To the casual viewer it was just a group of old wooden boats tied stern to the dock manned by barefoot rogues that resembled pirates more than yachtsmen. Even more puzzling was the fact that this was St. Barth, where the rich and famous line the quay with their multi-million dollar superyachts. Owners of superyachts may think they are members of an elite club, but they are ten a penny compared to the men and women whose boats make up the fleet of the West Indies Regatta.
I arrived in St. Barth onboard the sloop Tradition, one of the stars of the West Indies’ fleet of workboats, sloops and schooners, of which very few are still sailing. We sailed over from Anguilla and arrived in Gustavia to a rousing cheer as we dropped the hook and backed into our berth among the other boats.
Although it’s a regatta, this event is much more. It’s a sailing festival; a celebration of West Indian boat building, a cultural exchange of ideas, and a way for the islands to reconnect with their maritime heritage and move it forward into the future.
By Thursday afternoon, the artisanal market and food fair was in full swing on the quay selling Caribbean goods and produce that had been transported to the island in the bellies of the sloops: Hot sauce, chocolate, jewelry, rum, clothing, artwork and more all for sale in a friendly carnival atmosphere.
The regatta coincided with the St. Barth Film Festival, which presented the world premiere of the full-length documentary, Vanishing Sail. The documentary is a five-year labor of love by Alexis Andrews, a man who has done so much to keep traditional West Indian boatbuilding alive. His movie is a glowing tribute to the Caribbean’s traditional boat builders, especially those of Carriacou, where Andrews had his own sloop, Genesis, built some years ago. Around 300 people crowded the dock for the premiere as a big yellow moon rose above the harbor and set shadows dancing in the rigging of the sloops just yards away. The documentary received a standing ovation.
The first race of the regatta was held on Saturday, following a skippers’ briefing unlike any I have ever attended. The course, around some of St. Barth outlying rocks and islands, was a good one, but the announcement of the start time: “wait for the big red boat to cross the line and you’re off,” brought much merriment.
The red boat was our own Tradition, a heavy sloop with no winches, so everything is done by hand. The huge gaff mainsail makes her a handful to sail and dangerous to gibe with an untried crew in strong winds. Letting us start first made a lot of sense.
A hard day of racing brought home to me just how tough it was to making a living aboard these trading vessels. My hands, knees, back and lungs took a beating and I began to wonder if the hull was red to hide the blood.
On Saturday evening Tradition was asked to dock outside the maritime museum for their opening ceremony. This was a great honor for Tradition and her captain Laurie Gumbs as the vessel once carried goods to and from St. Barth, and was known for having smuggled barrels of rum past the revenue men on the southern islands. The museum’s champagne reception was followed by music and dancing at the dockside.
Sunday’s two races (same start rules, follow the red boat) were structured around the famous afternoon ‘raft-up’ in Anse Columbier. Nine traditional vessels rafted together made for one of the world’s most unique and unforgettable parties.
The race back to Gustavia was followed by the prize giving on the dock, where the remarkable spirit of this event was never more evident. St. Barth VIPs joined the cheering sailors as each prize was given out, and it seemed like every boat received a prize, including the motorized cargo vessel Laser, which arrived from Carriacou loaded with coconuts.
Introducing the prize giving, Alexis Andrews said: “What the people of St. Barth have decided to give us each year is the biggest welcome we could expect from the entire West Indies.”
And Andrews is right. The people of St.Barth welcome this event because it isn’t just about boats winning races; it’s about their culture and heritage, subjects referred to again and again during the presentations. Businesses have successfully embraced the cult of the superyacht but it’s the workboats of the past that the islanders celebrate with passion every May.
For more information, visit: westindiesregatta.com
Gary E. Brown is the editorial director of All At Sea magazine and the author of the fast-action thrillers Caribbean High and Caribbean Deep. Visit: garyebrown.net