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Melges one-design regattas are growing in popularity. Photo: Joy Dunigan
Melges one-design regattas are growing in popularity. Photo: Joy Dunigan

One-Design vs. Handicap: What’s the Future of Caribbean Racing?

One-design classes appear to be on the increase at Caribbean regattas. Just look at the growing entries of J24s, IC24s and Melges 24s in the last decade, plus the availably of one-design fleets for charter like the Jeanneau 20s in St Maarten and SR 21s in Trinidad. More recently, there’s been a swell of visiting one-designs from the US and Europe such as the Melges 32s, RC44s and J70s.

Will one-designs dominate Caribbean racing in the future or will there always be a place for handicap competition?

All At Sea asked some of the region’s rock stars for their views.

“Caribbean one-design has been an up and down trend. Many years ago it was the J24. Then the J29 had six to eight boats in the early nineties. Now the IC24s and Melges are gaining popularity and numbers. It is simply a matter of when one class gets popular, and grows to a sufficient size, that regattas give them their own class,” explains St. Thomas’ Peter Holmberg. “Certain people prefer racing equal boats with no reliance on a rating system to determine the results. As the population grows more people sail and the chance of one-design classes grow.”

The obvious attraction of one-design racing is that the competition is amongst identical boats, hence the winner is decided mostly upon racing skills and sailing ability (obviously some local knowledge and luck also helps), says Trinidad’s Jeffrey Chen. “This eliminates excuses such as wrong conditions for the boat, my rating is unfavorable, my competition’s rating is too favorable, etc. The best racers win.”

Puerto Rico’s Jaime Torres adds, “One-design helps sailors raise their own skill level faster than any other type of sailing. The results of your trim and/or tactical choices are evident almost immediately in one-design fleets but not quite so with handicap races.”

Fleet racing brings together boats of all shapes and sizes racing under a handicap system. Photo: OceanMedia
Fleet racing brings together boats of all shapes and sizes racing under a handicap system. Photo: OceanMedia

In addition, says Antigua’s Bernie Wong, “One-design racing opens up the sport of competitive sailing to many more people than handicap racing. You don’t have to own a boat to participate, so it is not capital intensive. You just show up at an event race, have fun, and go home satisfied, no worrying about delivering boats to and from regattas, maintaining boats and buying new gear, etc.”

Yet handicap racing does suit the character of Caribbean racing, says Trinidad’s Chen. “You can arrive in the Caribbean with your boat, from a small family cruiser to a Grand Prix racing machine, and be able to travel from event to event amongst the different territories and be guaranteed that you will able to participate.”

Some sailors such as St. Croix’s Tony Sanpere find handicap racing more relaxing. “My latest racing machine is a 1976 Catalina 30. Does this explain what I rather do?”

Major offshore races such as the Caribbean 600 may only be suitable for offshore-capable race boats, notes Puerto Rico’s Torres. “Few of which have established one-design classes,” he adds.

The main advantage of handicap racing for Antigua’s Wong is the opportunity to do passages between the islands and visit other islands on the way. “The crews on most handicap yachts are larger than on one design yachts so it’s more sociable, the host countries benefit more from handicap racers as they have to rent accommodation, vehicles, buy boat parts, repairs, maintenance, etc.,” Wong says.

So, with this said, what will the future make-up of classes in Caribbean regattas look like?

St. Thomas’ Holmberg answers, “A bit of both, handicap and one-design, with one-design classes growing and fading, growing if a design becomes popular, and if sailing grows.”

Handicap sailing will always be here, says St. Maarten’s Frits Bus, an avid one-design sailor. “However, with more youth sailors coming out of one design sailing programs such as Optis and Lasers, I see the coming generations leading to the establishment of more one-design sailing.”

Finally, Puerto Rico’s Jaime Torres sums up what both one-design and handicap racing brings to Caribbean regattas. “Where we currently have a mix of one-design and handicap, the mix will continue. Where we don’t, like in St. Maarten or Antigua, one-design racing will arrive and stay, hopefully sooner rather than later. New keelboat one-design racing fleets will attract a new type of sailor to the area and will raise the profile of the events hosting them. But this will only happen if the will of event organizers is there because one-design fleets may have logistical requirements that can tax razor-thin regatta budgets. The St. Thomas Yacht Club has done a particularly great job of fostering one-design racing at their International Regatta. In Puerto Rico it went the other way. The Club Nautico de San Juan International Regatta added CSA racing to their hugely successful one-design regatta as a way of attracting a new group of sailors.”

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