Setting a Tropical Tempo

At Curaçao’s biggest regatta, the racing moves at a Caribbean pace and the parties burst with European flair. But at the heart of this offbeat event burns a competitive spirit that any racer can appreciate.

Sailing World

Curacao Heineken Regatta

Michael Lovett

I'd been in Curaçao for two days when I started to wonder, "Are they ever going to turn off the Cher?" The singer's 1998 club hit, "Believe," with its techno bass line and Auto-Tune chorus—"Do you be-LEIVE in life after love?"—had been with me since I'd arrived. At the airport, it was playing on the tinny, overhead speakers; at opening ceremonies for Heineken Regatta Curaçao, it was drowning out the welcoming speeches. And now, as we approached the starting line aboard Jan van Dontselaar's Swan 47 Queen of Hearts, it was blasting from the scaffolding on shore, where a flamboyant emcee was announcing the starting sequence for spectators and sailors alike. "The start of the Racing 1 class will begin in one minute. One minute until the start of Racing 1!"

We unfurled our headsail and shut off the motor, coasting toward the starting line in a nearly nonexistent breeze. I felt like I was in the middle of some strange, sailing-themed reverie. We were in the neck of a goose-shaped bay, the Annabai, which has an oil refinery belching in its belly and a coral-stone fortress where its bill opens into the Caribbean Sea, 30 miles north of Venezuela. To port loomed the pastel-colored townhouses of Willemstad, the island’s capital since 1634. To starboard, on the side of a warehouse, a faded mural depicted scenes from the island’s days as a slave-trading port for the Dutch West India Company.

“The start of the Racing 1 class in five, four, three. . .”

The gun sounded, and we, like most boats in our division, were still weaving our way to the line through the mass of boats loitering around the starting area. Soon, our cluster ghosted past the starting tower and began reaching down the neck of the bay toward open water. Nobody worried too much about windward-leeward rules, and crews took advantage of the proximity to exchange a few well wishes. Once clear of the fortress, the fleet dispersed across a meandering course that, some three hours later, deposited it right back in the Annabai, where the emcee—and Cher— were waiting to welcome racers across the finish line.

This was not the type of regatta to which I'd grown accustomed in the States—short, windward-leeward races, serious teams, strict adherance to the Racing Rules of Sailing, Jimmy Buffet cover band in the tent—and it took me a few days to get in stride with the pace. The event features three-days of buoy-racing for everything from windsurfers and beach cats to sportboats and racer/cruisers, mostly well-worn varieties of the latter and all, excluding a container of F18 catamarans shipped from the Netherlands, sailed by local crews. We weren't going to be engaging in any tacking duels. In fact, given the length of the course and the speed differentials in our division, we weren't going to be seeing much of the competition at all. But as I learned to let go of my expectations and witnessed the supreme level of fun, and competitive fulfillment, racers were experiencing on this odd, trapezoidal racecourse off this unheralded Caribbean island, I had a realization: the style fit the scene perfectly.
As Queen of Hearts left Annabai for the afternoon race, a high-pitched voice rang out from the crowd on shore. A teenage girl waved her arms, yelling, "Louis! Good luck, Louis!"

She was the stepdaughter of our mainsail trimmer, Louis Quattorze. She wasn’t a sailor, and wouldn’t know Dennis Conner from Dennis Rodman.

“She and her friends think sailing is cool,” said Quattorze. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Like with the 17th-century slave trade, the 20th-century oil boom, and, most recently, the banking industry, the growth of Heineken Regatta Curaçao owes a lot to the island’s location, both geographic and culturally, at a crossroads between Europe and the Americas. Before October 2010, Curaçao was part of the Netherlands Antilles; Dutch remains the official language alongside English and the more colloquial Papiamento, a derivation of Portuguese and other languages.

Walking the canal-lined streets of Willemstad, you’ll see Dutch businessmen scoping out second homes, Venezuelan merchants peddling vegetables off houseboats, and stylish Venezuelan teenagers who hopped a short flight for a long party weekend. There’s plenty of money in Curaçao, plenty of sailors, a full-service marine infrastructure, and a racing area with fantastic potential. What the island didn’t have, until a few years ago, was a major regatta, or much of a keelboat-racing scene.

"We had several small regattas, plus the Curaçao Regatta, which was mostly a beach-cat regatta. But we didn't have much for the bigger boats," says Gijs Boer, a Dutch expatriate deeply involved with sailboat racing on the island. He serves as president of Curaçao Sailing Festival Foundation, the organization that runs HRC; he founded Curaçao Marine, the marina where many teams keep their boats; he leads two of the island's most competitive racing programs, the Grand Soleil 43 D-Trip and the International 5.5 Metre Shank. "From Day One, the idea was to have the start right in the Annabai," he says. "We wanted to make it good for spectators."

What’s good for spectators is good for sponsors, and it didn’t take long for Boer and company to land a big one. Heineken, which has been sponsoring the wildly successful St. Maarten Heineken Regatta since 1980, signed on as title sponsor in 2008. Three years into its partnership with the Dutch brewery and other sponsors, HRC showed the signs of ample funding and careful planning.

Though the entry list numbered 77 boats, the onshore infrastructure looked like the grounds of a Ricky Martin concert: a massive stage with an arena-quality audiovisual system, an inflatable discotheque, scores of green-shirted Heineken girls wearing knee-high socks. For the Saturday-night performance by Jamaican pop star Shaggy, security guards checked for tickets at correctional-facility caliber entrance gates, and local celebrities mingled in the VIP area. As if the festive atmosphere weren’t reason enough to join in the fun, organizers sweetened the pot by putting up a 10,000-guilder (roughly $5,500) prize for first place overall, courtesy of NIBanc.

"A lot of this has to do with us being from Holland, where it's all efficiency, efficiency, efficiency," says Boer. "Now that Curaçao has its independence, we want to show what we can do."
While participation is increasing, the event's logistical scope has been rising exponentially. In 2010, in addition to the main event, organizers staged the TNG Swiss Watches Commodore's Cup—a series of short races held the day before the official regatta—as well as lunchtime match-racing and a fishing tournament.

“It’s been like a waterfall,” says Boer. “We figured we’d start on a small scale and gradually get bigger. That didn’t happen. Heineken picked up on the marketing potential and invested a lot into making this a world-class regatta.”

The rise of Heineken Regatta Curaçao has galvanized the local keelboat-racing scene. Marcel Van De Bergh had been windsurfing for years, but he'd never raced a keelboat until HRC came to town.
"When we heard about the regatta, my friends and I said, 'Let's charter a sailing vessel,'" says the 49-year-old IT consultant. "Out of nine guys, only three had any experience."

Despite their inexperience, Van De Bergh and his pals won their division in 2008. In 2010, they raced their own boat, the Feeling 39 Galaxie.

"We had our own ship, but the competition was heavy," says Van De Bergh. "Those guys on [Columbia 43] Tranquilo, they're really good. It's like, all they do is sail regattas."

As his team’s bowman, Van De Bergh found himself in a precarious position. “One race, we had to change the sheets, and they hoisted me out on the end of the boom,” he says. “I was hanging upside down over the water, the boat was going up and down, and I was thinking, ‘This is not the best job.’ Everyone else was in the cockpit, drinking and smoking.”

For the Galaxie gang, racing is less about the pursuit of first place and more about spending time on the water with friends and celebrating their Dutch sailing heritage, which entails consuming copious amounts of salted herring.

“One of the guys brings it over from Holland,” says Van De Bergh. “It goes great with beer.”

The sailing bug also bit Patrick Ottenhoff. "I caught it bad," says the 32-year-old chemical engineer. He grew up on the island but had never sailed until a coworker invited him to give it a try.
"The owner of [the Henderson 30] IBIS works at the refinery, too," says Ottenhoff. "He needed crew, so he asked me to come and taught me how to sail."

Ottenhoff was a quick study as mastman, and he soon made connections throughout Curaçao's keelboat community, the nucleus of which includes IBIS, Galaxie, Queen of Hearts, Boer's boats D-Trip and Shank, and Remco van Dortmondt's J/35 Dash.

“A lot of the_ IBIS_ crew bought their own boats,” says Ottenhoff. “Now I can sail on any boat on the island!”

As the racing at 2010 HRC drew to a close, Ottenhoff was at the center of the battle for the 10,000-guilder prize. Going into the final race, IBIS, D-Trip, and Dash each trailed first-place Shank by 2 points.
"We were sure we were going to win," says Ottenhoof. "The boat was going at optimum speed, and we made all the right adjustments."

The nimble Henderson 30 caught a puff just beyond the shadow of the fort and left the pack behind, winning the race by more than 3 minutes on corrected time. Shank finished fourth, and the prize belonged to IBIS. With the winnings, owner Karel van Haren invested in a suit of new sails and a BBQ dinner for the crew.

“What I’ll remember most isn’t winning the money,” says Ottenhoff. “It’s the prestige.”

Weeks after the regatta ended, Ottenhoff and his_ IBIS_ teammates were still regulars on Curaçao's evening newscasts, having become the island's newest celebrities.
"Everybody knows that we won the prize, and they keep coming up and asking me for a little treat," he says. "They think I'm rich."

While he’s proud to have won HRC, Ottenhoff hungers to cut his teeth against outside talent. “Even if we don’t win next year, it would be great if we could go up against another Henderson 30 or something,” he says. “Then we could see if we could keep up.”

To test themselves on a larger stage, IBIS and other local teams travel to far off Caribbean events like St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, the International Rolex Regatta in St. Thomas, and the B.V.I. Spring Regatta. But everyone would like to see more off-island teams make the trip to Curaçao.

"The best way to attract out-of-town raceboats is by convincing them that Curaçao is the ideal place to start the Caribbean racing circuit," say Boer. "This would be the opening regatta."
To that end, organizers schedule the event for early November, which allows traveling programs to avoid the hurricane season and position themselves for later events further north. The cash prize helped raise the stakes in 2010, and for 2011, organizers are flirting with the idea of offering a 1,000,000-guilder prize to the team that sets the record for the fastest circumnavigation of Curaçao. One idea they aren't likely to entertain is moving the start out of the Annabai.

Ottenhoff would love to see a more traditional racing format, but he isn’t holding his breath.

“Multiple windward-leeward races each day would be better, but I don’t think it’ll happen,” he says. “Everybody loves to see the start right in town.”

Given the strength of its sponsor support and the enthusiasm of Curaçao’s sailing community, HRC is bound to grow bigger and more competitive in the years to come.

“We’re a little off the beaten track, and this may never be like the regattas in the Windwards,” says Boer. “Still, once the out-of-towners hear what we’re doing down here, they’ll come.”