Robby Brown, a tall, slim sailor with a sun-baked complexion ambles toward our race committee boat, a big white charter catamaran at the end of the dock. He moves slow enough to not break a sweat in the searing heat of Tortola’s Road Town Harbour.
“Hey guys,” he says, leaning against a stanchion with a look of purpose.
“Hey Robby, how’s it going?” the race committee responds in unison.
I have a hunch something’s not right.
“Ah, yeah, listen … I know this is an informal event with informal rules and all,” he says matter-of-factly, “but I need clarification on using equipment that doesn’t come with the boat.” One of his competitors, he says, has either borrowed or imported a whisker pole.
Stumped by the query, the race committee looks around at each other, hoping someone has an answer, but no one does.
“Is that even allowed?” Brown continues. “Because, if I knew it was, I would have brought one down, too.”
“Well, technically, in the spirit of the event, anything is allowed,” the principle race officer finally answers. There’s nothing about equipment in the notice of race or the sailing instructions of the Sailing World Caribbean NOOD Championship, which is a vacation-ish regatta (“vagatta”) we host in the British Virgin Islands every November as an official NOOD-concluding, winners-only invitational. Sunsail provides a Sunsail 44i fleet for four days of racing free to our competitors, but one catch is that there’s no spinnaker gear on any of the boats. They’re supposed to be one-design, with smooth bottoms and an equal number of cushions and towels. That said, it’s a lottery every year—you must race what you get.
In years past we’ve encouraged competitors to improvise if they want better flow with their wing-on-wing. They can use the boathook or their deck brush, or they can scavenge parts from the derelict boatyard across the street from the base.
This year, however, one competitor has done his homework and brought an old carbon windsurfing mast to use as a whisker pole. It was a wise move, indeed. Brown’s equipment concern is a non-issue for the race committee, however, and after another pause they say they’ll consider the matter.
“If it becomes too much of an advantage, we’ll just tell them not to use it,” they tell Brown as he turns to leave. It’s the answer he probably expected. Not the one he wants. But that’s the end of that.
I’d never met Brown until this moment. All I knew of him was that he was a J/24 skipper who’d won the Sperry Top-Sider NOOD in St. Petersburg, Fla. I’d heard he’s meticulous with his J/24, that he likes to win, and does win when he sets his mind to it. I can tell he’s seriously out to dominate this thing so his concern is valid. Fair is fair, and yes, it’s supposed to be fun, but it is the championship after all.
A few hours later we’re on Sir Francis Drake Passage for the first day’s buoy races. There are five competitors from their respective NOODs, and racers being who they are, their charter boats are dismantled as much as possible: dodgers down, stack packs neatly stowed, some of the biminis stripped to bare frames. It’s jib-and-main action, but trust me, racing a 44-foot charter boat laden with water, provisions, and baggage requires talent, and an understanding of momentum.
In winds that barely peg 8 knots, we complete three races. Brown and crew stun the fleet with duck-and-go port-tack starts and flawless sailing. It’s obvious that getting away from the fleet is a sure way to win. A legitimate whisker pole would help, but he apparently doesn’t need it. Instead, he’s got a young and supremely talented crew: his wife Karen, trimmers Nate Vilardebo and Dan Borrer, Kelly Holleran, and Stephanie Karidas. They finish a leg ahead in most races.
At the Cooper Island Beach Club bar later that night I ask Holleran what their secret is to being so fast.
“It’s Robby Brown,” she says with a big grin and a twinkle in her eye. “He’s the man!”
The following day the competitors are at it again, but this time it’s a 12-mile beat to Virgin Gorda Sound. The Floridians breeze away at the start again. They’ve engineered an adjustable backstay system that pinches the fixed split backstay, working the rig as if it were a J/24. As the wind builds, however, Viper 640 skipper Dr. Jim Sears and his team from San Diego pass Brown and crew before the finish. Sears has a mothership from which he’s enlisted bikini-clad rail riders, another wise move.
San Diego’s righting-moment advantage doesn’t sit well with Brown, however, and there’s a protest flag streaming from his backstay as he finishes, protesting his rivals for stacking the rail with extra crew.
This protest, too, is a first for the committee, but the sailing instructions state nothing of crew swaps. In fact, it’s encouraged. Still, an informal inquiry is held ashore, and again, Brown gets an answer he likely expected.
Meanwhile, his crew is preparing the coup of the regatta. As the SIs do state, competitors must submit a Mount Gay Rum-based cocktail to the race committee before sundown. Vilardebo later appears with an offering of boat-baked cookies and a divemask box full of “The Zayda” (shown above). Vilardebo has done his pre-regatta research, too, and imported ingredients to make his Grandma Zayda’s secret drink (rum, ginger ale, truffle oil, and basil). Here, too, they crush the competition, perhaps knowing full well the importance of winning over the race committee.
After two more days of races, Brown’s USA 799 prevails, and at the awards party he confesses that his boat’s new sails and smooth bottom helped. But after all the fretting about poles and crew, he’s finally relaxed and smiling. He has the trifecta: good sails, a fast boat, and an outstanding crew, and that’s really all it takes. That, and the will to win.
Welcome to your new Sailing World. We changed our appearance, but our DNA remains unchanged, as it has for over 50 years. we’ll keep bringing you the competition, the experience, and the authenticity that has always made Sailing World the authority on performance sailing. Enjoy. —Dave Reed