It was damned nice of the organizers of the Heineken Regatta to honor my birthday by launching the 2013 event on March 1. Damned nice of ’em. Thanks, guys! But it would have been even better if they’d delivered some wind for my birthday.
The annual three-day event — billed as “serious fun,” it’s more than just a sailing race — takes place on St. Maarten, and for the second straight year I was in town for the festivities. In 2013, I arrived from Antigua and the Grenadines aboard the 70-foot luxury yacht my Dutch friends, Boogie and Marlies, were running. The yacht was brought to Simpson Bay for some repairs in advance of its owner’s return a few days later. That meant I had to find another ride if I wanted to take part in the racing.
And fortunately, I found just the ticket: a J-46 owned by a fellow New Englander (from Maine) and sailed by a crew of Rhode Islanders. Added to the crew was an English woman the Yanks had met on Antigua; she was friends with Boogie and Marlies, and on Thursday night asked if they knew anyone looking to crew. Yes, I lead a charmed life.
So I hopped aboard Seabiscuit Friday morning with Nathan (the owner), husband-and-wife team Chris and Damian (sailmakers from Newport, R.I.), John (in sales in the yachting industry in Newport and the de facto leader of the boat), Dave (another Rhode Islander) and Claudia (the Brit), and off we went.
Slowly. Very slowly. Racing on day one is a counter-clockwise circumnavigation of the island from Simpson Bay to Phillipsburg, and while there was enough wind to get started, by the time we’d rounded the corner and were off Marigot on the French side of the island, we (and most everyone else) were becalmed. To say it was a boring, shitty way to spend one’s birthday is an understatement. Bobbing around on the sea baking in the sun surrounded by strangers wasn’t what I had in mind. But it was still better than not being at sea so like the Monty Python’s Brian, I tried to look on the bright side: I was getting tan, I was aboard a sailboat on turquoise waters, there was a northerly swell running that made a wave break out of nowhere on a reef near the island of Tintamare, and when the wind did manage to come up things were fun.
We finished in Phillipsburg (in ninth place) within the allotted time which was an accomplishment. Several boats, including some serious racers, retired in order to make it back to Simpson Bay in time for the final bridge opening of the day. Seabiscuit was tying up in Phillipsburg for the night so that wasn’t an issue. And when we did tie up, I hopped in a taxi back over the hill to my friends’ yacht. Why? Because I wanted to spend my birthday evening with friends and also because I had a private, air-conditioned cabin waiting for me, rather than being crammed into a small boat with five strangers right beside what would become a raucous stage for that night’s regatta party (I guess I’m mellowing with age finally).
On top of all that, despite it being my birthday it was also a somber day: my mother and I shared a birthday. It’s true. She spent her 38th birthday delivering me, the best birthday present I’ve ever received (thanks, Mom!), and this was the first year I’d be celebrating just one birthday on March 1. And it would have been a big number for her in 2013; she’d have been 85.
So instead of drinking too much and hanging out with strangers (half of whom smoked, no less), I opted for a mellow dinner at Jimbo’s in Simpson Bay with my friends. Afterwards, I sat in the cockpit of their yacht watching the stars and drinking beer. It was a nice celebration.
On Saturday, I hopped one of the impromptu buses that run all over St. Maarten ($2 fare!) back to Seabiscuit for two races. There was wind this time and the sailing was fun and energetic. We’d also picked up two new crewmembers — Massachusetts native Becky and Welsh surfer Abbie — who enabled us to have a full crew for the final two days of racing.
We finished the two races (fifth and ninth) in Marigot and, through some aggressive finagling, wound up on the dock in the marina there. Boogie and Marlies had come over to see a bunch of their friends on other yachts in the race and I hopped a ride back over to Simpson Bay in the dinghy for another peaceful night of sleep.
I almost stayed in Marigot Saturday night. I love that side of the island. It’s the French side and being there combines the best of two worlds: it’s like a small Mediterranean village where the restaurants are out of this world and the party scene is as festive as you’d expect in the Caribbean. Walking through the village to head back to Simpson Bay, the smells of the food wafting from the stands set up for the party was almost enough to entice me to stay. But the lure of peace and quiet, and air conditioning rather than cramped cabin space, was too strong.
Sunday featured quite a bit of wind and the sailing was great. Seabiscuit had a great start and we held off the faster boats really well until the offset mark near Grand Case beach. We struggled getting our spinnaker up for the downwind leg and those speedier boats, crewed by people who race together regularly, blew by us. To complicate matters, we wound up in the wind shadow of a much larger yacht and couldn’t get away much before the leeward mark.
When we did round the rock off Anguilla that marked the start of the final upwind leg, things got sporty. The trade winds were up and that upwind leg was right into the teeth of the seas those winds had kicked up. It was a long, wet ride, tacking frequently and trying desperately to hold on to the faster boats.
Seabiscuit rounded one more mark and coasted into the downwind finish line in ninth place, good for an eight-place finish in her class for the weekend (46th of 79 overall). And I managed to take home a souvenir of the Sunday racing. Against my normal protocol, I opted to sail like most of the others on Seabiscuit: barefoot. During one tack, while stepping over the cabin top, I managed to gouge the pad below the big toe on my left foot. I didn’t realize it until a few minutes later when, with my feet dangling over the rail, I noticed blood running over my right foot. Fortunately, Becky had some medical tape so I bound the flap of skin back into place and carried on. But walking has proved difficult even a couple of days later.
It was a good time racing and the crew on board Seabiscuit was made up of the most serious racers I’ve ever sailed with. Still, we weren’t THAT serious and the experience was truly what the regatta promotes: serious fun. No, I didn’t partake in the parties as much as I might have, but to be honest, I was still reeling from a winter that was brutally long emotionally and psychologically. Boogie and Marlies may well have saved my life by getting me out of the dark places into which I’d descended in January and February, and for that I’m grateful. Racing on Seabiscuit was an added bonus (thanks to Nathan for letting me join the crew). Now, in March, I’m optimistic that I am actually going to make it back.