When Antigua Sailing Week began in 1967, pretty much every boat in the fleet was a classic. Most were charter yachts that ended their season by racing to and from Guadeloupe. Race Week expanded; boats evolved into modern machines; and by the mid-80s the Classic Class grew so thin it was scrapped. Traditional vessels were lumped in with the bareboat class – a move as effective as mixing oil with water.
Luckily, three classic captains got together for a sundowner to sort things out. Kenny Coombs, Uli Pruesse and Tony Fincham hatched a plan to launch their own event, one exclusively for traditional vessels, held the week prior to race week. Jolyon Byerley got involved along with Julian Gildersleeve and in 1987, the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta was launched in style.
During the inaugural years the race ran between Antigua and Guadeloupe but international officialdom and fluky winds necessitated moving the show to the waters off Antigua. Early sponsors – Wayfarer Marine and CSR – donated trophies and prizes. Backing from Boat International Magazine helped spread the word and ACYR notoriety sailed around the globe, luring entrants to a list that these days averages upwards of 50 boats.
In 1996, the regatta introduced the ‘Spirit of Tradition’ class, giving new classics – built along the lines of predecessors – an opportunity to race with those gals built generations before. This remarkable class is now accepted and growing throughout the world.
One can only imagine the extensive entry lists compiled over the first 29 years. Hundreds of vessels, each built and maintained to stand apart from the crowd. And if the boats weren’t distinctive enough, surely the cast of characters that captained and crewed them were.
Each fleet is a fresh mix of size and personality. Some years the grand dames dominate the action, in other races it’s the island built sloops, small cruisers or one-trick-ponies like the Dominica dugout canoe Gli Gli racing in 2006 or the Carriacou sloop Pink Lady in 2010 with a rowdy female crew. In 1999, the regatta was graced by a race between J-Boats, a sight not witnessed in 60 years.
This year’s list is growing rapidly. By the looks of early registration, it just might be the biggest – and the stunning vessels measuring over 100ft will certainly be the prize for every camera on the course.
ACYR is nicknamed ‘The Gentlemen’s Race’, because it runs by a different set of rules. Small boats stay out of the way of the big girls; giving room takes precedence to a lead; and disputes are rarely filed. The office is staffed like a welcome wagon with room for visitors and weary sailors and unlike other regional competitions, there is no protest room.
Dockside often feels like a family reunion. Mornings are a time to roam the docks, grab coffee, chase down the day’s sandwiches and chat about strategy and weather. Postrace is beer-o-clock, crews mixing to share stories and congratulations. Daily, each circle of friends adds a few new links.
The regatta owes its success to a strong committee, teams of volunteers and one man who gave it his heart and soul. Kenny Coombs helmed the regatta for 25 years until his untimely death in 2013. His steady hand and keen sense of adventure kept the regatta on a perfect course through the calms and storms that plague the yachting industry.
It is fitting that for the 30th anniversary, his wife, Jane Coombs, is co-chair along with film-maker Alexis Andrews. To honor three successful decades of tradition they are bringing back one of the original shore side parties, the Vintage Ball (originally the Edwardian Ball), and rumor has it there will be more surprises.
The schedule also includes the Concourse d’elegance, Parade of Classics through English Harbour, nightly music at the Antigua Yacht Club and the riotous Gig Racing and Cream Tea Party.
Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta April 19th – 25th 2017. More information is available at: antiguaclassics.com. Be sure to view the keepsake program under the ‘Race Info’ tab.
ACYR announced that this year the entire Regatta will be staged in the Dockyard, which was recently named a Unesco World Heritage Site.