27th St. Maarten Heinken Regatta

After two years with disappointing wind conditions, the 27th St Maarten Heineken Regatta needed something special to sustain its status, but few could have predicted how rampant a vintage 2007 would be.

A buzz ran through this regatta, from the arrival of Volvo 70 ABN AMRO ONE and the first offshore big boat warm-ups, through Thursday’s new inshore Budget Marine Commodore’s Cup series, Friday’s Round the Island Race and the weekend legs between Simpson Bay and Marigot, right up to the prize giving where the wheel came full circle; the top trophy going to a boat that has been a Heineken participant since the regatta’s beginning.

In numbers, Heineken XXVII brought together 239 boats in 20 classes, of which over 100 were in the six Bareboat Classes, for four days of racing in 15-25 knot winds, with countless sub-plots. Would Puerto Rico’s Titan XII and Lazy Dog make it three victories in a row? How would St Maarten boats fare against rival crews from Antigua, Barbados, the BVI and other Caribbean islands? Would a canting keel Volvo 70 break the round the island record? Would the weather hold?   

Day One began with the Commodore’s Cup, an additional day’s racing sponsored by Budget Marine in which the 58 boats in the seven Spinnaker classes competed in a round-the-buoys series. As openers go, hauling down sails, grinding and leaping from rail to rail around a shorter course was a baptism of fire. Was there a danger of exhausting crews prematurely? According to Spinnaker 7 winner Ian Hope-Ross on Kick ‘em Jenny, not at all. “They [the crew] have the whole of Friday’s Round the Island to relax!”

In other classes, ABN AMRO took three straight bullets, while Titan XII was forced to withdraw from racing moments before the start with a broken headstay, postponing a much anticipated face-off.

When Friday arrived, it was with 18-20 knots of wind and clear blue skies. Simpson Bay duly burst into activity, a churning frenzy beneath looming big boat Kevlar, creaking and cracking in time to the calls of the bowmen. This was the moment that keeps crews coming back year after year, and one by one, classes hurtled across the line onto the course. Two hours, 49 minutes and 20 seconds later, ABN AMRO was back, having led Titan XII all the way and impossibly fast behind her asymmetric spinnaker. At the other end of the scale, the two fastest Beach Cats also both made it round in under three hours.

Saturday took the drama up a notch: 25 knots of wind testing crews and equipment to (and frequently beyond) the limit. Titan XII, Selene, and Highland Breeze each either burst a chute or lost a halyard, while two of the beach cats capsized (one dismasting) and there was a MOB in Spinnaker 6, instigating a rescue operation by Tony Maidment’s Budget Marine that would win him the Spirit & Style Award. In Spinnaker 5, J120 El Ocaso had the temerity to put the frighteners on Heineken Hall of Famer Lazy Dog, while a fascinating battle was developing in Spinnaker 7 between J109 Vrijgezeilig and Kick ‘em Jenny, whose skipper had been rushed to hospital with kidney stones. It would take a courageous return on Sunday, and some inspired sharing of renal medication with all crewmembers, to tip this duel Hope-Ross’s way in the end.

On Sunday, the race from Marigot back to Simpson Bay took place in more benevolent winds, but just as fierce competition. Not perhaps for ABN AMRO, which notched up a fifth straight victory in Big Boat 1, but definitely for 115’ Sojana in Big Boat 2, which nicked Chippewa, and for Spinnaker 3, where Noonmark pipped Les Crouch’s Storm. Elsewhere, El Ocaso completed victory in Spinnaker Five and Bernie Evans-Wong on Huey Too enjoyed a textbook race to close out the highly competitive Non-Spinnaker 2 with three bullets.

This last result was enough to win the Antiguan sailor, who has competed in all but one Heineken Regatta, the coveted ‘Most Worthy Performance Award’. At something like the 25th attempt, the win left Evans-Wong, “shellshocked”. He added: “It’s the same boat, the same sails, some of the same crew. I guess it’s just taken so long to get it all together. We learn something every time we race, even after 25 years of racing the same boat.”

There, in a nutshell, is why they come each year: for the chance to learn something new, while enjoying something familiar. For others, like ABN AMRO trimmer Sidney Gavignet, St Maarten was a memorable cameo in a worldwide blockbuster. “It was an enormous pleasure to be in St Maarten: the water is warm, the sailing conditions are incredible, and it’s a chance to show the boat to people who’ve seen it in magazines or on video,” he said.

In keeping with the excellent organization that underpins this regatta, more photos and video are available on www.heinekenregatta.com. The 28th edition will run from March 6 to 9, 2008. This year’s regatta, however, is going to be extremely hard to top.

Nick Marshall is an English journalist who was consultant editor of All At Sea from 2003 to 2005.

Multihull 1: Nils Erickson, Soma, (St John)
Multihull 2: Jean Allaire, No Limits, (SXM)

Bareboat 1: Irek Zubko, Guilt, (Poland/Canada)
Bareboat 2: Rene Baartmans, Harten Heer (NED) (Won Overall Bareboat Columbus Cup)
Bareboat 3: Jeffrey Sochrin, Team Goldendog (US)
Bareboat 4: David Saeys, Papillon, (Belgium)
Bareboat 5: Robert Thole, Amsterdam (Ned)
Bareboat 6: John Pinheiro, Scooby Too (Azores)

Non-Spinnaker 1: 3 Haarkems, (BVI)
Non-Spinnaker 2: Bernie Evan-Wong, Huey Too (ANT)

Spinnaker 1: ABN AMRO, Mike Sanderson (NZL)
Spinnaker 2: Sojana, Peter Harrison (UK)
Spinnaker 3: Noonmark VI, Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy (UK)
Spinnaker 4: Sailplane, Robert Bottomley (UK)
Spinnaker 5: El Ocaso, Rick Wesslund (US)
Spinnaker 6: Bruggadung, Paul Johnson (Bar)
Spinnaker 7: Kick ‘em Jenny, Ian Hope-Ross (SXM)

Beach Cats: Snickers-Dell-Quiksilver, Pascal Marchais (GDP)

Open: Infinito, Jorge Lopes, (Portugal).