Steadily blowing tradewinds, sizzling parties and 'irie' nautical camaraderie is what the International Rolex Regatta shares with just about every other sailing event in the Caribbean. But what sets this St. Thomas Yacht Club-hosted regatta apart, and makes it a unique draw for everything from Americas Cup sailors to local juniors just out of Optimist dinghies, is its unique blend of classes. No wonder the 38th annual regatta attracted over 700 sailors on 77 boats.
A record 15 yachts competed in the IRC handicap class. This is a rating rule that is gaining popularity globally but has been slow to catch on in the Caribbean – except at the Rolex Regatta.
Bill Alcott, who hails from St. Claire Shores, Michigan, wouldn't miss Rolex for the world and especially so since he can race under IRC. "If you put a few million into a boat, you don't want to sail under a rating rule that devalues you and makes you lose," says Alcott, who chartered the Swan 601, Aquarius, to race after selling his Andrews 68 Equation. "I wouldn't miss coming to the Caribbean. I'd sail a canoe if I had to."
Two IRC yachts came down to the Caribbean expressly to race Rolex and no other regional events. These were Ron O'Hanley's Cookson 50 Privateer, from Newport, Rhode Island, and Pat Eudy's Lutra 42 Big Booty, from Charleston, South Carolina.
"One of the draws is that Rolex is part of the IRC's Gulfstream Series," says John Sweeney, who has co-directed the regatta for a number of years. "Another is days like today," he added, referring to the steady 14 to 16 knots out of the east with sunny skies, balmy temperatures and light chop on the seas on the second day of racing.
There was certainly stiff competition among the IRC 1 class yachts. Actually, you could call it an Americas Cup-level contest not in race format or courses, but among the skippers. Yet, New Zealand's Americas Cup veteran Gavin Brady, who drove the TP 52, Vesper, on the last day, did best Ed Baird, winning helmsman of the 2007-Cup winning Alinghi, who helmed the Southern Cross 52, Vela Veloce, by a full seven points.
The IRC 1 class was also home to the largest yacht in the regatta, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's canting keel Maxi Yacht, Genuine Risk, chartered by Sweden's Hugo Stenbeck. Meanwhile, there was equally hot competition among some of the smallest yachts in the regatta, the 16-boat IC24 class. This is a design that was innovated in St. Thomas to build back racing after successive hurricanes decimated the fleet in the mid-1990s. Seems like the idea worked. Interestingly, it was 18-year-old St. Thomas sailor, William Bailey, on Intac, who handily sailed to the top of the fleet on day one and held it right to the end after 17 around-the-buoy races.
"It was nerve-wracking. I tried not to look at the scores. We had nothing to lose, so I put pedal to the metal," says Bailey, who had secret weapons, St. Thomas' Thomas Barrows and St. Croix's Peter Stanton sailing aboard as highly-skilled crew. "Sailing an IC24 is different than bigger boats. Mistakes make a bigger difference. You lose a lot more in tacks."
Puerto Rico's Fraito Lugo's Orion took a nearly unprecedented second in the class, after winning for so many years, while St. Thomas' Chris Curreri's Soggy Dollar BVI rounded out third. Curreri, who has won this class a couple of times and raced with designer Morgan Avery on board as well as Avery's five-and-half-year-old daughter, Madeline, as crew, was forced to improvise when he was protested for having a carbon fiber tiller extension. Class rules call for the extension to be made of wood. So, Curreri grabbed the nearest tree, broke off a branch, affixed it to the tiller, and was back in the racing business.
The smallest boats in this year's Rolex Regatta were the beach cats. These cats have been a species that's gone nearly extinct from many Caribbean regattas, but not Rolex. Again, the competition was keen. Puerto Rico's Jorge Ramos won aboard his Hobie 16, Universal, with St. Thomas' John Holmberg, a former Prindle National Champ, and 12-year-old Kai, second on Time Out, and St. Thomas' Teri McKenna and Joyce Mackenzie on Island Girl, third. "I hadn't raced a Hobie for a while until last year," says McKenna, "but I did use to race a lot in California. In fact, I've raced with Hobie Alter's son, Jeff."
Yes, the International Rolex Regatta attracts the 'Crown Jewels' of sailors in every class, big to small, and that's definitely what makes this regatta unique.
For full results, visit: www.rolexcupregatta.com
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.