Racing the Waters of St. Maarten

Cruises can be expensive, and getting nickled-and-dimed for optional port excursions after paying for the initial cost of the cruise is about as fun as putting antibacterial gel in your eyes. So, a huge advantage of sailing with Regent Seven Seas is that you get unlimited free excursions–a wonderful value…unless the excursion ends up being a dud.

Taking a break from the rumbly jumbly ATV tour of St. Maarten.
Taking a break from the rumbly jumbly ATV tour of St. Maarten.

On St. Maarten, Rick, Jackie, and I got an early start with an ATV ride. We roamed from the port to beaches of the nude and standard varieties along a sapphire blue waterfront on the opposite end of the island. The ride itself was mostly forgettable, except for the ringing in my ears from the noisy motors and numbness in my wrists from the iron grip I had on the shaky handlebars, both of which lingered for the rest of the day. The only real saving grace was that we hadn’t paid extra for the 3 hours of boredom.

Andy, on the other hand, had signed up for a morning sail: The America’s Cup Challenge. Actually, we had all signed up for the afternoon session, but since it was such a popular activity, the cruise ship scheduled an additional excursion for the morning. As an avid boatman (he has his captain’s license and regularly sails in the Puget Sound and wherever he can in Europe), Andy jumped at the opportunity to sail twice in one day.

And this was more than a ride on a boat. Participants would be temporary crew members. While no experience was necessary, being fit having good hearing would be a huge plus.

Getting our yacht and crew assignments.
Getting our yacht and crew assignments.

In the afternoon, our family and about 40 of our fellow shipmates huddled around one of the instructors on the dock. He explained how this Challenge would work. Three magnificent yachts–Stars and Stripes, Canada II, and True North, all former competitors in the America’s Cup–would race one another, completing 4 circuits (imagine an aquatic racetrack). The first to cross the finish line wins. A professional crew of three would man each ship and would be in charge of skippering, calling out commands to us lowly deckhands, and making sure we didn’t injure ourselves.

The America's Cup 12-meter Challenge in St. Maarten
The America’s Cup 12-meter Challenge in St. Maarten

I wanted Stars and Stripes, Dennis Connor’s former yacht and winner of two America’s Cups. In San Diego in the 80s, my hometown swelled with pride, watching S&S out-sail her competitors on our home turf (or surf, if you will).

We ended up on the Canada II, a younger, sleeker, and, arguably, better yacht. Andy was delighted. His team had already won the morning session on Stars and Stripes, and he was hoping for another win on this ship.

While each of us had assignments (cranking some rig or another, keeping time, bartending–that would be Jackie), Andy–because of all his experience–got the best job: co-skipper.

Andy expertly co-skippers the Canada II while we inexpertly go along for the ride.
Andy expertly co-skippers the Canada II while we inexpertly go along for the ride.
Hard at work on the Canada II.
Hard at work on the Canada II.

There’s a lot of labor that goes into manning a racing yacht and I relished the intense physical exercise, but it left little time to just enjoy the indigo waves, the strong yet silky breeze, and the paradisiacal views. Because we had more (wo)man-power than truly necessary (three too many people aboard), I was glad–along with my now-sore muscles–when one person finally took over my job after the next-to-last leg of the race.

Having time to just observe, I got to cheerlead, too. Our team was so far ahead of the other to sailboats (thanks to Andy and our lead skipper), we started celebrating this shoe-in early. Jackie handed out out beers, sodas, and waters like a pro, and all of reveled in our eminent victory.

But there’s a saying about counting chickens before they hatch, and we were about to lay a big fat egg.

Coming around the last leg, each yacht can decide to come down the “lane” on either side of the marker. Logic would have you come around the right side, as we did, because the winds were favorable. But the 2nd-place yacht gambled and went left. They were closing the gap. The lead skipper took over barking out nautical commands that sounded like gibberish to me but had his professional crew and our inexperienced volunteers scrambling.

The motley crew of Canada II (photo credit: Lazlo Hevesi)
The motley crew of Canada II (photo credit: Lazlo Hevesi)

Still, confidence was high. We opened the gap again. We were within 200 meters of the final buoy when suddenly the winds changed, literally. They just died. Stars and Stripes was now aiming right at us. Our skipper expertly maneuvered our Canada II to starboard, but Stars and Stripes came so close to us that the tip of her bow swung just above our stern. I don’t think any of us blinked or managed to breathe at that moment.

In the end, their gamble paid off, and Canada II lost to Dennis Conner’s sailboat by a nose.

While we may not have won, Andy, Jackie, Rick, and I will never forget that amazing race.

Sailing happily in St. Maarten with Andy, Jackie, and Rick.
Sailing happily in St. Maarten with Andy, Jackie, and Rick.

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