The handful of regattas which are older than many of their young competitors command a special affection. In the case of the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, there was also something to celebrate: a 30th anniversary year that assembled 237 boats in 20 classes for some tough, eclectic sailing.
Organizers kept with the popular format of previewing the big three days with two warm-up events – the Budget Marine match racing championship and the Gill Commodore's Cup – and closing out the regatta with a beachfront concert after prize giving, this year from Maxi Priest. From America's Cup "rock stars" to Caribbean reggae, this format hits all the right notes.
The Budget Marine Match Racing Cup on Tuesday, March 2 put eight formidable sailors in a fleet of one-design Jeanneau Sunfast 20s on a course near the yacht club. With the winds on the lagoon predictably unpredictable, it was a chance for America's Cup/Olympic veterans such as Peter Holmberg, Peter Isler and Gavin Brady (among others) to go 'mano a mano' on the kind of scale where it all began. On this occasion, as in 2009, Holmberg took first place and the $5,000 first prize.
The Sixth Gill Commodore's Cup, a tune-up on Wednesday, March 3 involving short windward/leeward courses attracted 47 entries across four classes and was won by Calvin Reed's Elandra, a Beneteau 40.7 from Racing B class, one of five other 40.7s. The winner for the cup is the one that, according to judges, wins most decisively in the most competitive class.
The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta proper was unleashed on Friday, March 5. If the hot and sluggish conditions didn't already have spectators/crews panting, the magnificent annual sight of some two hundred yachts writhing around the waters off Simpson Bay is always breathtaking. Packs of bareboats here, some 99 in total, dwarfed by the prowling, strutting racing boats in the Spinnaker classes; a symphony of cracking sails, creaking sheets and controlled but tense calls.
All the buzz this year would be about Irvine Laidlaw's fearsome-looking Wally 82 Highland Fling, black and grey but flying a Spinnaker adorned with a thistle; Tom Hill's new Reichel/Pugh 75 Titan 15, a sleek, stripped, light racer; and George David's Reichel/Pugh 90 Rambler. The beauty of the Heineken, though, and to some extent what it has always really been about, is the myriad of sub-plots that unravel away from the headline acts: the three-way battle in Spinnaker 3 between Peake Yacht Services, Oystercatcher XXVI from the UK and Blackberry Enzyme; the face-off of the four Melges 32 in Spinnaker 7; the epic tussle between Kick 'em Jenny, Pocket Rocket and Luxury Girl in 21-strong Spinnaker 6. These classes revisit rivalries that have run for years.
With winds light and from the south, Friday's Round the Island Race was free from any major dramatic equipment failures and collisions. A total of 19 boats were unable to finish (six in the Open Class), with many taking over six hours to complete the 32nm course. The lightweight racing boats of Spinnaker 1 took roughly three hours: Rambler the first over the line in 2:59:05, but second on handicap to Titan 15, who was able to power away from Highland Fling on the downwind stretch. In Spinnaker 5 two boats were caught OCS, including Jamie Dobbs' Lost Horizon, an uncharacteristically bad start to a regatta that would finish with three superb bullets on Saturday/Sunday. Non-Spinnaker 1 proved to be a cumbersome affair; Sir Bobby Velasquez's L'Esperance first round in 6:12:14, but six of the 17 boats taking over seven hours.
Saturday's racing from Simpson Bay to Marigot threw up a fresh scenario: breezy, lively conditions in which the Spinnaker classes sailed three short courses in the day, with everyone else relaxing after Friday's exertions with a single race. For the Spinnaker classes, then, it's all about Saturday. Titan 15 proved to have the more efficient unit, winning the morning's two races and always a threat downwind. In the second race, Highland Fling, who had suffered a broken halyard in race one, and Rambler found themselves tied on corrected time and separated by just 30 seconds on elapsed time – a frustrating occurrence for the Wally who would have been aching to beat the clock.
In Spinnaker 3 Blackberry Enzyme took the first two, but by the end of the day's racing only one point separated the top three. In Bareboat 6, KH+P-Let Me Go capitalized on an inspiring Round the Island win to secure the second of three straight wins. Pushed hard all the way, this performance rightly won the coveted "Columbus Cup" for best bareboat.
Sunday produced yet another set of conditions: wet and breezy with scattered squalls. All eyes back to Spinnaker 3 for one final winner-takes-all showdown that quickly developed into a two-horse race as Oystercatcher and Peake pulled away from the fleet. The former would take line honors and the win on corrected time, but this class was one by a minute. Non Spinnaker 1 also required a score to be settled: Rapajam choosing the final race to post a win, and hand overall victory to third-place Safara in the process.
Spinnaker 6 ultimately went to Luxury Girl. Ian Hope Ross, skipper of second place Kick 'em Jenny remained sanguine. "It was a very tight group but the boat that beat us was really well sailed," he said. "We've raced against them many times before. They had the edge on us every time downwind." Overall he decided, "This was an excellent regatta. The tightness of the racing. There are just seconds between first and eighth."
The final race over, sails furled, Heinekens popping, the scoreboards were thronging with tanned, long-voweled Southern Caribbean campaigners, sunburnt skippers more used to weekends on the Solent, big bawdy Dutch crews in fluorescent polos and the odd sighting of a Hall of Famer. This moment as much as any start line split-second is part of the magic of the Heineken, when professional sailors with a roster of epic campaigns behind them rub shoulders with weekend romantics and first-time ringers.
A typical story was told by the skipper of Acele Et, a crew from a northern Germany more used to sailing on a lake. In their first Heineken, they walked away with first place in Bareboat 1. Having previously sailed at Antigua Sailing Week, they were smitten with St. Maarten. "It is more competitive," came their verdict.
At the awards ceremony on Kim Sha beach, Titan 15 rightly won the most Worthy Performance Overall, the regatta's Holy Grail. A succession of other crews from as far and wide as Russia added showers of champagne to the falling drizzle, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the assembled spectators who had enjoyed a long weekend of impeccably organized, tough racing.
Credit as always must go to race director Heather Tackling and SMYC Commodore Robbie Ferron whose blend of technical excellence and infectious enthusiasm are largely responsible for bringing the boats here in the first place.
"In 30 years, we've created tremendous friendship in the Caribbean and beyond; we've created a camaraderie in these wonderful waters. It's been a wonderful 30 years," said Ferron.
As Olympic sailor Robbie Haines later commented on Yachtblast, this was "the best regatta I've ever sailed in … the best regatta in the world."
Nick Marshall is an English journalist living on St. Maarten who was consultant editor of All At Sea from 2003 to 2005.