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A Windsurfer’s Week at HIHO

I’ve been wanting to do the HIHO (“Hook In and Hold On”) for over 10 years ever since I learned about it…one of those Top 10 things I needed to check off my list. I came to the British Virgin Islands to challenge and test myself…little did I know how much.

The annual Highland Spring HIHO event started in 1979 as a long distance race between St. Thomas and Tortola and has taken on different shapes, sizes, and sponsors in the years since. Registration involves signing out your windsurfing rental equipment (new Neil Pryde V8 Sails and BIC Techno 2 boards), then getting your boards and sails on your yacht, along with booze and snacks for happy hour.

Everyone departs the next morning for the ride up to Virgin Gorda’s North Sound.  We arrive at the Bitter End Yacht Club for the first day’s racing. The wind dies on us and they eventually cancel that day’s official race and instead hold a fun race.

Day Two:  Our first official Highland Spring HIHO race of the week, as we had enough wind to go out. We race in Eustatia Sound between the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda and Eustatia Island, and then out through a cut in the reef into the open ocean to a mark set next to Necker Island, then back through a different cut in the reef into Eustatia Sound. That was lap one. We had to do that for two laps, then back straight downwind to the back of Prickly Pear Island. It took me 1½ hours. Just getting to the first upwind mark from the starting line seemed to take forever.

A woman racer and I celebrated as we both rounded that first mark together…Woo Hoo! Only another 1½ laps to go!  When I finally finished I learned that it was a dogfight at the front between Techno racer Eli Fuller from Antigua and Nat Ford from St John.  Eli won the race by a hair!

So, my left hand and left foot are numb. It’s Day Three and I’m a half hour into the Anegada crossing…twelve miles of open ocean between the islands of Virgin Gorda and Anegada. It was one screaming starboard reach that took me 45 minutes to finish. One direction with no turning…my neck was sore, my hands and feet were hurting, cramping, and then going numb.

I had some serious butterflies before this race but once I was out there and past the start, I was getting comfortable. Big, dark blue rolling swells…up and down…getting into a nice rhythm. What an incredible ride!  The wind got stronger as we neared Anegada, for the finish line at Pompano Point on the southwest corner of the island. It was exhilarating and a huge relief that I finished.  We had a lobster dinner that night at the Anegada Reef Hotel, then dancing to a live band. We seemed to find more energy.

All event participants are accommodated aboard a fleet of captained yachts from The Moorings.  Our captain, Bruce, is tall and wiry, like a skinny and tan Kenny Rogers, or Yanni with salty hair. He’s a real pirate except he doesn’t rape, pillage or plunder. This is also his first Highland spring HIHO event, but organizer Andy Morrell says he’ll be back next year.  “He’s our kind of captain,” says Morrell.

It’s Thursday morning and today is the yacht race back to Necker Island. The original plan was to make this a free day for the windsurfers after the yacht race. But the wind was stronger, so they decided to take advantage of it and hold a windsurfing race, too. It’s going to be a busy day.

The yacht race was fun…a full sail back across the Anegada channel again. We finished eighth place out of 15 yachts…not too bad. Then we hurriedly dinghied our boards and sails to the beach at Prickly Pear Island to prepare for our race around Necker Island. The wind was stronger, so we rigged smaller sails. The course was around Necker Island from Prickly Pear with a finish on the private island’s beach. 

The start was insane—60 boards charging at full speed. I battled up the small channel and finally made my way around Necker Island, giving myself a wide berth on the back side of the island to get clean wind and a straight shot to the downwind mark. I rounded that mark successfully and had one more broad reach to round before heading upwind to the finish line. “No mistakes,” I told myself. I was running a very good and clean race. I rounded the last mark, then—whammo—I biffed my tack and fell in…unbelievable!

One or two people passed me. I was back up and running in no time, then—whammo—I fell again on another tack to get to the finish. Dangit! I finally screamed into the beach, dropped my gear, and ran to touch the flag. I’m at the flag bent over tired. I look up and a gentleman with wavy blonde hair and sunglasses reaches out his hand and says, "Congratulations, mate." I instantly replied, "Hey Richard! I’m Mac. Thanks for having us today.” It was Sir Richard Branson, owner of Necker Island.  Wow…now that was a very cool moment. And even cooler, I finished 13th out of 49 racers in that race…my best of the week.

Next day…  I thought the Anegada crossing was our long distance race and it would be all downhill from there.  Boy, was I wrong. Oh-Mi-Gosh! A 27-mile slalom and downhill course the length of the Sir Francis Drake Channel from Salt Island to Little Thatch Island across from St John. The wind was 15-25 knots and there was big swell and chop out in the open channel. I’ve done a couple of triathlons—this race was harder and it took me longer to recover. Many racers said it was the hardest race they’ve ever done. The conditions were very tough: of approximately 50 who started the race, approximately 20 had to be rescued.

The plan was for two small races around Sandy Cay. We started the first race, I had a clean start, two tacks upwind, then a clear run to the upwind mark…then the wind dropped and the postponement flag went up.

Last stop, Sandy Cay…a small island right off Jost Van Dyke.  After lunch the wind fills in and we run the final race. I had another good start, but the wind dropped on me again just before the first upwind mark. I fell in.  Lots of people passed me. I got up and rounded the upwind mark only to fall in two more times heading to the downwind mark at Sandy Spit, the most photographed island in the world. This was not my race. I finally finished, 29th out of 49. We went back around to Roadtown, Tortola, docked at The Moorings, and returned all our windsurfing gear. 

Who won? Eli Fuller, the racer from Antigua who’d won the event on three previous occasions.  He won convincingly; I heard he even beat the open class competitors on some races.  And Nat Ford took a nail biter of an overall finish in the Open Class.  This came down to the final race on Sandy Cay where he held off Ricardy Maricel from St. Maarten.

So how did I do? Better than I expected going into this… 26th overall out of 49 racers in the Techno One Design Class; 11th out of 18 in the Masters Class (age group 35-44, the highest number of age groupers and the most competitive class); and 4th out of the 13 Americans who raced. That was it… I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had completed the HIHO.

Mac Barnhardt is a windsurfer from North Carolina who competed in this year’s Highland Spring HIHO event with friends from the Belews Creek Community Windsurfers.

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