The racing sloops of Anguilla carry only what they need to win: ballast, fresh water, buckets, bailer and a crew of hard men. I might not be hard but as ballast I fit right in!
Racing sloops start from the beach where they are secured by a warp to the ashore and a line to an anchor astern. At the gun, bowlines are slipped and the crew hauls the boat around. All the boats must turn away from the beach in the same direction.
This was my second race onboard UFO, and I was made welcome. On my first race, I was not: they took one look at my sunken chest and pushed me down into the bilge amongst the sandbags. From this lowly position, I learned two things: there are people who have worse toenail fungus than me, and the method used to construct an Anguillian sloop borders on genius.
UFO is built of plywood and epoxy. Her timbers are tortured into the most beautiful shape, then filled and fared to perfection. The hull is empty but for bags of sand and three lead pigs. She is driven by a huge, un-reefable mainsail and a tiny jib, plus the collective will of 15 men who heartily confirmed that should they need to dump ballast, then I would be the first to go.
At the signal all 14 boats turned away from the shore, peeling off one by one like fighter planes. To begin with things were quite relaxed as we ran downwind between the anchored yachts. This gave me a chance to lean more about the sloops.
The rules of building, like the race itself, are flexible. UFO is a class ‘A’ sloop and may carry any size of mainsail on any length of mast or boom. But restrictions apply to the length of hull; they must not exceed 28ft LOA or carry external ballast. They may, however, be of any depth or width of beam.
UFO was recently painted, as was evident from the smears on my shorts. I had been allocated a position in the boat and was expected to maintain that position, port or starboard, depending on the tack. Already my tailbone was severely bruised from a floor timber that fit perfectly between the cheeks of my ass.
Rounding the first mark we hardened up onto the wind; time now to experience the raw, gut-wrenching beauty of racing aboard these wonderful boats. Tacking called for coordination without hesitation. On command the tiller went down and the boat luffed. Together we heaved ourselves across the boat with only seconds to man the rail before she flipped and went down. As she paid-off, the lead pigs were dragged across and lifted into place behind the bilge stringer. Fingers and toes bore the brunt of any mistakes. After three tacks I was making no mistakes.
With no port and starboard rule the sloops are not for the faint hearted. As our boom sliced the air just inches from another’s forestay, our captain shouted, “Show no fear men. Show no fear.” I almost laughed, but looking at the faces around me told me that of all the commands given, this was probably the most serious of all.
Going to windward, a team of three ran UFO. One man called the wind shifts, never faltering and always right. Amidships the tactician watched the opposition and when necessary, drove the crew, something he did mercilessly. At his command, the eight men on the rail hiked out until their heads skimmed the water. They did this without hesitation, only staying in the boat by jamming their bare feet under a thin canvas strap held in place by a dubious knot. The swaggering energy of the crew was ultimately channeled aft, where our captain, ‘Mumba’ Webster, swung the tiller.
The captain was a study in concentration, and I‘m not the first to remark that the helmsman, who cannot see over the bow, often seems to be in a trance. Having seen it myself, I now believe that nowhere does such a bond exist as between the men of Anguilla, their boats and the sea.
Rounding the second mark the leading boat began leaving a silver cloud in its wake; a sign they were dumping ballast sand. To everyone’s delight, two crewmen followed. The rules allow for the dumping of crew, but once they are off they cannot rejoin the boat. It sounds dangerous, and probably is, but the men were soon picked up by one of the many chase boats that, packed with supporters, party along behind the sloops, cheering their favorites and throwing insults at the opposition.
On the long downwind leg from Crocus Bay to Anguillita, we had time to laugh and chat. I found it hard to understand the rapid-fire West Indian patois, and I know that some of the teasing was aimed at me, but I didn’t mind as I have never sailed with such a generous crew or witnessed such dedication.
Reaching the most distant mark we had carved our way through the fleet and rounded in first place. This gave us the right to round the mark on either side. We left it to port, which meant all the other boats had to do the same. All except the last boat – they’re allowed to round it as they see fit!
By now the wind had freshened and our boom was bending like a jockey’s whip. Astern, one boat lost its mast. We almost sank, but weren’t the only ones.
In strong winds, the sloops are often driven under. For over an hour we kept ourselves afloat by constantly bailing, using a bucket to fling the water high in the air. Other boats were doing the same and from a distance the fleet resembled a pod of spouting whales.
Sloops do not finish a race by crossing a line—that would be too easy. Instead, a mark holding a flag is placed off the beach. To win, a boat must get close enough to the mark for a crewman to touch the flag. Should he miss, there is pandemonium, as the boat tacks away for another run, usually less than a boat length ahead of the rest of the fleet.
Our tactics were perfect. With a death roll to leeward—and at full stretch—a crewman grabbed the flag and the men of UFO roared in victory.
Author’s note: Since this article was written, some of the rules governing sloop racing have been changed. See sloop racing at the Anguilla Sailing Festival May 9 to 11, www.anguillaregatta.com.
Gary ‘Gaz’ Brown has sailed thousands of miles in a hodge-podge of boats. His wonderings include two single-handed Atlantic crossings and numerous off-shore deliveries. A journalist and yachting commentator, Gary hosts the marine show YachtBlast, which broadcasts twice a week on Island 92, 91.9 FM. St. Maarten.