Thirty-one years after a group of traditional yachts decided to make the most of the Atlantic seas and tradewind conditions on offer immediately outside English Harbour, Antigua, the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta has become a riot of racing and good times. Quite how the unpaid volunteers of the Antigua Yacht Club contrive this annual weeklong extravaganza remains a mystery, but manage it they do. Where else on Planet Earth can you see the likes of L. Francis Herreshoff’s 1936 masterpiece Ticonderoga and the mighty fishing schooner Columbia crossing tacks with Genesis and Free in St. Barth, both built on the lines of cargo carriers from half-models on the beach at Carriacou?
Over in the South of England, there’s an annual classic car revival called the Goodwood. It’s officially about serious racing, but it’s worth 70 bucks just to drive into the parking lot and feast your eyes on the hardware. Antigua Classics is like that. Walking the docks last April on the first morning, the dazzling lineup promised a tough challenge for the rest of the Concours d’Elégance judging team and me, which had been tasked with judging the best of the best in such categories as “Vintage,” for boats built before 1950, and “Spirit of Tradition.”
We were a transatlantic bunch with the eastern half represented by the editor of Classic Boat no less, me, my wife and my old shipmate “Scrimshaw Mick.” A strong west-side contingent was headed up by the sponsor, Bill Lynn of the Herreshoff Marine Museum working with local experts who not only knew their way around but could slip the rest of us some useful inside information whenever necessary.
I suppose judging a “concours” of yachts is simple when marks are purely for brightwork and paint. In Antigua, however, there’s more to it. How do you match up the 143ft replica of a 1923 Starling Burgess fishing schooner fitted out like a superyacht with a 1957 Sparkman and Stephens racing yawl, restored by Gannon and Benjamin as a perfect period piece? Not easy, huh? Add in a couple of Carriacou sloops, a family-run 32ft Spanish ocean racer and the Hoek-designed Atalante, a bulb-keeled fast cruising yacht with traditional lines above water. Now note that down the dock the burgees of the Mylne-designed Fife Mariella and the 103ft Aschanti snapping out stiffly in the trade wind. Like, can’t possibly be compared with like here. The secret is to break the fleet into groups, then judge on criteria where varnish and polish are only one section. Keeping faith with the boat’s original ethos is equally important. The only missing box to check here is for “soul.”
Considering that all these boats had sailed long and hard to be in Antigua, the general standard of sparkle was remarkably high, so digging deeper to make judgments came naturally. Most of the larger yachts I’ve been aboard recently have been modern craft with accommodations like high-end shore-side apartments. Clambering down the 73ft Ticonderoga’s companionway into the saloon, therefore, served up a contrast that filled yours truly, in particular, with joy. Surprisingly small, but flawlessly proportioned and fitted out in ageless good taste, it carried the day in style.
Meanwhile, Atalante showed what a modern yacht can do with an uncompromising spirit of tradition, while the gutsy 60ft Russamee won hands down in the Arne Frizzell trophy for a seamanlike operation, safe in anything the wind could throw at her.
Ultimately, it was also Russamee taking a concours prize that truly encapsulated the spirit of the classics. Her crew hadn’t intended to enter her because she was salty from the ocean and never conceived to compete with gold-platers. Her decks were rough and ready, her awnings bleached by the sun, but when you noted the mast step, adzed from a massive chunk of tropical hardwood by her Bangkok builders, then moved on to check her frames and scantlings, you knew that here was a boat that would survive. She had soul by the shovel-full, and her people were justly proud of her. Many a fancy yacht show would have discounted her at sight, but not Antigua. This is a land where boats are understood, the sea is all around and the blustering tradewind takes no prisoners.
Out on the water, the four race days provided the anticipated great sailing in hard winds and big seas. Courses were laid so that everyone might be thrilled at the spectacle of the big boats trampling the waves and the little ones somehow cutting a path through. No matter what the boat, the common factor was that all hands got soaked with warm tropical sea then washed off again by heavy squalls that roared through to keep us on the ball. In the evenings, Mount Gay ensured that the rum never faltered and laughter was all around. If you find yourself within a thousand miles of Antigua at the right time next year, ease your sheets and get on down. It may take a week to recover, but the Classics is unique and not to be missed.
For complete details on both this year’s regatta and the upcoming 2019 Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, visit antiguaclassics.com.
Photos by Den Phillips