The breakers over the reef protecting the bay were white with froth, and the air carried a salty tang from the flying spray. Sailing out to the starting line, we encountered 6ft rollers combined with a confused chop—the product of a stiff wind out of the east that had been building for days. Faced with these conditions—not easily managed on an 18ft racing catamaran, even one as well designed and built as a Formula 18 (see “The Incredible & Afordable below)—our plan was a simple one: after the start, keep it together and go as fast as possible without breaking the boat or ourselves. Of course, it’s safe to say that was pretty much everyone’s plan as well. The question was: who could actually execute it?
Sailing toward the committee boat, I could tell the 55-boat fleet was nervous. Some had even opted to stay ashore to delight in the many amenities of St. Barths, as opposed to getting beat up out on the open Caribbean. I’ll admit, for a minute or so I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious of them, wishing I was back at my plush St. Barth Properties villa, lying next to the pool sipping a Ti Punch. But then the starting gun went off, and all thoughts of rest and relaxation went out the window.
Blasting off the line we immediately found ourselves going as fast as possible upwind against the hard swells. At the turning mark we were narrowly in the lead when the cleat for our cunningham broke, allowing our mainsail to bag out as we lost control of its luff tension. This, in turn, left us terribly overpowered for the conditions. Next thing we knew we were on a screaming reach to the northern small island of IleFrégate, quickly passing two other boats in the process. As we did so, there were times when all we could see were the tops of their sails as we ploughed through in the troughs of the waves.
A third boat went by. All of a sudden it was hurtling skyward as it flew off the top of a squared-up wave. Then the boat pitched down beneath the crew’s feet so that, although still hooked into their trapezes, they were all of a sudden standing on air. For a moment they appeared weightless with no boat beneath them as we sailed up the wave directly astern. Then their boat landed in front of us, and they went off the back in a heap on top of each other. We had to take evasive action to get around the mess while negotiating our own concerns. Colin and I looked at each other and said, “Wow, that was spectacular!”
So began this past winter’s 2014 St. Barth CataCup.
Passage to Paradise
Known as one of the world’s exclusive travel destinations, the island of St. Barthélemy is also host of one of beach catamaran racing’s most popular events—the St. Barth CataCup. With its backdrop of spray-misted cliffs and spring green mountains, this renowned island in the French West Indies plays host to 55 catamaran crews from around the world each November, a tradition that began in 2008. In fact, the four-day regatta is so popular, it is typically oversubscribed 45 minutes after registration opens, leaving race organizers with the job of having to decide which sailors have earned the opportunity to compete. The resulting fleet is typically a mix of professionals and amateurs, all hopefully sharing the island spirit.
Because of St. Barths’s somewhat remote location, preparation for the regatta starts well in advance. The event is sailed in18ft, spinnaker rigged, twin-trapeze F18s, one of the most popular double-handed racing catamarans today, with world championship regattas regularly attracting around 200 entries. With their relatively small size, multiple F18s can fit in a 40ft container. Three containers are shipped to St. Barths’s port of Gustavia for the CataCup, two from Europe and one from the United States.
This year we squeezed 11 Formula 18s in the U.S. container in Miami two weeks before the event, with three of our Canadian counterparts joining in. The systematic packing took about eight hours, with members from all the North American teams pitching in to ensure our container would be ready in time for the four-day trip south. King Ocean Services really goes out of its way to help out with transportation logistics for the CataCup. Things would be a lot tougher without them.
It was with a collective sigh of relief that we shut the container in the hot South Florida sun. Everything fit!
After that came the next small challenge of getting Colin and myself to the island as well. This is where experience comes into play, as there are quite a few options. My first trip to St. Barths, I flew into St. Maarten and took the cheapest and most draining way—a ferry. This meant taking a relatively long taxi ride to one of the ferry ports, after which rough seas made for some sick travelers during the diesel-fumed 45-minute crossing.
The next few years I tried flying into St. Maarten and taking the short 15-mile flight on one of the commuter airlines servicing St. Barths. The problem was, they were disorganized and seats tend to go on first-come first-serve basis. St. Barths is too treacherous to land at night, so not knowing if you’ll arrive on a given day can be stressful.
Now I get there the easy way. I fly into Puerto Rico and take a comfortable Tradewind Aviation flight directly to St. Barths, which saves me time and makes things much easier on the nerves. After six years I finally get it right.
This year’s flight from Puerto Rico to St. Barths was an especially interesting one for thanks to my first-time CataCup crew, 24-year-old Lauderdale Yacht Club coach Colin Page, who was also a geography major in college and had quite the time naming islands from his window seat. Listening to him count down the landmarks along the way, I was filled with anticipation at the idea of not just the race but seeing the many friends with whom I have grown a strong bond with over the years. St. Barths is my kind of an island: relaxed, organized and clean, with a mixture of Old World knowledge and New World ideas. For me, the race is just one of many reasons to visit St. Barths—the place on its own is an ideal destination, not just another island hosting a race.
Nothing illustrates the CataCup vibe more clearly than the Ti Punch we were handed by race organizers after our swooping landing on the short runway of St. Jean Beach airport. The taste of rhum agricole, lime and cane syrup in this French Caribbean go-to drink is as familiar to me as the smell of the fresh trade winds that blow unimpeded across the island. I always look forward to seeing at least one of my friend’s smiling and very tanned face greeting me as I make my way off the tarmac. Before race day, someone from the race organization stays at the airport to set the mood for competitors when they arrive, a nice touch.
Another one of the perks of this event is that you get a rental car to use during your stay, and so after lugging our sailing gear and beachwear-filled luggage to the car, we were off to our villa. The drive around the island is almost as fun as the racing. St. Barths has multiple peaks, so the twisting narrow ally-like roads have quick changes in elevation, sometimes with views straight down to the wave-punished rocks below. We were actually lucky to have the race at all this year, as Hurricane Gonzalo hammered the island just a month before the event. Although the island was thoroughly cleared of debris, we still saw a number of large yachts sprinkled among its rocks and beaches, where they’d been deposited by the storm.
After finding success in this race over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to partner with the island’s premier real estate and villa rental company, St. Barth Properties Sotheby’s International Realty. And after a quick 15-minute drive to Toiny, the unprotected southern part of St. Barths, called “Old St. Barths” due to its relatively untouched look, we arrived at Villa A Bientot. My friend from St. Barth Properties, Christophe, was already there to show me the amenities, and as soon as I walked in through the door I marveled at the open view from the living room over the pool and out into the mint-green ocean, with the sharp, craggy peaks of Toiny and Grand Fond bookending the view. It’s a sight I’m sure many French savants have pondered over the years while sipping Beaujolais, yet the villa itself was as contemporary and New World as they come, with clean white walls and cabinets. I’ve tried to avoid the word “paradise” in this story, but this is it. Actually, every place I’ve ever stayed on the island has an amazing view.
Back to Work
The next day I awoke with the sun peeking through the shades and waves crashing in the distance like a tranquility recording. The day itself, however, wouldn’t be quite so tranquil, as we would have to unpack the 11 boats from the container at Public
Beach on the west side of the island.
Hours later, after a long, sun-drenched day of boatbuilding, we sailed around the northwest, leeward side of the island in groups. If you travel alone and have a problem in this part of the world, you can potentially drift for miles out in the vast ocean before someone finds you. You only have to go about a mile off the beach before you get your first taste of the potentially beach-cat shattering waves of the Caribbean bouncing off of St. Barths’s rocky cliffs. Once we found our spot on St. Jean Beach by the airport with the other crews from around the world, the chatter was all about the forecast—which was windy!
Although Colin and I like sailing in a breeze, we thought the race organizers probably wouldn’t risk sending the fleet out into the great blue on the first day. During our pre-race training session the swells were around 10ft with some confused chop—pretty testy conditions. Turned out we were right, and the first day we raced a couple short-track courses protected by Pointe Milou to the west, so that those racers who were more buoy oriented had great success. As the event progressed, however, we saw more of the courses the regatta is known for, with the small islands that pepper the outskirts of St. Barths often serving as dramatic marks.
Each morning after a briefing outlining the courses for the day, we would start just outside of the protected reef of Baie de St. Jean, race to a turning mark and head in and around various nearby channel markers, islands and large rocks, such as Roche de Boeuf (Barrel of Beef) or Pain de Sucre (Sugarloaf).
After we would come back to the beach for a very upscale and delicious two-hour lunch break at the famous Nikki Beach restaurant. This year the noon break was especially important, because of all the boat breakage from the challenging wind and wave conditions. After that, with our bellies full, we would head back out for another race or two as the sun set over the mountains.
Beyond that, what truly makes this a special event is what happens off the water. Every night we gathered again at Nikki Beach to honor the top three teams of the day, all of whom would inevitably walk off the stage with a bottle of local rum. Most sailors don’t stray too far away from the free rum punch table and do their clapping and yelling from there. With everyone in the mood to have a fun night, the band starts playing and the dancing goes on for hours to come, with competitors fast becoming best friends until the next windy start.
This year, pace was important for success. With bands playing all night, a full-on outdoor concert and continual strong weather conditions, 20 of the 55 competitors didn’t make it to the final race. In other words, it was prudent to not live too fast on the land as well as on the water if you wanted to survive the four-day event. In the end, it was all Frenchmen on the podium with Morgan La Graviere and Arnaud Jarlegan taking the first position, Franck Cammas and Matthieu Vandame in second, and Billy Besson and Marie Riou in third. Colin and I were just off the podium in fourth.
After the regatta my wife and I have a tradition. She arrives and we enjoy a small vacation that includes an American Thanksgiving dinner with close friends. It’s a chance to truly enjoy the island in a way I can’t when I’m racing.During this time, as we’re relaxing at different places around the island I’m never surprised to see any number of other racers who’ve stayed to soak it all in as well. This is undoubtedly my favorite race and destination, and I’m already looking forward to the next time I get to see my friends on and off the water.
Multihull champion John Casey has his sights set on representing the U.S. in the Nacra 17 class at the 2016 Olympic Games. See johncaseyworldwide.com for more on the campaign
Photos courtesy of Pierrick Contin/Saint Barth Cata-Cup 2014
The Incredible & Affordable F18
A rockstar class for the masses
In a world where the most exciting boats are often beyond the reach of mere mortals, the F18 stands as a notable exception. Created in the late1990s for the express purpose of leveling the playing field as much as possible for as many sailors as possible, the F18 is a development class in which rules have been put in place to ensure it is smarts and skills that prevail—not just the sailor with the biggest checkbook.
For example, while carbon is permitted in tillers and rudder blades, it and other exotic materials are strictly banned from hulls, crossbeams and masts. Similarly, all foils must be symmetrical (no curved daggerboards) and all standing rigging is stainless steel.
Further leveling the playing field is the fact that a number of major manufacturers have jumped into the ring over the years, resulting in numerous class-legal boats to choose from (both on the new and used markets) all fully capable of winning at the highest levels of the sport: leading examples include the Nacra F18 Infusion and the Hobie Wild Cat.
Which is not to say you don’t still have to be very good. Flying a 230ft² A-sail aboard an 18-footer weighing just 400lb is not for the faint of heart by any stretch of the imagination, especially when it starts blowing. Still, if you feel you’re up to the challenge, strap yourself in and may the best sailor win! For more on the class, visit usf18.com.— Adam Cort
MHS Summer 2015