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Looking Back Over 40 Years of the International Rolex Regatta

John Foster on the tiller during his 34th Rolex in 2007. Photo: Dean Barnes
John Foster on the tiller during his 34th Rolex in 2007. Photo: Dean Barnes

There is perhaps no one better to look back over 40-years of International Rolex Regatta (IRR) than St. Thomas’ John Foster. Foster, who is a founding member of the host, St. Thomas Yacht Club (STYC), sailed in the very first IRR. In the last four decades he missed competing in only one due to the forgivable reason of mounting his fifth Olympic campaign. This year, Foster celebrates a second term as STYC Commodore on the special occasion of the IRR’s Ruby Anniversary.

There are a couple of key milestones that prefaced the start of the International Rolex Regatta, Foster tells. The first was the Club’s hosting of its initial major event, the Caribbean Midwinter Regatta, sailed in the mid-1960s in Sunfish dinghies. “We had the idea to send airline tickets to internationally recognized sailors in cold climates, and stars like Paul Elvestrom, Keith Musto, Earl Elms and George Brunder all took us up on the offer,” Foster explains.

At the same time, Foster, along with Rudy Thompson, Dick Avery and several others came up with the idea to host the first World Sunfish Championship at the STYC. This was enthusiastically approved by the manufacturer of the Sunfish and over 50 boats crossed the start line in the waters off Cowpet Bay.

International recognition of the STYC poured in after these two successes, which were broadcast word of mouth by competitors and by the international press. This news was further fortified by the appearance of Per Dohm, John Hamber and Rudy Thompson in the Flying Dutchman. The trio represented the Virgin Islands for the first time in the history of the Olympics when the games were staged in Mexico in 1968. By 1972, Club members had purchased several additional Olympic-class boats. They included Ken Klein and Peter Jackson in the Star class, Foster and John Hamber in the Tempest class, Dick Griffin in the Finn and Richard Holmberg (Peter Holmberg’s father) and crew in the Soling class. This rising tide of global publicity for the Club helped to open the door for bigger boat racing.

It was at this time that Club member Lee Kelbert bought a brand new Carter 45. Kelbert, with the assistance of fellow members Walter Fischer and Dick Johnson, persuaded Rolex of Geneva to sponsor the Caribbean Midwinter Regatta. Because of the prestige of Rolex watches and the exclusive sale of the same at the Kelbert family’s Little Switzerland retail store on Charlotte Amalie’s Main Street, they decided to change the name to the Rolex Midwinter Regatta. By 1973, after many meetings both in St. Thomas and Geneva, the agreement for Rolex to sponsor the event was signed. Today, the IRR is the oldest of Rolex’s portfolio of global sailing events.

The key difference between the first and 40th IRR were the number of boats that participated, Foster explains. “In the first, we invited everyone who had anything afloat in Charlotte Amalie Harbor. There were no other Yacht Clubs to work with so we went around the harbor in a dinghy knocking on hulls with hand written invitations. We would then estimate the handicaps based on who entered. Today we have worldwide participation with high tech racing machines, lots of classes such as the Melges 32s this year and numerous handicap rules by which we can calculate the winners, sometimes separated by seconds on corrected times.”

The similarities between the first and 40th anniversary IRR remain the same, Foster says. “There’s great camaraderie, the same spirit of sportsmanship and fair play and a great gusto to sail and party hard. For everyone who loves the sport of sailing, there is no better time or place to meet than at Rolex!”

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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