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Changes and Challenges at 29th St. Maarten Heineken Regatta

The St Maarten Heineken Regatta, one of the Caribbean’s favorite racing events, was dominated by change. New pre-regatta match racing, wild weather, unforeseen course alterations and even different party venues marked the 29th year.

Leading up to the Heineken, the “experimental” Budget Marine Match races on Tuesday and a new sponsor for the Commodores Cup race on Thursday, Island Global Yachting (IGY), were in the news. (See report on Budget Marine Match Racing in this issue.) A fleet of 52 yachts gathered in the clear waters off St. Maarten to contest the IGY Commodore’s Cup, a day for the flat-out racing yachts prior to the three-day St. Maarten Heineken Regatta. Winner of the A Class was Katrina, a Swan 53 that sailed all the way from California to compete.

The 29th edition of the annual competition was one of the roughest in the Heineken Regatta’s history, with severe winds that peaked at nearly 40 knots on the first day and whipped the waters relentlessly. As a result, the race committee changed the usual weekend racing in and out of exposed Marigot and concentrated the competition off Simpson Bay on the south. Still, sailors suffered blown sails, broken masts and bone-rattling collisions.

Surprising new champions were crowned, including Ronald O’Hanley’s Cookson 50 Privateer, with a perfect scorecard of four first-place finishes, and Wendy Schmidt’s Swan 80 Team Selene as well as several past St. Maarten Heineken Regatta victors like Sergio Sagramoso on the Beneteau 44.7 Lazy Dog, and James Dobbs on the J/122 Lost Horizons who climbed the stage at the prize giving ceremony on Sunday as Most Worthy Performance overall winner.

This year also saw a few changes in the program due to the economic crisis in the world. The regatta organization wisely decided that it was better to prevent a financial debacle than go broke afterward. The animated Friday evening party on the Philipsburg Board Walk was canceled, with another party on the nearby Kim Sha Beach added to the usual End of the Regatta party on Sunday.

“We thoroughly considered this option, looked at it from different angles, and thought it would be wise to cut the knot” said Frank Hoedemaker, Commodore of the sponsoring St. Maarten Yacht Club. “Of course Philipsburg’s catering industry managers didn’t like the decision, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. We just want to make sure that there’ll be a 30th edition of our Regatta!”

The savings were partly spent on creating a sailors’ lounge at the Yacht Club, a prime spot for the Simpson Bay bridge. During the Regatta, the terrace was packed early morning through late at night.

For filmmaker Anton van de Koppel of Quest Media, who has produced video footage of the event for many years, the Budget Marine Match Racing series provided another outlet to capture some of the best sailing action for the Internet and TV including CNN, the Sailing Channel, and other international outlets. A 28-minute video on the regatta will be shown on the KLM/Air France in-flight program, exposing it to nearly 11 million passengers.

Remaining the same with this year’s changes was the evergreen ability of organizers to put on a memorable and fun event for sailors. The green Heineken cans, hallmarks of the event’s lead sponsor, were a constant, along with the metaphorical green, an awareness of the island’s natural resources. This year’s event was certified as a Bronze “Clean Regatta” by Sailors for the Sea, a nonprofit American group that works with local organizations to reduce adverse impact on coastal waters. And again this year, the regatta known for serious fun will donate proceeds from the sale of regatta bracelets, and now pins, to local conservation programs.

The 30th St. Maarten Heineken Regatta will take place March 4 to 7, 2010. www.heinekenregatta.com

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