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Live from the Sint Maarten Heineken Regatta

What's not to like about a Caribbean regatta for which Heineken provides specially-sized cans of beer? Tony Bessinger heads south for a little sun and fun in Sint Maarten (or St. Marten).

March 5, 2008
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March 9, 2008

The final day of the Heineken Regatta wasn’t quite as windy as the previous two days, but it was close, with windspeeds from 18 to 25 knots. Our goal on the Cookson 50 Privateer was to maintain our second-place position, and if possible, beat the TP52 Panthera for the day. We had talked about our goals the evening before, and one of our crew, Billy Burke, a Newport, R.I. resident who is originally from Ireland told us that if we managed to beat Panthera for the day, he’d dance an Irish jig twice; once on the way through the drawbridge into the lagoon, and once again on the big stage during the prize-giving ceremony tonight. After a phenomenal dinner on the French side of the island last night, well-lubricated with a few glasses of his favorite wine, he demonstrated his technique, enthralling not only our table, but everyone else in the restaurant. To say that it gave us a goal for the day was an understatement.

We ended up Saturday’s race on the French side of the island, in Marigot Bay, but then sailed back to Simpson bay, and our dockspace at the marina at Port de Plaisance on the Dutch side. The next morning, we motorsailed at high speed back to Marigot in order to make our start on time. Most of the fleet stayed in Marigot for the party, so the line of boats waiting for the drawbridge this morning was negligible, which gave us plenty of time to get to the starting line on time. Our course was a 27-mile petite-ditance race which took us up the French side of the island, then across Anguilla channel to a rock formation called Blowing Rock, then back to Simpson Bay. It was another great day of sailing, although the breeze was slightly lighter and the waves weren’t as huge as they were the day before.

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We had a magnificent run down the Channel, once again match-racing the TP52. Boat speeds were once again in the high teens. We’d managed to get to the weather mark slightly ahead of the TP52, and took off like a rocket ship once our kite was up and pulling. We managed to stay ahead of Panthera for a large portion of the run, and I have to say that t was one of the more exciting downwind duels I’ve ever experienced. Panthera would get on a wave an accelerate, then we would, and if we looked as good as they did, it was as much fun for them to watch us as it was for us to watch them. Both of these boats are off-the-wind beasts; they accelerate fast, surf great on waves, and get downwind at an amazing rate of knots. By the turning mark off Blowing Rock, they’d managed to pass us, which given what we’ve seen all week, wasn’t all that surprising.

The final leg back into Simpson Bay was a tight reach that turned into an upwind beat by the time we neared the finish line. They crossed well ahead, which assured them the class win, but we’d managed to achieve our other goal, which was to beat the larger maxis, the two ULDB’s Equation and Donnybrook, the Farr 60 Vemon (nee Rima), Hexe (nee Boomerang), and the Open 60 Pindar. This assured us yet another second-place finish (I’m assuming, as Internet connectivity for me here has been problematic, to say the least). Panthera sailed a great event, and deserved their win. As we took down our sails after finishing, we motored by them and gave them a standing ovation for a job well done.

Then came the fun part, a three-hour wait for the next bridge opening. Rather than motoring around, dodging the bareboat fleet, we were able to raft alongside the anchored Swan 100 Virago, which was loaded with people we all knew. They were anchored very close to the drawbridge, so we were able to be one of the first boats back in the lagoon, which is a very good thing. As we motored through the bridge, we looked astern to see hundreds of boats jockeying for position, some more polite about it than others. Luckily enough, the Swan 100 and their large RIB tender helped stave off the boats trying to bust through the more-or less orderly queue.

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We had an intense crew de-brief , talking about what we’d done well, and what we could have done better. It’s hard to argue with a second overall, but there’s definitely room for improvement, and both the boat and the crew have a lot of potential. As the tactician, I was grateful for the boat’s ability to dig us out of holes I’d put us in. A 50-foot boat that sails at 9.5 knots upwind, and in the high teens to twenties downwind, allows you to make a lot of time up on boats like the Swan 601, to which we owed time.

It’s been a great regatta, and there’s more fun to come. Shaggy is the headline act tonight after the awards ceremony, which is held on a beach across the street from the St. Maarten YC. It’s not just a party for the thousand of racing crew; the whole island shows up, and the party lasts all night long. There’ll be a few more Heinekens consumed by yours truly this evening, and a rewarding trip up to the stage for our trophy. Tomorrow may be a slightly painful day of travel, but the memories of a great, windy regatta, and a couple more icy cold Heinekens should help smooth out the rough edges. I hope the sounds of my snores don’t disturb too many people during our flights back to Rhode Island tomorrow.

March 9, 2008

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Day 2 of the Heineken Regatta is by far the most challenging and tiring of the entire event. For those of us in Spinnaker 1/Big Boat 1, it was a three-race day, starting with two four-leg windward/leeward courses, and ending up with a 17-mile petite distance race in the afternoon. The day starts early, with the first start going off at 9:00 a.m. Add to that the fact that we’ve got to get the 7:30 drawbridge, and it’s a long day on the water.

Our first start was pure perfection, with Privateer hitting the pin end with pace just as the gun went off. Much to our chagrin, the race committee hoisted a postponement flag just as we started. For a tactician expecting three starts for the day, the added start meant added stress to an already stressful day, but it was great practice. The second (first) start wasn’t quite as good, but we still managed to get off the line alright, and in clean air, which is important when you’re sailing against much larger boats. The wind was still up, a steady 23 gusting to 30, so it was another exciting day of high teens downwind.

Our chief competition is the TP52 Panthera, which is being sailed very well by a full-on professional crew, unlike the crew of Privateer, which is made up chiefly of Corinthian sailors. To say the least, the TP52 crew sail the boat well, but we’re holding our own and feeling good about our results.

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Our intention today was to stay in the same water as the TP52, basically match racing, which we did almost too well. It was a morning of close crosses, especially downwind. Both boats were sailing downwind at speeds of 16 to 20 knots, which means the combined closing speeds were approaching 40 knots. We had two close crosses, where we approached Panthera on port jibe, and nailed the jibes, ending up right next to Panthera, both of us whizzing downwind. Our owner/driver, Ron O’Hanley, handled the situations we put him in with aplomb, and although Panthera beat us in all three races, we made it clear that we weren’t going to let them sail the regatta without a challenge. It works out well for both boats, as we’re both sailing as hard as we can, which means we end up correcting out well against all the larger boats (and they’re all much larger), as a result, Panthera is in first overall, with four first-place finishes, and we’re in second, with four second-place finishes.

I’m not too proud to admit that I completely pooched the start of the distance race, crossing the starting line a good 25 seconds after the gun went off. After a 1.2 mile weather leg, we headed downwind toward the French side of the island, and rounded the mark in close company with the 68-foot ULDB Donnybrook, and just couldn’t get out of their wind shadow. They had some major issues with their spinnaker set, and were slow coming out of the mark. We were below them, pinned, and unable to get past them despite our superior speed. As we bemoaned our situation, they finally got their spinnaker filled, and almost immediately broached. Unfortunately, as that happened, a the 115-foot megayacht Sojana, racing in Spinnaker 2, was heading upwind on port tack. They had to do a crash tack to avoid the out-of-control Donnybrook, in one of the closest calls I’ve ever seen on a racecourse.

Once we finally got out from under Donnybrook, we started working our way through the rest of our class. Our chief competition, after Panthera, is the Swan 601 Aquarius, which was ahead of us after our poor start and our complications with Donnybrook. Since we owe them time, our next challenge was to pass them, which we managed to do about halfway down the first downwind leg. Then, it became a question of whether or not we could get far enough ahead of Aquarius to save our time. We worked hard, and managed to save our time on them and the rest of our class, except for Panthera. So now we stand in second overall, with one race to go. We’ll sail a 22-mile race, starting from Marigot Bay on the French side of the island, and hope for the best.

Now, once again, it’s time for a cold Heineken or two.

March 7, 2008

Just a quick post about the around the island race today. Another windy day, with windspeeds topping out at close to 30 knots again. We had a great day, although we had some gear failures, including a destroyed spinnaker sheet block, a broken Equiplite jib shackle splice, a completely shredded spinnaker, and a crack in the carbon-fiber cockpit coaming as a result of us falling off the back of an 8-foot swell in the Anguilla Channel.

We match-raced the TP52 Panthera all day, which was a lot of fun until our kite blew up and we relinquished our hard earned boat-for-boat lead. The good news is we placed second overall in the eight-boat class, behind Panthera. Since we’re the smallest boat in the class, we’re pleased with our result

It took us a little under four hours to complete the 34-mile race, and we once again saw some great boatspeed. Our owner, Ron O’Hanley did a great job on the helm, despite some huge waves and puffy wind conditions. We’re all beat, but happy, and are looking forward to an early night, as tomorrow’s schedule features two buoy races in the morning and a petite distance race in the afternoon.

Time for a cold Heineken or two.

March 7, 2008

Things are good down here in St. Maarten. The weather is warm, the sun is out, and the wind is howling. The crew of the Cookson 50 Turbo Privateer has had two solid days of sailing, and the regatta hasn’t even begun.

On Wednesday, we had a good practice day, sailing in a breeze that ranged from 18 to 28 knots. On our downwind legs, with boat captain Ian Henderson on the helm, we saw a sustained speed of 19 to 20 knots. Sailing a Cookson 50 downwind in breeze is some of the most exhilarating sailing I’ve ever done. When we get cranked up and start sailing fast, the boat starts planing, and as many of the crew as possible head for the stern and bunch together on the high side. Steering a light, canting-keel boat downwind in big breeze is a challenge for everyone. The helmsman has to be very good, as does the spinnaker trimmer. When sailed well, everything is great when you’re planing. If someone misses a beat, it’s all over, and the boat broaches, the asymmetric spinnaker flogs, and everyone hangs on for dear life. When everything is going well, it’s pure bliss; the boat unloads, it’s easy to steer, and the speeds stay in double digits. It was a good practice day that helped make us all feel comfortable for our first races, the Budget Marine Commodore’s Cup, a series of windward-leeward races held the next day.

When we got to the dock at 7:00 this morning, the windspeed was even higher, and our anemometer clocked 34 knots as we sat on the dock in the confines of Simpson Bay. Privateer’s owner, Ron O’Hanley had flown in the previous afternoon, and was anxious to see how his boat would perform in breeze, which he hadn’t seen a lot of since he took delivery of the boat last year.

One of the quirks of the Heineken Regatta is the drawbridge that sits at the entrance to the lagoon in which the marinas are located. It only opens a few times a day, and a mass of boats wait to get out each morning. Everything from grand-prix boats to bareboats to 160-foot motor yachts mill about, waiting for the opening and trying to avoid running into one another. When the bridge opens, there’s a bit of chaos as everyone jockeys for position, forming a more or less orderly line in order to get through the narrow channel. Just before the bridge is the St. Maarten YC and a bar, where a crowd of those who aren’t racing stand and watch the procession, cheering the crews with the best uniforms, and waving at each boat as it passes. Even at 9:30 in the morning, more than a few of the folks in the crowd are already clutching cold bottles of Heineken.

The Budget Marine Commodore’s Cup, in its second year, drew about 60 boats that wanted to get some good solid practice in battle conditions before the Heineken Regatta began. Unlike the Heineken, which features three distance races and two windward/leeward races, the Commodore’s Cup is strictly a windward/leeward event. Because of our rating, we were in a class with an 80-foot IMS maxi, the 68-foot ULDB Equation, a first-generation TP52, and a modified Swan 601. We started first, sailing two-mile legs twice around. We nailed the first start and had a good race, despite a couple of spectacular wipeouts downwind. The second race didn’t start as well, as the tactician (me) screwed up and crossed the line about 25 seconds after the starting horn sounded. But we quickly made up ground, sailing in clear air for most of the first weather leg.

One of the strange things about sailing a canter is that, even when we’re hitting our target speeds at around nine knots upwind, it feels glacially slow. Once we round the weather mark, however, the fun factor triples as we sail down the two-mile leg in 17 minutes. Things happen fast; laylines, boats heading upwind with rights, and the leeward mark. Luckily, we have a great team onboard, and we manage the mechanics of leeward mark roundings well.

I’m not sure how we ended in today’s two races, but I do know one thing; it was a great way to get the crew in synch for the Heineken. We worked a lot of things out, started gelling as a team, and built confidence in our ability to get this high-speed machine around the racecourse. Tomorrow is the round-the island race, a 34-miler that should feature some spectacular sailing as we reach, run, and beat our way around this half-Dutch, half-French Island. The wind will still be blowing hard, and we start at around 9:00 a.m., so we should be able to make the three o’clock bridge opening, hit the dock, and consume a few ice-cold Heinekens ourselves.

March 3, 2008

I’m headed to the Caribbean tomorrow with my friend Mark Van Note, of Hall Spars, to race in the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta on the Cookson 50 Privateer.

I’ll be posting Blog entries every day from the event, covering everything from our trek south via USAirways, to the racing, to the final evening’s celebration, which will feature reggae star Shaggy.

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