As 10-year-old Ryan Becker crossed the finish line of the final leg of the Helly Hansen NOOD Caribbean Championship, he pumped his fists into the air, celebrating his family’s victorious arrival into The Bight at Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands.
The Becker family’s win of the championship’s fourth distance race was their second of the nine-race regatta. They’d also won the long down-winder from Guana Island to Sandy Cay the previous day, and while it helped them edge closer to the NOOD Caribbean championship title, it was little too late. Two-time defending champion Dr. Jim Sears had already built an unassailable lead in the standings, and when he followed Becker’s Team Awkward Turtle into The Bight, he locked it up for the third consecutive year.
With a cumulative score of 11.5 points (which included three buoy races, dinghy races at the Bitter End YC, and four distance races) Team Viper, from Southern California and Ohio, squeezed more speed from its 47-foot charter boat provided by Sunsail, but it was hardly a stroll through the BVI’s natural wonders, says Sears.
“We were happy to come out of the first day [buoy races on Sir Francis Drake Channel] with a 2-2-1,” he says. “What we’ve learned from the past is to get out from the base early so we can dive and look at our bottom. We were blessed with a pretty clean one this year, but more than that, it’s just getting out and figuring out the mechanics of the [jib] pole and the sail controls.”
Tactically, in the buoy races, Team Viper’s plan was to stay clean and minimize tacks, which meant starting on port so as to either duck or cross the fleet, get to the starboard layline, and tack once. “It was really shifty that day, which made it hard to weigh the difference between sailing through the headers or tacking,” says Sears, “because, in light air, the tacks are brutal. Turns out, as it got shiftier, everyone else was tacking a lot, so we did, too.”
Despite his experience from previous Caribbean NOODs, Sears says he’s still not totally used to sailing a much heavier boat than the Viper he typically races. “You find yourself trying to foot and waiting for it to accelerate, but there’s not a lot of feel. It takes a lot of patience and maybe that’s why some of the teams that come from smaller boats tend to struggle on the first day.”
One of those that did struggle was Becker’s squad, unable to steer their boat in straight line. After racing, they discovered their boat’s rudder was severely damaged [they were later awarded points for redress]. Sunsail’s service team was dispatched to Cooper Island the following morning to replace the rudder on the water, getting Team Awkward Turtle to the first distance race start, from the Baths to the Bitter End YC, 30 minutes before the warning signal.
The long leg to Bitter End belonged to Stephen Hosch’s impressive squad from Omaha, Nebraska, the regatta’s lone outside challenger. In a nailbitter of a finish, Sears came in with speed while Hosch’s team stalled at the line. The difference was only five feet. Becker followed Sears into the finish, establishing the regatta’s pecking order from there on out.
In the dinghy races at Bitter End that immediately followed, Becker and Sears padded their teams’ leads ever slightly, but it was Team Bight Me, Marblehead NOOD winners, that trounced the evening’s Mount Gay Rum drink contest, judged by the race committee. With a potent mix of Mount Gay Rum, champagne and juices delivered seconds before the time limit expired, the Marbleheads perhaps knew it was better to be late to the judging than early.
*Here’s the recipe for what Team Marblehead called “Stripper Dust”
Ingredients: Mount Gay Rum, Champagne, Guava/mixed fruit juice, Red Twizzler (for pole), granulated brown sugar and lime on the rim.*
Once back to business after a lay day at the Bitter End YC, teams were settling into a groove and weeping their water tanks for the long downwind test to Guana Island, a roughly 7-nautical mile race.
“We changed two major things after the second day,” says Becker. “We readjusted our weight significantly, for starters. We’d initially stored our bottled waters in the bow and moved them under the dinette, but the bigger change was that we actually put the saildrive into neutral. We’d had it in reverse, like you typically would on a raceboat, not realizing it was not a folding prop. With it turning, at least, it wasn’t dragging as much.”
Becker also experimented with changing from a wing-on-wing mode to more of a looser reach style because their custom pole wasn’t as long as those used by other teams. “We were having a really hard time in the light air holding the jib out, so instead,” he says. “We found the best apparent-wind angle and just stayed on it the whole time.”
The changes seemed to work as they led toward Guana Island and what could have been their first leg win, but just as they were about to jibe toward the finish, the wind shifted 40 degrees. “We actually expected the wind to go the other way,” says Becker. “We got screwed by the shift there, but we can’t fault the wind. We learned, though, that reaching was better in light air and there’s a time for winging it.”
The shift allowed Team Viper to cruise to yet another leg win, followed across the line by Hosch’s Team Omaha, and Becker’s Awkward Turtle, third.
Having a pole that was longer was an advantage, says Sears. “The guys on the Omaha boat had one about the same length — ours was 22 feet and theirs was 21 — but they didn’t seem to have the same downwind gear. There were times where they tried to sail faster higher, but we just kept looking for the pressure and staying in it, allowing us to sail lower. We had plenty of luck, too.”
On the day’s second distance race, from Guana Island to picturesque Sandy Cay, Team Awkward Turtle found its groove and got to the palm-lined islet first, followed by Team Viper and Team Omaha. Mathematically, Sears had it locked, but he was unsure how Becker’s first-day redress would play out the following day.
“We were consistent and didn’t score anything worse than a second, which gave me a bit of cushion in the last race,” says Sears. “But that leg [from Jost to Norman Island], is one I seem to struggle with.”
Becker got ahead before the leaders passed through Great Thatch Cut, crossing tacks with Sears several times before others came into the picture, including Team Omaha, and Chicago NOOD winner Martin Johnson’s Team Aquaholics.
For a fleeting moment, says Sears, he found himself sitting in fourth, wondering how the points would play out.
“When we started that day we didn’t know the redress situation, so we thought the main competitors were the Omaha guys, so we went for the clean start and everyone else was late. I don’t think he [Becker] knew the math either. It seemed like he wanted us between him and Omaha because that was what he needed to do to get second.”
As the reach through Great Thatch Cut turned into a long beat into the Norman Island finish, Team Awkward Turtle was noticeably faster. “We figured out that a tack takes about two minutes from tack to tack and eventually we got faster,” says Becker. “Our top speed was a bit faster than the other guys going up wind.”
Becker’s 15-year-old son, Josh, was hard at work on the main, working his magic. “Earlier in the week he wasn’t sure what to do, but by that point, he really got the hang of it,” says Becker. “That was cool.”
As they finished with whoops and hollers, the Becker family (assisted by friends Parker Mitchell and Coco Solsvig) had accomplished what they’d set out to do: introduce their kids to big-boat sailing and Caribbean bareboating.
“The kids loved it,” he says, “especially the day after racing when we went to three different islands and snorkeled the wreck of The Rhone. They’d never done anything like that before.”
As top finisher of the five invited Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta champions, Becker, who won his J/70 class in Annapolis earlier in the year, was crowned the 2016 overall season champion. Sears, as it now seems tradition, earned another invitation from Sunsail to defend in 2017, which he says he intends to do. Next time, though, he’ll leave the bimini up, and not take himself so seriously.