Tony Sanpere is one of the most winning skippers in the Caribbean. He's also one of those increasingly rare breed of sailors who brings to the start line a trio of talents: a wealth of sailing experience born out of the of the early days of Caribbean racing, a successful racing resume attained in the U.S. mainland's top yachting centers, Marblehead and Annapolis, and an uncanny ability to continue racking up the trophies and podium appearances at a number of regattas annually.
Born in Barcelona, Spain, Sanpere's family moved to Argentina when he was just an infant, and lived in Uruguay and Venezuela until Sanpere left at age 16 to attend boarding school in the U.S.
"My father competed in road races through the Andes," Sanpere says. "I think that's where my competitive spirit came from."
Sanpere's father and brother moved to St. Croix in 1966 and opened a car dealership. A few years later, following service in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and ten months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, Sanpere joined his family in the Caribbean.
"I remember my first time on a sailboat. It was a day sail to Buck Island. I thought it was fun," he says.
Sanpere moved to St. Thomas in 1970 and opened the Toyota dealership. His true passion for sailing started in earnest when he bought a Hobie 14, began sailing it regularly, and earned one of his first wins two years later at the St. Thomas Yacht Club's Midwinter Championships. He quickly moved on to other boats and a host of events. For example, he crewed with Jean Brauer on Brauer's Pearson 26 Mumu in the annual St. Thomas to St. Croix Memorial Day Regatta, with Lee Kelbert (the founder of the International Rolex Regatta), on Kelbert's Caviar, a Carter 37, and with Puerto Rico's Bob Moya on Moya's Morgan 27 Morning Star where they won the regatta. Sanpere credits Moya with teaching him to sail and sailed in several races with Moya out of Fajardo, Puerto Rico.
"There were only a few classes and it was all spinnaker racing, no cruising then," says Sanpere, speaking of those early regattas. "The parties were different too. For example, in St. Croix we'd all dock stern-to in Christiansted."
Sanpere headed north to college in the mid-1970s and not only sailed on the Boston University sailing team while majoring in mechanical engineering, but also raced Etchells, Solings, a Carter 39 and ultimately bought a Seidleman 30, hull number one, the first Cayenne, in which out of the 42 races he entered he won 38 first place trophies. Great night vision also enabled him to excel at distance races like Marblehead to Halifax.
In the 1980s he moved to Annapolis, sailing in a Hunter Legend, in such light air conditions that the local joke was that Annapolis Yacht Club's burgee was a postponement flag. Conditions were really blowing for one race, a 72-mile regatta that Sanpere and his crew finished in an amazing six hours on a Tripp 26. The event was captured in a T-shirt slogan that Sanpere's crew continues to wear today: I sailed with Sanpere and lived.
Cruising has played just as important a part in Sanpere's sailing life. He and his wife, Ellen, sailed back to the Caribbean in 1996 aboard their Hunter Legend 35, Cayenne II. They arrived just in time to compete in the Puerto Rico Heineken International Regatta that year, where Sanpere topped the Cruising Class, a feat he's repeated many times and in many events. When he decided to stop 'racing the house', Sanpere bought a Soverel 27 Cayennita and continued his winning streak on this vessel. Today, one of Sanpere's most impressive achievements in Caribbean sailing is to either have crewed or helmed nine Rolex Watch winning boats in the International Rolex Regatta. It's a bone of contention with him that Rolex no longer awards watches for Non-Spinnaker classes, but he wouldn't switch to another class and give up what he loves best. He has continued his winning ways on his 1981 J-36 Cayennita Grande, the Caribbean Ocean Racing Triangle's regatta and series among others.
"Windward-leewards are boring," he says, "I like to sail around the islands."
What is the secret to success in sailboat racing for Sanpere, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year?
"You have to sail smart," he says, "You have to keep the boat in a fine groove and play it each and every way."
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.