Time flies. Nineteen years ago, fresh to a new job as an editor and writer for Sailing World magazine, one of my first assignments was to cover a little event called the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta. There were five other reporters there, if I remember correctly, and about sixty boats on the starting lines. The whole shebang was run by an expatriate South African called Robbie Ferron, the operator of a little business on the island called Budget Marine. It was all kind of quaint, and a lot of fun.
This past weekend, I returned to St. Maarten after a long absence to help run the press office for the event, and if I’d just been beamed down from the Starship Enterprise, I couldn’t have been more surprised. “Little” Simpson Bay is now the home to dozens and dozens of superyachts; the traffic on the island is akin to rush hour in Beantown; the Heineken regatta has grown exponentially, with this edition attracting 239 entrants in 20 separate divisions; and Robbie Ferron’s tiny chandlery is now the West Marine of the Caribbean. His hair color has changed quite a bit-it’s a lot, well, snowier-but then again, so has mine.
You get to meet a lot of interesting people at a big regatta-every boat, it seems, has a good story to tell-and I ran into a couple of crews of American sailors that were memorable for very different reasons.
Every year, the Heineken attracts literally hundreds of sailors who charter bareboats-this year, there were 105 entries in six classes-and use the event to mix in a little racing with a little cruising. It’s an ideal venue, as the three-day regatta takes the fleet from one end of the island to the other, and there’s still plenty of time to poke around on your own or head over to Anguilla or St. Barths.
Lots of sailors come year after year.
One of them is Jeffrey Sochrin of Milford, Connecticut, who this year was competing in his fourth Heineken. Sochrin’s a good sailor, and so are his mates from the Milford Yacht Club who come down to race with him. They won a class last year, and when the dust had settled after this weekend’s racing, had defended their title this time around. Sochrin calls his boat Team Goldendog, and of course that means there’s a tale to tell.
“It started with a pretty simple notion,” Sochrin said. “We wanted to sail competitively, but with a cause. I’d always wanted a Golden Retriever and I ended up rescuing and adopting a dog back in the States. So it seemed kind of natural to try and identify homeless animals and find them a good home. And it just kind of took off from there.”
Did it ever.
This year, Sochrin’s Beneteau was covered with stickers from the 27 sponsors who now back Team Goldendog (for more on the program, check out www.teamgoldendog.org). In addition to working with the Yankee Golden Retriever Association, they also try to address the problem of stray animals on St. Maarten, an island Sochrin and friends have come to respect and love. Specifically, they contribute to a program that neuters and spays dogs and cats. “We’ve met a lot of great people here,” said Sochrin. “And this whole thing has taken off in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
Over the last year, the guys sailing the Beneteau 40.7, Team Paul Mitchell, have seen their lives unfold in ways they probably couldn’t have imagined, either. Owner Mark Palermo keeps his boat on Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, and he was lucky, for when Hurricane Katrina ripped asunder the Gulf Coast, sixty percent of the boats on the lake were gone. But he and his mates were eager to get on with their lives, and that meant racing sailboats. The Heineken was the first of several Caribbean events they’re attacking to do just that.
Make no mistake, these native sons of New Orleans are sailors. A few of the crew sailed the boat to St. Maarten from Pensacola, Florida, a trip that took 15 days with just a quick layover in the Virgin Islands.
They sailed in a class with a bunch of J/Boats and a half-dozen 40.7’s, a boat they say is great for the islands because you can cruise it and race it effectively. “She’s a racer in wolf’s clothing,” said Palermo, “an upwind machine.” One of the 40.7s was Lazy Dog, a boat campaigned by a team of terrific Puerto Rican sailors who regularly clean up in the Heineken.
“They’re going to be tough to beat,” said TPM crewman Lee Crona, “but we want to give them a run for their money.”
As it turned out, it blew and blew for this year’s Heineken, peaking with gusts in the mid-30-knot-range, and ultimately none of the 40.7’s closed the deal-the class winner was another American, Rick Wesslund, on a J/120, El Ocaso. Lazy Dog took second and Team Paul Mitchell (skipper Palermo is a distributor of the hair products) was fifth in the 14-boat class.
“Great courses, great waves, great wind,” said Palermo. “I’m not sure we were ready for that much consistent breeze over the deck, but it was an awesome experience. We’re going to take what we learned and come back strong.”
Would you doubt them? I don’t.
For complete results from the 2007 St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, click here.