The preliminary numbers are in, and they are impressive. The 27th annual St. Maarten Heineken Regatta begins this Thursday, and race officials have divided the 256 entrants into 20 preliminary classes that promise to deliver close, competitive racing across the entire fleet. “It’s all we could hope for,” said race chairman and co-founder Robbie Ferron, as he perused the entry list. “The numbers are there, which is great, but we’ve never been after volume, just quality. And we’re certainly getting that.”
The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta has always attracted terrific boats and world-class sailors, but it’s not every year that entrants get the opportunity to share a race course and swap tacks with not one, but two winners of ocean racing’s most coveted prize. But that will be the case with the 2007 Heineken, which has attracted the victor of the 2006 Volvo Ocean Race, New Zealand’s Mike “Moose” Sanderson, and his invincible Volvo 70, ABN AMRO ONE. Sanderson and his able crew will be assisted by another Volvo champion, American John Kostecki, who skippered illbruck to the winner’s circle in the 2002 round-the-world race.
Racing for all twenty St. Maarten Heineken divisions begins on Friday. This year, for the first time ever, there will also be competition on Thursday. “The top race boats wanted an extra day of racing, so we gave it to them,” said Ferron. “It was a bit of a risk, but 57 boats have entered that will sail in seven spinnaker classes, so it looks like a successful one.” The Thursday racing—for the Commodores Cup, sponsored by Budget Marine—will be scored as a separate regatta, and will not affect the overall standings. Ferron said that some boats will approach it as a practice day, while others will attack it as a competitive series in its own right.
When the starting guns sound on Friday, all 256 boats will be on the course vying for victory in their respective divisions. Among the top race boats are a pair of yachts that made history in the prestigious 2006 Newport-Bermuda Race, and will hope to replicate their winning ways in the blue waters of the Caribbean. A local entry, Lagoon Marina Synergy, a Frers 49 that once competed in the famed Admiral’s Cup, was a division winner in the Newport-Bermuda classic and was also honored with the inaugural Carleton Mitchell Finesterre Trophy as the yacht with the best corrected time in the Cruiser Division. For the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, the boat has been chartered to a team led by Paul Stoutenbeek, who will do their best to lead the pack in the 14-boat-strong Spinnaker 4 class.
In the Bigboats 2 class, local hero Randy West will once again be skippering the Carpenter 64, Van Ki Pass, aboard which he chased and found glory in the Newport-Bermuda Race, winning his class in the veteran yacht’s first offshore race after an extensive refit. With her varnished wood hull, Van Ki Pass can and does stand out in any fleet of racers. Another Bermuda veteran, Clay Deutsch aboard his well-sailed Swan 68, Chippewa, will be teeing it up against West and his mates in a fervent attempt to spoil their party, if that’s possible.
Along with the 7-boat Bigboats 1 class and the 9-boat Bigboats 2 division, there are 5 dedicated monohull classes—Spinnaker 3 through Spinnaker 7—of flat-out racers that will hoist their colorful, billowing spinnakers on the downwind legs. There are three divisions of multihulls, including two for racing and cruising catamarans and trimarans, and another for the swift, wild beach cats. An exhibition class is comprised of three former America’s Cup-contending 12-Meters, which always add a visual treat to the race course. There’s also a pair of non-spinnaker racing classes, which may not push the envelope like their spinnaker-flying brethren, but which are no less competitive.
The Open Class, which includes a wide range of entrants—from the J/29, Maxixe, sailed by Timothy Young, to the Beneteau 51, Goeie Mie, skippered by Ton Deegenaars—is one of the most unusual Heineken fleets, as it’s scored on a sliding rating scale that changes daily, depending on how well the yacht performs on a given day. The bulk of the fleet, however, will be scored by the venerable Caribbean Sailing Association (CSA) rating, a handicap system that specifically accounts for the tradewind conditions encountered in the islands.
As always, the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta includes a vast number of bareboat charter yachts, which attract a huge cross-section of sailors, from highly talented racers who approach the event with their competitive juices flowing, to more laid-back cruisers who enjoy a spin around the buoys before setting the anchor for the evening. There are six classes of bareboats this year comprised of 105 individual entries, many of whom come back to the event year after year.
Of course, for many people, the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta is as renowned for its shore-side parties as for the action on the water. On Thursday, March 1, the post-race party will be held at the Port De Plaisance Resort and will include music, samba, and a fashion show. On Friday, March 2, the venue will shift to the Boardwalk in Philipsburg, with music and entertainment in three separate areas. After point-to-point racing on Saturday, March 3, the post-race party will be staged on the Waterfront in Marigot. And the final prize giving will take place on Sunday afternoon on Kim Sha Beach, with reggae artists Damian Marley and Stephen Marley headlining the festivities.
The Heineken Regatta is about to begin. For scores of sailors, it can’t happen soon enough.