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The Burden of History at Antigua Sailing Week 2011

Easter Sunday and the morning sun crests over Shirley Heights on Antigua's south coast. Later in the week this erstwhile military bastion will be the scene of carousing worthy of its two centuries' of tradition. Today it offers a vista of boats and sailors girding for battle.

In English Harbour lines are checked, sails are inspected, and crews work themselves into a state of bloodlust. They will soon go forth to do battle, reining in their steeds at the start line: Swans and Farrs, Frers and J-Boats, Olympic racers and newbies. Thirteen classes, five days of racing, courses spreading out from the south of Antigua – some like the path of a sidewinder snake, others, simple windward/leeward triangles.

The boats cast off, leaving a seawall where Nelson himself once paced.

Some Caribbean regattas are just fun. Some are serious fun. At Antigua Sailing Week you feel the weight of tradition on your shoulders; you sense it right down to the soles of your Topsiders, and you wonder if the crews feel it too.

"Grand-daddy of Caribbean regattas," says race photographer Ed Gifford. "This is the one."

Longest-running of the big ones – April's festivities marked the 44th birthday of this spectacular sailing event.

Antigua is also the venue for the Nelson Pursuit Race, held every New Year's Eve. Here, the slowest boat in the race is handed a French Flag while all the other yachts carry a British Ensign to symbolise the pursuit of the French fleet by Admiral Nelson across the Atlantic to the West Indies and back again.

You would have to be a rock or a land-lubber to be immune to the burden of history at Antigua Sailing Week.

On Sunday the racers joined battle, but with the hesitation of early skirmishes. By Monday morning the fleet had been bloodied.

Winds had strengthened to 18 or so knots and seas had started getting lumpy as the races got underway off Rendezvous Beach just southwest of Falmouth Harbour.

"Really tough course," says Annie O'Sullivan, skipper of the team Girls for Sail.

Race Week is both battlefield spectacle and panoply of pomp and beauty. The sun paints the waters pewter. Whitecaps hiss. The fleet turns to windward and marches toward you with all the majesty of the Spanish Armada. One spinnaker sports the flag of Antigua. With green undulating shores to the north, voluptuous mountains dotted with pastel-painted villas, and a procession of sails: This is no mere race.

The yacht sporting the Antiguan flag on its spinnaker belongs to local hero Sir Hugh Bailey, who won everything in the Cruising Class in 2010 on his First 456 Hugo B. This year he's waging war with another local favourite, Carlo Falcone, on a one-off named Caccia alla Volpe. Falcone handily beats Bailey to the mark. It could be all over. But in the afternoon Falcone takes a start penalty, so maybe not. Then Hugo B retires from the first race on Tuesday and doesn't start in the second.

Back on the course, Tom and Dotty Hill's Reichel Pugh 75 Titan and Genuine Risk battle for supremacy, matching tack for tack, thrust and parry, appallingly close to a wave-lashed shoal, off Carlisle Bay.

"This is always a great week," says Antiguan Karl James, crew on Peter Harrison's Farr 112 Sojana and a two-time Olympic competitor. He adds, "As long as things don't break."

On Monday night Titan catches fire and burns beyond repair. No one is injured but sadness at the loss of one of the Caribbean's best-loved race-boats hangs over the fleet.

As ever, history marches on. To the victor go the spoils and the spoils include a bevy of bacchanals: Mass quantities of Chivas at the Skippers' Cocktail Party. Maxi Priest pumping out a medley of Reggae tunes while racers and spectators stand on the ancient parade ground. A Jolly Harbour Jump-up.

For all the carousing, you still feel the pressure of expectations, a sense of responsibility as you share in the tradition of the Queen of Caribbean regattas. You feel the burden of history.

Or maybe it's just the Chivas.

Mark Stevens is an award-winning travel writer whose specialties include Canada, the Caribbean and boating. Credits range from Sailing magazine and Canadian Yachting to the Washington Post.

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