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St. Maartin Heineken Regatta
The Caribbean Beer Run
One island, two nations. Named by Columbus and separated at the waist since 1648, St. Maartin/St. Martin evokes images of garish megayachts, colonial architecture, and pristine, clothes-optional beaches.
Primarily known as a day stop for the hundreds of cruise ships that visit each year, St. Maartin transforms itself into the center of the sailing world each March for the Heineken Regatta. Since 1980 corinthians from all over the sailing world descend on this friendly little place in the leeward chain to test their mettle and compete in one of the 21 classes.
The regatta’s slogan is Serious Fun and from the moment the crews of the record 289 participating boats stepped off their respective planes at PrincessJulianaAirport it was clear that the entire island would be doing their level best to make that happen. “It’s great to have a record number, it shows we’re doing something right” beamed Robbie Ferron, chairman of the regatta’s steering committee. “But emphasis has never been about getting bigger, only better. And I like to think we’re doing that as well.”
I arrived at the urging of my racing friends from Annapolis, who had done the “Heine” the past few years and couldn’t say enough good things about the parties, the people, and the racing. But I came with some trepidation, for I am no racer. Aboard my Catalina 34 I cruise the waters of Florida, content merely to arrive at the destination, without regard to the time involved.
Onboard our racing vessel Crescendo, a Beneteau 47.7, I met old and new friends, and the boat’s owner, Harry Weber, who had recently taken a first in the Caribbean 1500. Serious preparations were in motion for the next day’s first race. Despite my desire to be only railmeat and to let these serious sailors do their thing, I was unceremoniously handed a pair of kneepads by our skipper, Rob Nilsen, and assigned the starboard winch, with photographer Scott Morris doing the same on port.
Several times a day the SimpsonBay bascule bridge would rise and the competing boats would flow in and out of the lagoon; their frisky crews singing and dancing to the delight of the crowd on the patio of the St. Maartin Yacht Club. Watching these monstrous yachts saunter in and out the narrow passage was great, but it was the newest addition to the racing fleet that really brought the house down: Ladies & gentlemen, please welcome Looking for Elvis, one of the new racing catamaran Gunboats from South Africa. On its foredeck a fully sequined king gyrated and crooned for the crowd. This really was Serious Fun.
During the parade the cars would back up for a mile in either direction, but instead of the disgruntled drivers you see in America, the people waited patiently, knowing that it was just part of island life.
Day one was the 34-mile around-the-island race that would separate the rich guys from the poor. Everywhere there were slick racing crafts with colorful ads on their sails and hulls, impatiently waiting for their start. At the one-minute horn the boats charged up to the starting line like angry shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving. To my amazement, one of them was Virago, a 100-foot Swan that loomed over us like a man-o-war. The horn sounded, and within minutes she was almost out of site.
With each tack I grunted and groaned over the stubborn winch till the headsail looked like the wing of an airplane. No sooner had I completed the task than our skipper called, “ready about”, and “helm’s alee!”
At times it felt like the rules of the road were thrown overboard as give way boats would frequently and dangerously cut across our bow. In one case, while doing 10-knots downwind, two competing Hobie Cats darted across our bow and just barely missed having their race (and possibly their lives) ended prematurely. No beer for those guys.
Traveling east on the north side of the island was four hours that I’d like to forget. Huge seas and strong headwinds made the going so bad that 39 boats, including Virago, retired. Looking at my fellow crewmates I could tell I wasn’t the only one feeling the dreaded mal de mer, and more than once I considered a trip to the leeward rail. After the finish we returned to the mooring in SimpsonBay to discover our neighboring trimaran Tryst had been dismasted and withdrawn from the regatta.
It was a rough day for everyone, and I should have gone to bed, but there were parties to attend. Each day the beleaguered, sunburned sailors were treated to Heineken sponsored, raucous street fairs that featured live music, free flowing beverages, and barely legal swimsuit models who strutted across the stage for appreciative male crew members. And of course, there were the Heineken girls: young ladies selected from the island’s best who were the ambassadors of the regatta.
Volunteers, that’s what really makes the Heine click. It takes an entire island to throw an event like the Heineken Regatta and everywhere I looked, dozens of smiling volunteers were there providing all the crucial services of this world-class event. Of special note were the dinghy operators who tirelessly ferried revelers to and from their boats long into the night.
Day two’s race was kinder to the banged up boats and crews. The sunny skies and lighter winds made it almost a pleasant affair, and it finished on the French side in the quaint little village of Marigot, where the stone redoubt Ft. Louis lorded over the large fleet like a friendly old ghost. The day’s only casualty was the pink spinnaker of Looking for Elvis, with its enormous drawing of the young icon’s face, that completely shredded at the beginning of the race. The harbor quickly filled to capacity, and in the dark the 300 anchor lights twinkled like the Milky Way.
The Final Race
Talk about a nice way to start the day: A quick check of the results board the next morning found Crescendo in 2nd place. Shazam! I wasn’t expecting that, I was just happy to be there. After picking up some baguettes and croissants we darted back to the boat for a sail change, suntan lotion, and a quick pep talk from Rob, who told us that, “we’re gonna have just one chance at the beginning to make it or break it, we gotta do this right!”
At 0830 we yanked the anchor and headed out for the final battle. With each tack Scott and I yanked, grinded, and tailed, doing our best imitation of guys who are in shape. To maximize boat speed upwind we had to keep the headsail just inches off the spreader, and Cindy passed down hand signals from the high side telling us what the tell tales were doing.
In a regatta like this with so many classes it’s hard to tell where you stand, the boats are spread out everywhere, and you can only guess how you’re doing. We did our downwind leg through the Anguilla channel, rounded Blowing Rock, and went back upwind for the big finish in SimpsonBay. Whew! Time for some less serious fun.
The only thing bad about the Caribbean is that you never have enough time there—it’s just not fair. No sooner had we grabbed the mooring ball than everyone began to shuffle to and fro, some packing bags and checking flight schedules, others prepping Crescendo for the next day’s cruise to St. Barts. But first on everyone’s mind was how we finished. Could it be that the crew would actually be making a trip on stage with the Heineken girls?
As the last of the day’s light faded away, Robbie Ferron stood on the stage at Kim Sha beach calling out the names of the winning boats, passing out awards. Panthera, a TP 52 had won all its races and took the St. Maartin Cup, but he had a surprise for us: “And 2nd place in non-spinnaker 1, from the United States, Crescendo.” We charged up those steps and collected our hardware, waving at a large percentage of the island’s population. We got our smooch from the Heineken girls, and our picture for the newspaper.
The smiles on our faces lasted all night, and the conversation quickly turned to next March when hopefully we’ll all be back in sunny St. Maartin doing the Heine once again.