This month’s St Maarten Heineken Regatta will mark the end of an era, when Mirian Ebbers bids farewell after eight years as Regatta Director. While the straight-talking Dutch ‘decider’ has always been good for a quote, the chance to catch her for one last interview was more than St Maarten-centric back-slapping; the effects of her experience at the helm of the Caribbean’s biggest regatta extend throughout regional sailing.
Ebbers took charge of the Heineken in 2000, and has seen boat numbers rise steadily to a current level of around 250 entries. “I think that the regatta has a record of being very professional,” she says. “That helps us to keep the numbers steady whereas other regattas in the Caribbean have dropped substantially.” In those years, the big boats have kept on coming: Playstation in 2003, Pyewacket and Morning Glory in 2004 and ABN AMRO ONE this year.
Off the water, the legendary prize giving has been followed by performances from Black Eyed Peas, Jimmy Cliff, Pure Bandido and Damian & Stephen Marley. “For my first regatta, in 1997, I was in charge of the events committee,” remembers Ebbers. “In those days we built the stages from marine plywood and it took me about a month!”
Once in the hotseat, Ebbers put her stamp on the Heineken. “One of the things I did was to change the Round the Island Race from Sunday to Friday. There was a lot of skepticism that it would work because it’s the longest race. We gave crews hell on Friday but then on Sunday they have a nice race and earlier finish. It meant we could do prize giving at 6 p.m. and crews could have dinner afterwards.”
Ebbers does not come from a sailing background. “I learnt everything from scratch. I knew nothing. Learning all the racing rules was a challenge I took up with a lot of interest and enthusiasm. Nobody likes reading the rules!” However, as well as becoming involved with three other events: the St Maarten-St Martin Classic Yacht Regatta, the Anguilla Mix-Up, and the Course de l’Alliance, Ebbers has since honed her own sailing skills. So much so, that her next step post-Heineken will be to head to the Med to work a season ‘doing anything’ on a yacht.
“My company is hired by the Yacht Club to run the regatta,” she explains, “but I don’t need to be physically there. I made a really tough decision that I would leave. Now is the time. I see that my enthusiasm becomes lower and I don’t do things any more with the 110% that I used to and if you know that from yourself, it’s time to leave. I’m a very strong believer that although people staying on gives a lot of continuity, new people have fresh ideas and could possibly take the regatta to a better level.”
Ebbers, along with Judy Petz in the BVI, is one of a group of modern women who organize so many of the events that make up the Caribbean calendar. In fact, the spirit of Salacia, goddess of the sea, runs strong in SXM, where the Charter Yacht Exhibition (SCYE) was also launched by four women. “Women are certainly becoming more powerful,” says Ebbers. “It still is a man’s world – it’s a fact. Look at the Heineken: 80 per cent of participants are male. But I do think women have certain characteristics that make us better organizers.”
Gender aside, Ebbers leaves some big shoes to fill for her successor, Heather Tackling. In Caribbean sailing terms, eight years is a full stretch in which a big regatta can either become great, or small. As if proof were needed of which way the Heineken has gone since 2000, the last word goes to Olympic and America’s Cup judge John Doerr, who Ebbers credits with giving the nicest compliment during her time in charge: “He said, ‘you should do this professionally because this is the best-run regatta I’ve seen’”.