The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

April 29, 2011

Living the Slightly Glamorous Life of an International Yacht Racer on St. Maarten

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 1:22 am

After having spent much of the morning on St. Maarten wandering around what passes for a downtown in Phillipsburg and pretending to shop for items pretending to be luxurious designer goods, we made a brief return to the ship to prepare for the afternoon’s activity.  While much of our group was busy wandering around to the various parts of the island and finding new and exciting ways to get themselves stuck in traffic, me, my Dad and my brother would soon be heading out into Great Bay to go on a sailing excursion.  This particular sailing trip would be far from a pleasure cruise though:  Instead of a lazy sail around the bay, we would be racing.  And our sailboats (and challengers, as it would turn out) would be some of the most famous racing yachts in the world.

These days, for most people, the America’s Cup is one of those things that happens to show up on the sports page every so often.  To most people, it’s some thing where a few boats go run around and chase after an old trophy or something like that.  But back in 1987, the America’s Cup was a big deal.  In 1983, The New York Yacht Club, sailing with Dennis Conner at the helm of the 12-meter yacht Liberty, managed to lose the America’s Cup to the Royal Perth Yacht Club in Australia  for the first time in 132 years and 26 defenses of the cup.  Bringing the America’s Cup back to America quickly became a matter of national pride, and by the time the 1987 Cup came around, which would turn out to be the final America’s Cup for the 12-metre class boats that had challenged for the Cup since 1958.  The yacht that Dennis Conner would be sailing on behalf of the San Diego Yacht Club, Stars and Stripes 87, represented the pinnacle of 12-metre yacht technology, and easily bested the Kookaburra III  to return the America’s Cup to America.  Back in 1987 I was only nine years old, but I do seem to recall vague memories of watching the final race of the 1987 America’s Cup on TV, and also seem to have a memory of Dennis Conner jumping off the boat and swimming to shore to reclaim the cup that he had previously lost after the final race was won.  I could be making this all up for all I know, but all this happened 23 years ago, so I apologize if my memory might be a bit faulty on all this.  Little did I know at the time that at some point in the distant future, I would one day be racing against that very boat off the shores of St. Maarten.

The excursion started off on the cruise docks with several groups of people from the various ships gathering together in one spot prior to being led out to a dock where we would be boarding a tender boat to go out to the yachts.  While we were awaiting our ride, we were given a summary of some of the history of the America’s Cup, with a particular emphasis on the 1983 and 1987 races.  Docked near the pier we were waiting on was the Katara, a massive megayacht (in fact, it is currently the tenth largest in the world)  believed to be owned by the Royal Family of Qatar.  Just in case you were wondering where the money you’ve been spending on gas was going…  During this time, the sailors for this race were separated into their respective groups and assigned to their yachts.  Normally, selection of challengers for an America’s Cup race is done through a series known as the Louis Vuitton Cup that pits a number of yacht clubs from many nations against each other for the right to challenge the Cup’s current holder.  Lacking the resources generally available to a yachting syndicate, we opted for Rock Paper Scissors.  The group we went with was assigned to Canada II, a boat that competed in preliminary races for the America’s Cup in both 1983 (as Canada I) and 1987,) and although it never competed for the Cup itself, it is still considered one of the fastest 12 Metre boats in the world for light wind conditions.  Which, we were assured, would be the conditions we could expect today.  Somehow, the whitecaps seemed to suggest otherwise.

After the tenders arrived, the racers for Stars and Stripes and Canada II boarded one tender, and the racers for True North boarded another.  Following a leisurely ride into the bay, we first arrived at the Stars and Stripes, where the yacht’s previous crew was offloaded to return to shore, and the new crew boarded the boat and received their roles for the race.  Canada II was next, and we went through the same routine, each person being assigned a role ranging from the sedate (handing out the beer and soda, timing) to the downright grueling (in particular, the primary grinders looked like they were getting a good workout.)  I happened to be assigned the role of backstay grinder, which basically involved sitting at the transom and  quickly tightening a winch when required to ensure that the mast remains well supported.  This would be a task that would be required frequently (especially during tacking operations,) as the two backstays would often need to be loosened and tightened to ensure that the sail could be positioned properly to catch the wind.

After all the yachts had been boarded and everyone had been given some time to familiarize themselves with their roles, it was time to race.  Even starting the race involves a degree of strategy, as it is necessary to be at a certain place as close to a certain time as possible without arriving early (which would result in a penalty.) To be honest, much of the race was a blur, as there was a lot going on aboard our yacht.  There were a number of close encounters during the race with the other two yachts we were racing against, during which I may or may not have made a bad Bob and Doug McKenzie impersonation or two (“You know, you hosers should, like, learn to sail eh?”) 

And although the race did keep us fairly busy, there were still some opportunities to take a few more photos of the ships in the harbor (as if I didn’t have enough of those already.)  The Ruby Princess is the one in the back here.

Although it was somewhat difficult figuring out who was leading at any given time and who was where, were told on several occasions that we were ahead of the other two, but ultimately on the final leg of the race, True North (pictured here) managed to out-tack the other two yachts to take the win, followed closely by Canada II in second, and Stars and Stripes a close third. 

In the end, I don’t think anyone was taking the race TOO seriously (after all, how seriously can you take a race when you’ve got a designated beer dispenser on board?) but I’d say it was a bit more thrilling than a lazy jaunt through the bay would have been anyway.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m the one in the back with the shirt suspiciously similar in color to the Kool-Aid Blue water found around St. Maarten.

After disembarking the yacht and taking the tender back to shore, we were dropped off at the gift shop where we all enjoyed complimentary rum punch (in my case minus the rum of course) and the opportunity to buy various memorabilia from the sail.  I considered parking my dinghy here, but I thought better of it.  Either that, or I realized that I don’t currently own a dinghy, and even if I did I forgot to pack it in my suitcase for this trip.

After this, me and my brother spent a bit more time wandering around Phillipsburg (shockingly, I didn’t find a knockoff Louis Vuitton Cup anywhere) before returning to the ship shortly before it was due to depart.  By the time we got back to the ship and got ready for our 6pm dinnertime, the Oasis of the Seas had already departed, and the Carnival Magic was just getting ready to depart as well.  I lingered for a little while on the Promenade and watched as the Magic pulled out of port, before retiring to the dining room for the latest in a series of meals which seemed to have an ongoing theme of Way Too Much Freakin’ Food.  It sure sounded like there was a party going on up on their Lido deck as they were pulling out of the harbor.  Perhaps the fresh restock of booze the ship received while in port had something to do with this, but maybe they were just excited to be on a cruise in the first place.  The visit to St. Maarten didn’t allow enough time to see much of the island, but that just provides a convenient excuse to come back at some point, right?

  • Additional information on the 12 Metre Regatta in St. Maarten may be found here.
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