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Gentlemen Do Sail to Windward

The Caribbean is jam-packed with so many races and regattas that even the junkies can’t keep up. Most of these events are structured for state of the art machines laden with muscled crew but one contest, the Antigua Classic Regatta, stands apart from the others in almost every way. It is, of course, a challenge of speed and skill, a competition of talent and might, but this regatta is also a contest of class, pedigree and elegance because…it’s the gentlemen’s race.

For spectators it’s an opportunity to check out over 60 yachts that read like a history book. This year,  such classics as When and If, (commissioned by General Patton during World War II, to be used when and if it ended), sailed beside Colonel Whitbread’s former yacht, Lone Fox; the 86 year old Fife Schooner, Astor; the 110 year-young Galatea; and a bevy of beauties that blinded the fleet with gleaming varnish and glowing brass.

To crew on one of the vessels is an honor experienced by only a handful of sailors simply because a boat deemed “classic” is a rare and endangered breed; there just aren’t many left.   A few entrants fly in well-honed squads, some sail in with an entire troop while others arrive “empty handed,” providing the opportunity for anyone willing and able to jump aboard for the ride of their life.

Four days of official racing are wisely preceded by a day or two of practice giving flash and flesh a chance to get acquainted in the lumpy waters off Falmouth Harbor. Since every vessel is one-of-a-kind, each has nuances and intricacies of standing and running rigging. Some sprout gaffs, topmasts, jutting bowsprits, jib booms and any number of flying and water sails that, to the uninitiated, look downright confusing.

The race committee sets four well-placed courses that allow boats to strut their stuff on every point of sail. The starts are skillfully staggered so that every boat gets a good workout along with an eye-popping show. The Cannon Course, the favorite of photographers and curious crew, is four long legs of reaching with a constant parade of boats passing dramatically close.

The Classic Regatta always has plenty of near-misses and occasionally an unfortunate mash-up. This year a yacht t-boned another just before the start, causing one mast to fall. Some daredevil driving drove the two J-boats, Velsheda and Ranger, together propelling three crew into the water but netting negligible damage.

For the most part, these heirloom beauties are driven adeptly and without swagger. Protests are not encouraged but if one is lodged, it’s rumored that it must be accompanied by a case of champagne. With Laurent Perrier as a sponsor, that makes for a mighty pricey protest.

My own days of racing began on the lovely Lone Fox joining a handful of former mates with a newly-gathered collection of cruisers, racers and professional sailors. Twenty of us spread ourselves up and down the 68 feet of teak deck ready to pull, grind, direct or drive. Choreographing a team that size is difficult, at best, but owner/skipper Ira Epstein did it with reason and calm because he knows… it’s the gentlemen’s race.

For the fourth and final race, I joined Alexis Andrews aboard his graceful Genesis with a more intimate team of seven. On bigger boats, the foredeck folks rarely mingle with the aft deck hands but on Genesis, a 48 foot Carriacou sloop, we were all in the same “room.” On the last leg, Genesis was in the lead but, just to seal the deal, Alexis pulled out a bottle of Cognac, knocking back a few drops before sprinkling it on key bits of his beloved boat and passing it on to crew to repeat. Maybe it was a “gentlemen” thing to do or an island boat ritual. Whatever it was, it worked and we crossed the line with a “KABOOM” from the committee boat.

The exhausting, exhilarating event ended under the buttresses of Fort Berkeley where awards and accolades were doled out to ladies and gentlemen for their amazing week of work on the water, for stunning sportsmanship and, most important, for their love of the classic yacht.

Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean.

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