Why Charter Boats Rule at the Heineken Regatta

In the pantheon of Caribbean racing, St. Maarten’s Heineken Regatta is the standout. The BVI Spring Regatta, the Rolex-Regatta-as-was in the USVI (now the St. Thomas International Regatta), Antigua Sailing Week—these are all great events in their own right, but somehow the French/Dutch island of Sint Maarten/St. Martin has become home to the definitive Caribbean regatta.
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Bareboat starts are always nail-biters. Photo by Peter Nielsen

Bareboat starts are always nail-biters. Photo by Peter Nielsen

In the pantheon of Caribbean racing, St. Maarten’s Heineken Regatta is the standout. The BVI Spring Regatta, the Rolex-Regatta-as-was in the USVI (now the St. Thomas International Regatta), Antigua Sailing Week—these are all great events in their own right, but somehow the French/Dutch island of Sint Maarten/St. Martin has become home to the definitive Caribbean regatta. Last year, those other three regattas attracted 252 entries between them, while 215 boats signed up for the Heineken.

There are other Heineken regattas—the Dutch islands of Curacao and Aruba each have one, as does Puerto Rico—but none has the cachet of this one.

So, what’s the secret of the Heineken’s success? St. Maarten/Martin isn’t ugly, but it’s not the most attractive island in the Caribbean. It doesn’t have a monopoly on beautiful beaches and warm trade winds. Arguably, the racing conditions aren’t better than at any of the other Caribbean regattas. What it does have is a sophisticated vacation infrastructure, a large, sheltered superyacht harbor, easy connections to the United States and to continental Europe, and a well-deserved reputation for being the party center of the regatta circuit. Its timing is also perfect—the first weekend of March, late enough to banish memories of a frigid winter, early enough to be a great escape from lingering cold, and no conflicts with Easter, Spring Break or other things that drive airfares up.

The peanut gallery in action at the yacht club. Photos by Bob Grieser/Outside IMages

The peanut gallery in action at the yacht club. Photos by Bob Grieser/Outside IMages

And it just so happens to be the world’s biggest charter boat regatta.

In 2014, no fewer than 63 of the 215 entries were comfortably equipped cruising boats from the charter fleets operated by companies like Sunsail, The Moorings, Dream Yacht and MarineMax. Even in the darker years of the recession, as many as a third of the entries were charter boats. What this means is you don’t need to be a one-percenter race boat owner to compete in a top-level Caribbean regatta. All you need to do is gather together a gang of your sailing buddies, book a boat and some flights, and you, too, can be out there on the same patch of water with professional sailors on multi-million dollar grand prix raceboats.

Our Marblehead, Massachusetts-based crew, Team Merlin, named after helmsman Charlie Garrard’s J/105, thought the time was right in 2014 to have another crack at winning a bareboat crown at the Heineken. We’d tried once before, in 2009, a year in which the wind never dropped below 25 knots and was often in the mid-30s, and were thoroughly trounced by a bunch of hard-sailing Europeans.

It’s essential to learn the boat before you race. Photo by Peter Nielsen

It’s essential to learn the boat before you race. Photo by Peter Nielsen

The Heineken Regatta figures highly on many Eurosailors’ bucket lists; they come from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Britain and, increasingly, Russia and the Ukraine, and they come in force, plastering the ample topsides of their charter boats with corporate logos and team names, decking themselves out in brightly colored crew shirts and, in the case of one Dutch team from the Frisian islands, cow-horned hats. It’s popular with American sailors too, who are represented in every bareboat class as well as most of the IRC and CSA classes.

There aren’t enough charter boats based in St. Martin to handle such an influx, so the operators empty their bases on other islands of monohulls. Many teams arrange to have boats delivered to St. Maarten from the BVI or Antigua, but that would have been too logical for us. Instead, part of the crew flew to St. Thomas, took a ferry to Tortola, picked up our 42ft Dufour from the MarineMax Vacations base in Hodges Creek, did a hasty food shop, cleared out of the BVI and motorsailed the 100 miles to St. Maarten. When they arrived in the wee hours, exhausted after 16 sleepless hours of pounding into a vicious steep sea and eager to drop the hook and catch some z’s, they found the anchor had come unshackled en route and disappeared into the deep—no rest for the wicked, literally!

Yours truly, meanwhile, flew in like a well-rested rock star and had plenty of time to enjoy a couple of the sponsor’s icy brews at the St. Maarten Yacht Club. Not only has this tiny club been organizing this regatta for 35 years, its perch by the drawbridge spanning the cut between Simpson Bay and the Lagoon is the best location ever for yachtgazing, mere yards from the parade of big boats leaving each morning and returning each evening. Its all-volunteer race team is a marvel of good-natured efficiency, and its team of launch drivers go to unheralded lengths to ferry sober sailors to the onshore parties and inebriated ones back to their boats.

Team Merlin poised for action...Photos by Bob Grieser/Outside IMages

Team Merlin poised for action...Photos by Bob Grieser/Outside IMages

Actual racing spans just three days, Friday through Sunday, but most bareboat crews arrive on a Monday or Tuesday, depending on whether they are picking up their boat in Tortola or Antigua or at one of the charter bases on St. Maarten. That leaves a couple of days to acclimatize—i.e., go sailing and sample more of the sponsor’s product.

If you’re serious about doing well—and if you go all that way, you might as well at least aim to do well—you’ll also spend some time preparing the boat. “Bligh” Garrard is notorious for having crew over the side with Brillo pads each morning, scrubbing away, but thankfully the MarineMax shore team had done a fine job of prepping the bottom. There are, however, plenty of other things you can do while still staying within the Bareboat class rules. To quote the Notice of Race, “Only equipment provided as standard by the bareboat company will be allowed. No spinnakers, spinnaker poles, whisker poles or second headsails will be permitted. It is also prohibited to use any supplied equipment for a purpose other than that intended. However, bimini’s may be moved or removed. No part of the anchor shall overhang the ends of the boat while racing. If the anchor is removed from the bow it shall be stored in the anchor locker. Folding props are allowed.”

We re-led some of the running rigging to improve efficiency, unrove unnecessary reefing lines and tuned the rig until it sang. The bimini and dodger came off and were stowed below. Then we spent an afternoon learning the boat—tacking, gybing, beating, reaching, running—working out sheet car positions and marking the halyards for each point of sail. Overkill for a charter boat with well-used sails? No way! These fleets are packed with excellent sailors doing the same thing, and every degree of point, every quarter knot of offwind speed, counts. In our class alone there were boats packed with top-level sailors from Russia, the Ukraine and the Netherlands, not to mention the grand old man of bareboat racing, Neil Harvey from Florida.

This was our crew’s fifth bareboat regatta, and we knew how hard these things are to win. You may think you’re sailing your charter boat well, until a similar boat with similar sails comes cruising past half a knot faster. That’s the difference preparation and constant attention to sail trim makes. Fortunately we had two excellent trimmers on board as well as a first-class driver.

Celebrating, St. Maarten style. Photo by Peter Nielsen

Celebrating, St. Maarten style. Photo by Peter Nielsen

The race formula at the Heineken is dictated by the wind, and, being as how the wind is almost invariably in the northeast, it seldom changes. For the bareboat classes there’s a round-the-island race, a point-to-point race, and one or two round-the-cans races. We get our own startlines and courses, so we bumbling bareboaters don’t get in the way of the lightweight flyers in the spinnaker classes. I won’t bore you with blow-by-blow accounts of our races, riveting though such tales would be; we were in the biggest class, with 15 boats, and found ourselves in a three-way dust-up with another MarineMax Dufour crewed by a skillful team from the Kiev Racing Yacht Club, and a third Dufour ably skippered by bareboat ace (and our eventual nemesis) Neil Harvey. After three days of hard-fought racing and three nights of even harder partying, our tally of three seconds and a fifth put us on the podium in second place, a point clear of the Kiev crew, who were so disgusted they didn’t even bother to turn up for the prize giving. Harvey, on the other hand, showed us his transom with three wins and a second place to claim overall victory.

It was a tight and exhilarating three days of racing, and for the Merlin crew it underscored what a great regatta this is. We had everything from flat calms to 20-plus knots, and for me, the uniqueness of sailing in St. Martin was summed up in one windward leg of the last race, tacking in so close to the rocky shoreline as the water colors changed through increasingly vivid shades of blue that we could almost touch the rocks. I’ll never forget the crew of an anchored charter cat, tucked in close to the shore in a protected cove, looking increasingly panicked as we charged toward them at 7 knots, then standing and applauding as we tacked half a boatlength from their shiny topsides and raced away. Sail it like you stole it, indeed…

Still and all, it is the party scene that really sets this regatta above its rivals—four nights of the best regatta partying you’ll experience anywhere. Music, dancing, street food and well-stocked bars everywhere, and a different venue each night; for the thirsty sailor out to celebrate an escape from winter, it doesn’t get much better.

Somewhere around 0200 on the last morning, rums in hand, the Merlin crew had finally figured out why St. Maarten is at the top of so many bucket lists. Speaking for ourselves, we ranked BVI Spring Regatta for the sailing, Antigua Sailing Week for the scenery, and St. Maarten for the parties. Mind you, we’ll probably have to revisit each of those just to make sure…

Charter Notes

Where can you race a bareboat?

The three major bareboat regattas in 2015 are:

Heineken Regatta
St. Maarten, March 5-8

BVI Spring Regatta
Tortola, BVI, March 30-April 5

Antigua Sailing Week
Antigua, April 25-May 1

You can race charter boats in most other regattas in the Jib & Main class.

Charter Companies

Not all charter companies will let their boats be raced. The following do:

MarineMaxmarinemaxvacations.com

The Mooringsmoorings.com

Sunsailsunsail.com

Dream Yacht Charterdreamyachtcharter.com

Kiriacoulis Yachtingkiriacoulis.com

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