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Sailing at the Source

There are bigger and more competitive Caribbean regattas, but not one is as close to the true spirit-potable spirit, that is-of sailing as Barbados' annual Mount Gay Rum/Boatyard Regatta. A feature from our October 2009 issue

November 10, 2009
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Barbados Boatyard Regatta 368

Chris Pastore

Paul Edwards likes to stand on the weather rail of the 80-foot Maxi Longobarda while it races to windward. A big man, he often positions himself directly in the helmsman’s line of sight. Sitting a few feet aft of Edwards, I can’t help but feel distracted, as if someone were standing at the dinner table. But no worries: Edwards owns the boat, its size alone ensures it’ll beat at least a few others over the line, the race committee will do the messy math later, and did I neglect to mention there’s free rum at the party?

Longobarda is one of 37 boats racing just off Bridgetown, the capital of the 21- by 14-mile pear-shaped island of Barbados, in the 24th annual Mount Gay Rum/Boatyard Regatta. The event lacks the large fleets and lofty reputation of other signature Caribbean regattas such as Antigua Sailing Week, the British Virgin Island Spring Regatta, and the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta. It occurs late in the season and Barbados, tucked into the southeastern corner of the Caribbean, is nearly 60 miles upwind of its nearest island neighbor. But the relatively undiscovered regatta has carved out a niche as one of the Caribbean’s most laid-back sailing events. It also offers a rare opportunity to see the island’s iconic rum as not only a legendary sailing sponsor but also the adored cultural staple of a small island nation.

I flew to Barbados in mid May with the hope of sailing in strong trade winds and clear, blue water. I also planned to sample-with abandon, if necessary-the island’s fabled export. On the racecourse I found hot sun, plenty of wind, and a culture of amicable, low-pressure racing. On Longobarda, the sober tones of tactical deliberation from the afterguard were inevitably followed by bursts of laughter and friendly ribbing. “At registration,” says Edwards, who has lived in Barbados for 30 years, “you get the party bands first and the entry forms second.”

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While waiting for the wind on the second day, one boat suggested via VHF that each boat should nominate one man to go to the bar. “The last man standing,” he said with a Caribbean lilt, “will be the winner.”

In addition to a core team of seasoned sailors, Longobarda’s crew comprised a handful of journalists and about 20 employees from the regatta’s title sponsor, which had chartered the boat for the regatta. Wearing matching red T-shirts and hats, our team looked more official than it actually was. After watching several perplexed crewmembers go through a soup-to-nuts winch indoctrination, I was thankful to hear Edwards announce that we would not be flying the spinnaker.

Edwards purchased the legendary maxi in 2006, shipped it to Barbados, and commenced a major refit, adding three staterooms, a main saloon with leather settees, and galley with an espresso maker. Having spent much of his career in Formula 1 motor racing, Edwards bought a boat that he hoped would provide some excitement and a charter income. “I wanted something with a pedigree,” says Edwards. “I knew with Longobarda we could get some really nice, fast sailing.”

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Although the boat proved fast, the charter business is fitful. Barbados’ isolation and few natural harbors limit his ability to attract paying customers. Those same factors have kept the Bajan-an adjective for all things related to Barbados, pronounced BAY-jun-racing scene small, shaping a sailing culture, which probably more than any other, is tied to its principal benefactor. Whereas most places establish a regatta and then look for a sponsor, Barbados began with Mount Gay, and then established an event to bear its name.

The result is a regatta that Bajans consider the most important of the year, but one that is intensely local. There were a few out-of-town entries, but the Mount Gay Rum/Boatyard Regatta is all Bajan: Bajan organizers, a Bajan race committee, and, of course, Bajan rum. And because of that, competitors and race organizers alike hold a personal stake in its success. Numerous boats flew spinnakers affixed with the distiller’s distinct logo. And when Edwards offered me a rum drink one evening after racing he did so with the body language and tone that suggested he himself had made it-the drink as well as the rum in it.

“If you’re a serious sailor, you’re going to go to St. Maarten or Antigua [regattas],” says Steve Schmidt, of Santa Barbara, Calif., and owner of the Santa Cruz 70 Hotel California. “But the smaller regattas like this are more fun and the quality is excellent.” Schmidt, on sabbatical from a career in the computer industry, has been living aboard his boat since 1993. He competes with a cruising rig, and uses mostly pick-up crews for racing. “It’s surprising how often it works,” he says. To wit, Schmidt finished third of five in Racing Class B, one spot ahead of Edwards and Longobarda.

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While other regattas in Caribbean cater to the big-fleet, big-boat set, the Mount Gay Regatta happily hosts an eclectic mix, including the likes of Irwin and Margery Gaffin’s Beneteau 50 MoGuffy.

The Gaffins, originally of Woodstock, N.Y., moved to Barbados 15 years ago to open a tote manufacturing company. They helped establish the Cruising B class, which included nine cruising boats sailing simple reaching courses. “Sailing here is fabulous,” says Irwin Gaffin. “It’s a bit of slog to get here, but the sailing community is big, and there’s great rum.” Gaffin, who finished second last May, 6 points behind Ian Hicklin’s Beneteau 325 Asmara, believes the regatta is poised to attract even more cruisers. “There are thousands of cruising boats and a lot of them sail south. It’s just a lot more laid back down here than in the Leeward Islands.”

The J/24 class is another one that’s experienced recent growth. At 14 boats, it was the biggest in the regatta in 2009. According to Robert Povey, who won the class on Hawkeye, the Bajan J/24 fleet started just five or six years ago. “I woudn’t be surprised if Barbados, in a couple of years, had at least 20 boats,” says Povey, who was one of two Bajan skippers to compete in the 2009 J/24 Worlds in Annapolis, Md.

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Backed by Mount Gay and the island’s tourism board, the local sailing establishment is bidding on bigger events for the first time. The 2010 Fireball Worlds will be in Barbados, and discussions are ongoing about hosting the J/24 Worlds in 2011 or 2012.

Before the age of pleasure yachting, Barbados’ sailing reputation was largely due to the difficulty in getting there. Eighteenth-century sailors would prove their worth by carrying some measure of Barbados rum home to Europe. The island boasted some of the most productive and profitable sugar plantations in the world on which molasses, a byproduct of the sugar-making process, was first distilled into rum. A tattered deed of sale dated 1703 lists at Tyrell field in St. Lucy Parish on the island’s northern tip, “two stone windmills…one boiling house with seven coppers, one curing house and one still house.” It was there that what is most likely the oldest rum distillery in the world began producing spirits.

During the middle of the eighteenth century the company’s namesake, Sir John Gay Allen developed the Tyrell field plantations around Mount Gilboa. By about 1825, maps of the area began to reflect that mountain’s new name, Mount Gay. In 1910 the distillers began producing “Eclipse” rum, named to commemorate a solar eclipse that occurred in that year. Although Bajan rum had been sold in America since the early 18th century-it was said that George Washington asked that it be served at his inauguration-the modern Mount Gay brand began selling to the United States in 1934, a year after the end of prohibition. In 1972, Mount Gay introduced its first international advertising campaign, which soon included sponsorship of numerous sailing events. In 1989 Remy Martin bought Mount Gay and made the brand truly international, expanding its exposure and distribution. By 2000 the company was exporting to more than 70 countries. A large part of Mount Gay’s success is directly connected to its close association with sailing; the company currently sponsors more than 110 regattas per year around the world.

Although the company’s marketers honed an export brand that caters largely to the well-heeled yachting set, on its home turf Mount Gay remains the favorite brand of locals, from the very rich to the working class. In brightly painted rum shops, Bajans eat fried flying fish and rice and peas. Patrons slam dominoes late into weekend nights and servers pour Eclipse into punches and glasses of cola. Some rum shops are open-air bars, but the one I visited doubled as the front porch to someone’s home. I placed my order through the front-door window slats to a bathrobe-clad woman who’d been watching television until I knocked. And long after I’d left, as the benches and chairs filled, the rum shop spilled onto the stairs and into the street.

At the end of each day’s racing, Mount Gay hosted a party at a beachfront bar called the Boatyard, the regatta’s other title sponsor. Although not a rum shop, per se, Bajan sailors brought the rum shop culture with them-talking, drinking rum, and dancing into the night.

Ultimately, that will be what attracts sailors to this quaint event. The Bajan sailing scene is small, but the sailors are invariably a welcoming bunch. Unlike many other destination regattas, which whitewash the local culture in favor of a more formulaic regatta experience, the Mount Gay Rum Regatta has remained true to the roots of its host country. And of course there’s the rum. I’m convinced it tastes better at the source.

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