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Yacht Racing and Character Building

The older I get, the more my memory fades and the more my conscience clears. I remember the late 70s, and the 80s and 90s in the Caribbean as … oops! Let's start again, more accurately this time.

What little I remember of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in the Caribbean is pure regatta madness. Picture watching the America's Cup through a psychedelic kaleidoscope – that's my entire recollection. I think of my well-spent (versus misspent) youth in the West Indies as one long, incredibly decadent, somewhat-confusing yacht race. This has stuck with me my entire life. Even when I'm in a war-zone and hear a gun go off, I think, "Am I on starboard? Did we just win our class?"

Most major Caribbean regattas last three days. In between were the local 'serious' yacht club races on Saturday, and the 'fun' cruising events on Sunday. Thus, basically, I'd revisit my wife and daughter on Wednesdays to drop off the laundry and pick up more aspirin.

Work, I found, hurt boat-speed. So I didn't bother. I figured, hey, if the guy who owns the boat has a job, isn't that enough? Why should I worry about pennies when he carried around sacks of gold to pay my bar tab? YAHOO!

"… is there more to life than this?" I'd query my racing buddies like Steve-O, Thatcher, Scooter, the Pirate Queen, and Monkey Bill.

"… we don't think so!" they'd chant back. "… what we lack in intelligence, we more than make up for in boat speed. We're a drinking crew, with a sailing problem. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. I'd rather have bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy … Let's have BECKFAST!"

Let's face it; yacht racers run on heavy fuel. How many bottles of Mount Gay does it take to get a maxi around the race course during Antigua Sailing Week? Answer: plenty. Ditto, the Sint Maarten Heineken Regatta. Lots of greenies required there. I once walked into a liver-transplant office, saw a sea of Rolex Cup Regatta T-shirts, and knew about 90 per cent of the applicants.

"… remember that time you leapt over the bar at Foxy's and wrestled Sunfish Charlie of St. John to the ground?" the closest fellow asked me. "I do indeed," I replied bashfully. "But in my own defense, I must say I eventually sweet-talked him back into Cindy's arms … only it took a few more regattas to accomplish! And we did have to remind him a few times he was still married."

I did every Foxy's Wooden Boat race for a decade or two. I sailed on such legendary boats are Bounty, Penelope, Liberty, Johanna, Hirondelle, Stormy Weather, Rob Roy, Sirocco, and a dozen others. (I never sailed on Robin Tattersall's Galatea, one of the few regrets of my Caribbean racing career.)

It was great fun. The older the boat and the older the skipper, the more certain I could be that both were riddled with rot. The parties at the Tamarind Inn were world class; I remember fire-breathing Mary carrying me rudely onto the dance floor and clearing us a space by shooting a twenty foot long flame from her mouth. (Alas, she died soon after – which was hardly a surprise to any of her dance partners.)

Once I helped out the embryonic West End Yacht Club on the committee boat. We were a tad late gathering our, er … 'regatta supplies' shall we say, and zoomed out via inflatable to the committee boat just four minutes before the scheduled start. Bill Coffman handed the air horn to somebody with a red frizzy Afro and wildly dilated eyes. Bill shouted at him, "… blow this when I tell ya!"

The guy's eyes were really spinning around like marbles at this point, and he acted as if he'd never seen anything like the air horn. He held it away from his body and grimaced as if it were a dead baby. "How do I know it works?" he asked. We were too busy setting up our bar to respond. So he raised it above his head and tested it. The horn went off, loudly. There was a mighty collective curse from the fleet, sheets were frantically tightened, and the entire fleet was away, while we looked on in dumb shock.

Finally, I gathered my wits enough to happily slap the guy on the back and say, "Excellent job! Can I buy you a drink?"

Strangely, the St. Thomas Yacht Club's Rolex was the only regatta I didn't sail in each year. Instead, I covered it live-on-the-water for WVWI Radio One. This required all my bulls#&tting abilities, plus some. I'd be sitting in a speedboat during a windless start amid a fleet of barely-slatting sailboats, and we'd go 'live' five seconds before the start so our radio listening audience could actually hear the gun. Then I'd immediately start screaming into the microphone, "We've got a perfect start for the 10th annual STYC's Rolex Cup Regatta. LOTSA action on the race course! Carlos Falcone on Caccia alla Volpe managed to just sneak in between Tom Hill's Titan and the committee boat! Ernesto on Alligator has tacked away from the other members of the J/29 crunch-bunch … there goes Henry Menin on Magnum VI as well! Mike Williams follows! LOTSA ACTION. … There's Peter Holmberg aboard the tiny Metalmast 30 … BEAUTIFUL TACK by the Holmberg brothers! Rudy Thompson on Cold Beer has taken a flyer out towards St. John, and Fifties Girl and Elenazer's Tavern are locked in a tight tacking duel … PLENTY OF ACTION here live-on-the-water at the ROLEX!"

… meanwhile, the bored crews of all the stationary boats would be watching with disgust plainly visible on their dismayed faces. (The only reason I could successfully broadcast yacht racing for a decade or two without being fired for incompetency is because the racers aren't listening and the people who weren't racers had changed stations long ago … PERFECT!)

It is much easier to make paint drying and/or grass growing sound audio-interesting than yacht racing. Still, I gave it my all.

One radio listener (who probably wasn't smart enough to change stations) said to me later, "I didn't have the foggiest idea what you were screaming about, Fatty – but it was kinda interesting waiting to see if you'd have a heart attack or an orgasm!"

I've shied away from gainful employment ever since.

For a long time, Antigua Sailing Week was my favorite event. They used to have a jolly-good cross-dressing show as a major draw – which was the sole reason many of the British boats sailed across the Pond to attend. (Of course, I realize it is no longer PC to point out that Brits love to cross-dress; but, by Jove, I've sailed with limey skippers who had a grass skirt and coconut bra in their life raft supplies, for gosh sakes!)

Joel Byerley was always the expansive Master of Ceremonies at the Admiral's Inn awards ceremony. He was my media hero. I figured if he could make such a public fool of himself, why should I be shy?

Oh, the Copa Velasco used to be a strange trip. We'd go to Puerto Rico and watch the marks drift around for three days – and then return home. If you didn't get mugged, you won.

Oh, there were some wonderful characters back-in-the-day. For more than twenty years, I annually asked John Nichols, race committee chairman of the STYC, for an exciting quote for SAIL magazine and he'd s-l-o-w-l-y, solemnly say, "… read your race instructions."

I assume this is engraved on his tombstone. (To his credit, those races would always go off flawlessly … even during a nuclear attack! Yes, John was focused!)

St. John always specialized in wacko races. Their rapidly-expanding You-Gotta-Gotta-Regatta was canceled after its second year because the few boats which didn't collide … sank on the beach of Great Cruz later in the afternoon. Plus, their main prize wasn't a traditional cup but rather a large bowl … a gold-leafed toilet bowl, actually. Winners were announced in advance, in hopes of cutting down on cheating. (They found this highly ineffectual. Cheating was, by unspoken agreement, virtually required.) The race instructions allowed water cannons, and the tossing of both vegetables and 'small children' during the event. At one point, the committee boat had 64 naked people on it. Forty-two vessels started the race, and about four were never seen again. Later, the regatta T-shirts were extremely popular at Betty Ford's clinic. It is estimated that 53 marriages washed up on the rocks in between the starting gun and the following dawn. Three children were conceived, but nobody remembers who they were (even their parents). There were a lot of classes: I won in both 'naked journalist' class and 'Ferro-cement' class*. (*We didn't have sophisticated GPS units back in those days, and thus it was difficult to tell if most of the ferro-cement boats racing where actually moving or not. One seemed to be inching a bit closer to shore but we couldn't determine if that was, like, continent drift?)

The Coral Bay Yacht Club was a bit strange too. Their fleet consisted mostly of Cowhorns – which were fairly hot racing boats in the early 1800s. I once asked their moral compass, a fellow named Fletcher Pitts, why the race went around the Indians and Le Duck.

He was holding his breath and squinting wisely as he answered me in a high pitched tone-of-voice, "Because, Fatty," he said with a sly smile, "those race course marks won't come unanchored!"

I knew right then it was useless to argue with Coral Bay logic. Or, whatever.

Once I returned to my Great Cruz Bay home after a major regatta and major regatta party. It was late, it was dark, and I was having trouble spotting my black-hulled boat. Finally, I hit something I couldn't see. My wife came out and shined a flashlight on me. Then, she slowly panned the flashlight around my entire dinghy. Finally she said, "You're naked, Fatty. You have no clothes on. And there are no clothes in the dinghy, either."

I looked down at myself. She was right. I'd have to think of something clever, fast. "… I was robbed!" I blurted. (Okay; not my finest moment.)

The Hennie (Sint Maarten's Heineken regatta) ultimately became my favorite regatta. It's motto of 'Serious Fun' seemed to sum up the Caribbean in just two silly words. Who cared if, during all that yacht racing, I never learn how to make a boat go fast. That wasn't the point. I won a number of the parties, and I'm still proud of that. And I made friends who have lasted a lifetime.

Mostly what I gained during those decades of yacht racing was an attitude. Sure, it's okay to be serious, as long as you're having fun. And, even better, you can be serious about having fun. The Thai's call this Sanuk. I call it common sense, and a nice concept to live by. Jimmy Buffett says it a tad differently. "Life's a tire-swing." Exactly.

Editor's note: Fatty and Carolyn are still in the Med, making it a slightly less desirable cruising destination.

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises the throughout the world. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon by American Paradise Publishing, Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies, The Collected Fat, All At Sea Yarns and Red Sea Run. For details of Fatty's books and more, visit fattygoodlander.com

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