The modest length of St. Maarten’s coastline has always made the island ripe for a rounding, whether the vessel was a “gentleman smuggler” in the golden age of “provisioning,” or the canting keel flamboyance of Pyewacket in the Heineken Regatta.
We had to wait until September 2009, however, before a sailor thought of circling the island in an Optimist. Step forward 13-year-old Rhône Findlay. At an age when most young men’s greatest daily achievement is consuming titanic amounts of carbohydrates and reaching the further levels of World of Warcraft, Rhône’s vision was set firmly on not going down like the Titanic on his craft, against a familiar horizon, with the challenge of keeping it to port before exhaustion, weather or equipment failure took the ascendancy.
At 5.30 a.m. on September 20, Team Findlay, including dad and local sailor Ton Hooijmans, assembled at the St. Maarten Yacht Club. Conditions were favorable for making history; southeasterly winds, 12 to 14 knots, benevolent skies. Quite a lot of darkness.
With Dad and Ton accompanying Rhône’s Optimist by RIB, the hardy 13-year-old crossed beneath the Simpson Bay Bridge, checked his rig one last time, and headed west out of Simpson Bay toward the French Side.
Moments such as this demand Kipling’s famous lines from If: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!” Today, a boy would set off round St. Maarten, but a man would return.
Sailing was smooth until the notoriously choppy waters of the Anguilla channel. Rhône, however, was unfazed. “I just decided to go out to sea; there’s a lot less current there. I didn’t capsize once.” The old adage that those who fail to prepare prepare to fail was showing true. Rhône had already done some test runs between Simpson Bay and Marigot, and knew how his dinghy would handle. He’d also recently rounded the island in a Beneteau Bareboat in the Heineken, so knew what conditions to expect.
Nine hours, 15 minutes later, the youngest person to sail solo round St. Maarten, and the first to do so in an Optimist, returned to the yacht club at Simpson Bay. Most surprisingly, his spirits and condition were bafflingly chipper.
“My legs were tired,” he explains, “but I’m used to nine hours sailing in regattas where you have lunch on the water and are out there from 8 to 5 with continuous racing. They’re all far out to sea.”
It should perhaps be explained here that Rhône is no ordinary daredevil. In local circles, where for example he won six out of seven races in the 2008 SXM Opti Championships, he’s something of a legend. Born in South Africa, moving to Switzerland, and settling in St. Maarten five years ago, Rhône confesses to becoming serious about sailing last year, having taken up sailing three and a half years ago. Quietly spoken, unfailingly polite, modest and unassuming, Rhône has that steely confidence that hints at great things to come. “I learnt that I could achieve what I wanted to do,” he says, explaining the reason for his challenge.
With unfailing support from his parents, and high-level training from SMYC youth instructor Maaike van Mameren, who started as an instructor at the Yacht Club in February 2009, Rhône could well be set to batter the Leeward Islands. Not least because of his character. With an increasing number of young adolescents aiming to cross, circumnavigate or traverse the globe by solo sail, it’s refreshing to cross paths for a moment with a young sportsman whose motivation was refreshingly simple: What better way to spend a Sunday?
Nick Marshall is an English journalist living on St. Maarten who was consultant editor of All At Sea from 2003 to 2005.
RHONE’S RACING CAREER TO DATE
Scotiabank International, St. Thomas, 2008 – 65th.
Volvo Musto British and Open Optimist Championships, Wales, 2008 – 79th
Volvo Swiss Open Optimist Championship, Geneva, 2008 – 60th
St. Maarten Optimist Regatta, 2008 – 1st
Scotiabank International, Miami, 2008 – 52nd
Anguilla Dinghy Regatta, 2009 – 1st
St. Lucia Mango Bowl, 2009 – 2nd
Scotiabank International, St. Thomas, 2009 – 30th
Barbados CDC, 2009 – 2nd