was plenty of ribbing and lighthearted trash-talking. It therefore surprised me as a regatta newbie to hear the crews often helped one another out by offering up spare parts and assisting with repairs between the four regatta races.
“We just don’t want them to have any excuses when we beat them,” Ben mumbled behind a cupped hand while waving and nodding at a fellow captain.
While I knew they were kind of kidding, you could also tell they kind of weren’t. Mother Tubbers or not, these folks still wanted to win, which made me a little nervous. I had never raced before, never crewed in a regatta, never cranked a winch like the guys do in the America’s Cup with the captain shouting “Go, go, go, go!” I was sure I would get frazzled, accidentally release some line that I wasn’t supposed to and send the genoa flying out mid-tack. And I wasn’t the only racing virgin aboard. Of the six members of Cheval’s so-called “crew,” only Ben and Sara had raced before. For Ty, Steve, Kiki and me, this wasn’t just our first time racing, it was also the first time we had sailed together as a team.
The morning of the first race we took down the dodger, put the cushions below and secured all “rollable” items. Kiki, our self-designated “fashion director,” made sure the team put on a stunning show, clad all in red bathing suits for the ladies, shirts, shorts and hats for the men. Coordinated chaos greeted us at the starting line—40 or more boats from 20ft to 50ft, darting left and right at various confusing angles. With just a few body collisions and elbow jabs, our crew managed to tack the boat for the first time right before the starting line. Cheval crossed in the center of the pack for an impressive start and held the lead up to the first mark. After a few bobbles and bad experiments, the novice crew fell into its appropriate roles—Steve sheeted in the genoa for each tack after Sara or Kiki released the sheet, and I cranked in on the winch until Capt. Ben stopped yelling, “Go, go, go, go!” The system wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Ty stood topside with the binos as our expert “marksman,” forever on the lookout for the next buoy.
Halfway through the first race, those cute little mottos we had shared earlier were thrown around like barbs.
“The genny sheet is stuck!” Kiki shouted when the line cinched back on itself during a tack.
“Overcome any obstacle!” the crew shouted back (her motto).
“Meat on the rail! I’m getting overpowered!” Ben shouted when we heeled over in a gust of wind.
“It’s a great day for a sail!” the crew muttered, crawling up to the high side (his motto).
“At least it didn’t take the whole thing!” Steve shouted when the genoa sheet got caught on the whisker pole and ripped the lower half of the track off of the mast.
“Be glad for what you’ve got!” the crew shouted back (my motto).
“I blew the pulley!” I shouted when I ground a winch too hard and exploded the genoa sheet lead block on the starboard side deck.
“Every knock is a boost,” the crew shouted back (Ben’s father’s motto).
A long-time music teacher, Ben had told us over pancakes he’d been let go many times over the course of his career. But Ben’s father, at the age of 63, was picked up by Julliard and taught there for 20 years until he retired at the age of 83. He then wrote a book, Discover Your Voice, before he passed away at the age of 93. Incredibly, the last years of his life were the most productive. Every time he suffered a blow, he would tell Ben, “Every knock is a boost,” a motto that seemed particularly fitting during our haphazard racing. Every time some seemingly fatal mishap occurred—a blown block, a snagged line or some other equipment failure—something positive always seemed to emerge—better wind, a better angle, increased speed. Suddenly, the impediment became an improvement. It was incredible.
Amazingly, despite a failed attempt at re-rigging the whisker pole, which left half the crew splayed out like roadkill topside while the genny thundered overhead after the sheet block exploded, Cheval was still the first boat to cross the finish line. Shouts of victory erupted from the cockpit as the horn blew. I could care less about the scratch sheet, corrected time, our ranking or whatever piddly point system the committee folks came up with to determine our official place. In my mind, we had won. We crossed first! I honestly couldn’t believe it. According to the points paradox as dictated by Cheval’s PHRF rating, we had to beat the other boats by over a minute to actually place, and our cheers subsided as an ominous horn honked in the distance, as if to remind us—don’t celebrate yet. But it wouldn’t be long.
In the Bahamas, partying must take place not only before a race but afterward as well. Colorful little beach bars on various cays were gracious enough to host awards parties after every race, usually with free drinks, local food and live music. The bar staff greeted you with a big smile and often a tray of piping hot conch fritters to sample. A warm sense of community brought everyone together at the awards parties. The length of the lines that got tangled and the blades used to cut them grew as the salty crews gathered to swap war stories and congratulate each other after a great day of sailing.
When they got to the Mother Tub announcements, the Cheval crew prickled with energy. The same thunderous roar that resonated when we crossed the finish line erupted again as they announced it: “Second place, Cheval!”
A shout came from the crowd when we posed with our trophy, “Is that the red bikini crew?” and I raised my Cheval polo up to reveal the red bikini I had been sweating and swearing in all day just as they snapped the team photo. I couldn’t help it. The hot spirit of victory had taken over. With a virgin crew and many mistakes, we had somehow done it—competed in the Regatta Time in Abaco Tub class and (nearly) won.
While I remain a cruiser at heart, I will definitely race again. Racing demands perfection even amid upsets, leaving you no choice but to sail as quickly and efficiently as you can, no matter what the conditions, thereby making you a better sailor. Improvement isn’t just expected, it’s assured. Even so, while it was frightening, enlightening and fun, racing was a bit like going into battle. I would never race our own Niagara 35. For both boat and crew, every knock is also a bruise.
Annie Dike lives and cruises (but never races) in Pensacola, Florida, and recently authored the book Salt of a Sailor
Photos by Stephen Abbott