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Argo Gold Cup and RenaissanceRe Juniors Regatta has a Split Personality

I bought into the concept of Sint Maarten’s Heineken Regatta on my first visit: Great racing by day, party-central by night … Serious Fun!

Now I find myself in Bermuda for the Argo Gold Cup Regatta and RenaissanceRe Juniors.

Another regatta with a split personality.

It’s obvious the minute you enter the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club—a colonial, pumpkin-painted building with welcoming arm stairways and a rotunda atrium with a brass ship’s station and a compass rose on the floor. This is one of the world’s oldest yacht clubs with a royal charter. But people from across the world are having a blast in the bar.

Bermuda is sailing central: terminus of the Newport to Bermuda, Charleston to Bermuda and Marion to Bermuda races. Home of the Bermuda sloop. An island where every high school student has to do a stint on a tall ship called the Spirit of Bermuda before graduation.

Bermuda is the perfect spot for a regatta especially one with a duel personality. Caribbean flair, but not the Caribbean; middle of the ocean, but this event’s in a protected harbour; stodgy reputation but in actuality as friendly a place as you could ever visit.

Two generations of sailors

For part of each day a bunch of kids race Optimist dinghies on a course in Hamilton Harbour. For part of each day a group of the best racers in the world – this is the penultimate event in the World Match-Racing Tour – ply a windward-leeward course in International One Designs.

Twenty-four match-racing teams from seventeen countries, and forty Opti sailors selected from the same countries, are here to take part.

Bragging rights and the chance to rub shoulders with the pros is the draw for the kids. The pros are seeking a position in the last race in Malaysia and a purse of $50,000.

Once you’ve watched match-racing – the nautical equivalent of a gladiatorial battle – other races just don’t cut it.

Consider the final flights: tight starts and gusty winds, shifting and unpredictable.

On the upwind leg it’s tight around the marker. How tight? A chorus of yells, followed by a sickening crunch, and the dark hull of the boat skippered by Australia’s Torvar Mirsky sticks up in the air like a re-run of Titanic. Sweden’s Johnnie Berntsson has connected firmly, his bow straddling Mirsky’s transom.

They separate and the boats fly downwind, though Mirsky’s got it well in hand. Two penalty flags for Berntsson!

The match racers take a break and kids in Optis sail the same course, forty of them.

It looks like a bunch of seagulls at a family picnic but they’re the among the best dinghy sailors in their home countries.

“It’s not just skill today,” says RenaissanceRe Junior Gold Cup staffer Laurie Fullerton. “Winds favour the heavier racers.”

My favourite, a fellow Canadian, a national champion named Justin Vittecoq and the youngest sailor here, starts strong. But the winds get him by the windward mark. Now the big guys are back. The IOD’s look lively, unforgiving. Heel fast and hard.

These are perfect boats for a Bermuda race, inspired by a circa 1930s six-metre yacht from the island.

“I asked Mirsky how he liked them,” says Gold Cup PR director, Talbot Wilson. “He says ‘NOT!'”

But the boats make for great racing – bite-your-nails racing.

Australia’s Mirsky draws first blood. Then Sweden’s Berntsson. And back and forth it goes until Mirsky wins in sudden-death.

I wonder about asking him how he feels about the IOD but he’s busy getting the Edward VII Gold Cup while Wade Waddell from Florida earns the Junior Cup.

Two sailors: a youth and a pro. IODs and Optis.

Another great regatta with a split personality.

Mark Stevens is an award-winning travel writer whose specialties include Canada, the Caribbean and boating. Credits range from Sailing magazine and Canadian Yachting to the Washington Post.

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