The 2014 St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, the Caribbean’s largest annual yacht-racing affair, was this year also one of the most competitive editions in the event’s long, 34-year history. In roughly half of the fleet’s 20 separate classes, nothing was decided until the last race on the regatta’s final day, which was conducted in uncharacteristically light, shifty, maddening winds. When all was said and done, the boats and crews that mastered those fluky breezes were deserving champions.
The biggest winners in the 211-boat field couldn’t have been more different. On one hand, there was the veteran team from Florida aboard Richard Wesslund’s J/122, El Ocaso, which won the regatta’s biggest division, the 18-boat CSA 4 class, and in so doing was also honored for the event’s Most Worthy Performance Overall. For Wesslund, this was familiar territory, as El Ocaso received the same prize in the 2012 St. Maarten Heineken Regatta.
On the flip side, the other top boat was a huge surprise. In the last two Heinekens, thanks to the St. Maarten Sailing School and the St. Maarten Yacht Club, several crews of local youth sailors have participated in the event and proved to be skillful competitors. Even so, nobody expected them to threaten older, more experienced sailors. But in CSA 9, not only did the St. Maarten Yacht Club Youth Sailing Team, sailing a Beneteau First Class 10, challenge the status quo: They defeated it by winning their class.
It was a remarkable victory, and for their efforts, the team was presented with the St. Maarten Local Youth Challenge Cup, presented by the island’s Marine Trades Association, which aims to provide more opportunities in sailing for the local community. It’s a tremendous goal that, judging from the performance of the island kids, is clearly working.
As always, the three-day regatta was conducted over the first long weekend of March. On the Thursday before the main event began, as it has for the last several years, the festivities were kicked off by the Gill Commodore’s Cup, a tune-up practice series for flat-out spinnaker-division boats sponsored by Gill North America, the regatta’s official technical-gear supplier. A record fleet of 50 yachts took part in the day’s racing, and many crews took advantage of the steady easterly trade winds to shake off the rust after a season’s break away from the racecourse.
Then, on Friday March 7, the entire fleet convened on two racing circles south of Simpson Bay for the first official race of the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, the traditional opening, clockwise round-the-island contest. In sweet 14-18 knot easterlies, conditions were perfect, and the yacht that made the most of them was the Volvo 70 Monster Project, a state-of-the-art round-the-world sled skippered by U.K. sailor Andy Budgen. Had Budgen’s team, at times topping boat speeds of over 20 knots, not missed a turning mark off Tintamarre, off the island’s northeast coast, and had to turn around, they probably would’ve beaten the course record for monohulls set by another Volvo 70, ABN AMRO ONE, in the 2007 Heineken. As it was, their time of 2h 57m 13s was just seven- minutes slower.
On Day 2 – Saturday the 8th – the competitors were once again treated to ideal conditions for what, for most classes, was a pair of races: a closed-course round-the-buoys race and a point-to-point distance contest from Simpson Bay to Marigot, on the island’s French side. No regatta in the Caribbean boasts more bareboat charter boats or sleek, sporty multihulls, and both fleets were showcased on the second day of action. Particularly impressive were Nils Erickson’s Formula 40 cat, Soma, and the entire five-boat Gunboat division, the powerful racer/cruiser catamarans that are, literally and figuratively, in a class of their own. Elvis, a Gunboat 62, and Soma won their single races on Saturday, en route to undefeated records in the Multihull 1 and Multihull 2 classes. Both well-sailed cats were the champions in their respective divisions.
But there were plenty of open-ended questions about which boats would rise to the top on Day 3, all to be answered on the final race for all classes from Marigot to Simpson Bay. It was a squally, challenging day for all the sailors, with plenty of windless holes dotting the racecourse. However, as so often happens in yacht racing, the top boats found breeze when their competitors couldn’t and capitalized by making the most of the testing conditions.
The marquee classes, CSA 1 and CSA 2, put on grand shows. In CSA 1, for grand-prix racers, Irvine Laidlaw’s pretty blue Highland Fling XII, with legendary Virgin Islands sailor Peter Holmberg onboard and calling tactics, held off a late charge by William Coates’s Ker 43, Otra Vez, to win the class by a single point. CSA 2 was the most jaw-dropping division of them all, a class that included the regal Swan 100, Varsovie, and British industrialist Sir Frank Chapman’s stunning Oyster 885, Clare. But neither superyacht was a match for Youri Loof’s handsome Swan 82FD, Alpina.