That Caribbean Regattas can pull in the big names of ocean racing is a testament to the quality of these events. It's been a tough couple of years financially and campaigning a big boat, or any boat, isn't cheap. Some regattas have fallen by the wayside, yet the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta seems to get stronger every year.
Although regional organizers say they work together with other Regattas, and often do, there's fierce competition when it comes to attracting quality boats and the 'rock star' sailors that go with them. Over the years the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta has seen the likes of Roy Disney's Pyewacket and Hasso Platner's Morning Glory, then revolutionary canting-keel boats that set the regatta on fire. Record breaking yachtsman and pilot Steve Fossett brought the maxi catamaran PlayStation to the regatta and where Fossett went, the international yachting press followed. Mike Sanderson, fresh from his victory in the 2005 – 2006 Volvo Ocean Race, wowed the fleet with ABN AMRO ONE and made off with the silverware. Tom and Dotty Hill return year after year with their latest Titon. This year look for legendary five-time round-the-world racer Bouwe Bekking. The list goes on.
How does St. Maarten keep on attracting the best? The answer is innovation, a constant search for improvements and a willingness to try something new even if there's a risk. This year the race committee came up with a workable plan to make late course changes due to unusual weather.
"We prefer windward starts," says race committee chairman Rien Korteknie. "Based on easterly winds we are okay. But what to do when we have to deal with other wind directions? Last minute changes are a problem. Now we have a system that the race officer can decide which option to pick, using a windward mark or not." The new initiative also gives the race officer the option to choose a longer or shorter course depending on the weather. "If this works well," adds Korteknie, "then it's another improvement for the regatta."
Rivalries aside, no one can doubt that well run regattas add to the Caribbean's overall product. A good example is the recent addition of Antigua's Caribbean 600 to the sailing calendar. Initially it was thought this race might pull entries away from the Heineken Regatta, however, the reverse is true. Heineken Regatta officials now see the Caribbean 600 as a feeder race for their own event. This positive attitude is reflected in Heineken's 2011 entry list – more top class events equate to more top class boats on the Caribbean circuit.
Boats competing in both events form an interesting mix, including Brian Benjamin's Carbon Ocean 82, Aegir II; Meghan Grundy's Custom Tripp 75, Bella Pita; a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 52, Great Escape of Southampton; Allie Smith's Beneteau First 50, Hydrocarbon Logic; the Rob Humphrey-designed 54-footer, Oystercatcher XXVII; and Lloyd Thornburg's spanking new Gunboat 66, Phaedo.
Communication plays an important role in the success of any regatta.
"It's imperative that the regatta organization keep tabs on how sailors are communicating with each other," says Heineken Regatta Race Director Heather Tackling. "New innovations in technology allow us to continue to grow the event, with up to the minute results as well as digital displays. Social media and the internet are the number one ways to keep them informed and we spend a large amount of time updating that information as regularly as possible."
The Heineken Regatta conducts surveys and talks to the participants, using the feedback to constantly improve the event. "The competitors are not shy when expressing their needs, but if we don't listen to what they want they will just as easily move on and not return to our event," says Tackling. "This regatta has a unique flavor that no other event can match and the mix of sailing, weather, onshore festivities and professionalism makes it an event that the sailors just keep coming back to. Thirty one years of continuous improvements makes this a exceptional event."
For full race results visit: heinekenregatta.com
Gary E. Brown is the Editorial Director of All At Sea. He hosts the radio show YachtBlast on Island 92, St. Maarten, and is the author of the thriller/sailing adventure Caribbean High. For more information visit: garyebrown.net