Thursday, June 2nd, 2011
The Captain, absolutely adamant that everyone get a chance to sail on these smaller vessels during the West Indies Regatta (a regatta founded partly in order to encourage the revival of West Indian boat building and sailing for islanders), stood watch aboard the Picton Castle in St. Barths with a skeleton crew during the race days. The ship was stern-to the quay with two anchors out, pretty secure she was, and the rest of the of the on-watch crew, after washing down and cleaning below as we do every day, were cut loose to find a sloop to sail on. With nine handsome Carriacou sloops (Tradition, Pipe Dream, Good Expectation, Genesis, Summer Cloud, New Moon, Ocean Nomad and Sweetheart) and schooner Alexander Hamilton to choose from, everyone got on their boat of choice.
While absolutely impossible to capture everyone’s emotional experience during the weekend, one could easily hypothesize that all felt feelings of elation, exhilaration, pleasure, stimulation and contentment. The Captain and mates are the first to agree that small boat sailing makes a sailor. This is why they have encouraged as much small boat handling as possible during our circumnavigation. At every port where it has been feasible we have lowered the longboat and Sea Never Dry into the water and sent the crew on sailing excursions and rowing expeditions. This weekend was no exception. Smaller boats, like the Carriacou sloops, allow one to see the basic principles we utilize on the Picton Castle more easily. You are closer to the wind, closer to the water, closer to the sails. You can observe the manoeuvres in their entirety, simply because of your vantage point – in the middle of it all. Every boat has its individual quirks, its strengths and weaknesses, and after a day of sailing, if you observe carefully, she will show you where she feels most comfortable. On smaller craft you also see the consequences of your actions very quickly. This is an excellent way to both enrich your large ship experience but measure it and see how far we all have come, often without realizing it.
The first half of the race followed a course around several buoys and then out around the curve of St. Barths to a protected cove on the north end of the island. On the second day the wind was blowing a good 20 knots and once out of the harbour the sloops flew across the waves. From my vantage point on the Pipe Dream, the other sloops dipped in an out of the crests of the waves, their sails filled with the windy thrill of the race. Some raced with the schooners far out, away from the lee of the island and hit their sweet spot – the vessels responding to what they loved. New Moon, on the other hand, was a slippery sloop and she could easily hug the shoreline, carried by the current, without losing the wind. That day I sailed with Paul, Meredith, Dan Eden, Dan, Brad, Pania and Ali. As we hugged the windward rail, the leeward railing seemed to surf the waves. In particular she seemed to perform well on this port tack and sliced through the water, bound for the mid-race finish line.
As we approached the cove we noticed that several sloops were already waiting for us. In the spirit of camaraderie, the crews had rafted the vessels together and were busy swimming, eating lunch and enjoying the sunshine. We sailed up to the boats, dropped the anchor and took in sail. Before we could raft up to the others we found ourselves drifting in the strong current, our anchor dragging in the soft sand, and soon we were well out in the harbour, without sail and traveling fast. Several boats tried to pull us, to no avail; one of the crew on the Sweetheart jumped overboard with a line, determined to aid us. Finally, after several failed attempts at rescue, we decided to set sail once more, we pulled a risky move. We hoisted the main sail and the jib in the middle of the busy harbour and tacked our way past million dollar yachts – I am sure, much to their chagrin and horror – and dropped anchor next to the other sloops once again, taking in all sail only at the last minute. Paul was told that he sailed like he was born in Carriacou itself – a better compliment you could not wish for as a sailor!
After an hour of two of relaxing it was time to race for the ultimate finish line. Sailing out of the cove we saw whales breaching 50 feet off our starboard quarter – we paused long enough to watch their graceful movements before continuing the process of tacking our way to the starting line. This race took us out around a large rock and back toward the port of Gustavia, from whence we had come hours earlier. This time, the sloops pulled out all of the stops. Several flew colourful spinnakers to take advantage of the abundant wind and the Alexander Hamilton flew a water sail. Having no extra canvas the Pipe Dream nonetheless sailed happily and hurriedly along –enjoying the race, it seemed, as much as we were.
As we rounded the finish line, we were told that we had come in 4th place! Woohoo! And yet, we could have come in last and still felt the same sense of accomplishment. This was the best possible type of race. A race sailed by people who love boats and love to sail them. A race where competition is all in good fun and everyone is proud of their standing, whether it is first or last. Everyone was just happy to be out there sailing, feeling the wind and salt spray and the warmth of the sun.
We hosted a party onboard the Picton Castle during our second night in St. Barths. Thankful for being invited to participate in the West Indies Regatta and thankful to all of the crews of the Carriacou sloops who happily invited us to share this experience with them, we wished in some way to show our appreciation. We set up dinner on the rails and some local musicians offered their voices and instruments for the evening’s entertainment. As they sang raucously engaging French sea shanties, sailors mingled with sailors long into the night.
On the last evening of the regatta, Alexis Andrews and the other official organizers of the event held an awards ceremony. After the awards ceremony the Picton Castle crew performed a special number we had been practicing for weeks. The women, taught by Taia, performed a South Pacific dance routine and then the men, with their leader Pania proudly watching, performed a Maori war chant. It was incredibly special to perform in St. Barths, so far away from the beaches where we had first learned Polynesian dances, in front of our newfound sailor friends, literally on the other side of the world.
After a delicate manoeuvre to retrieve both anchors in this tiny port (while keeping perfectly still so as not to wipe out the other vessels there or pull their anchors up with ours!), we sailed from St. Barths. We knew that we had fallen madly in love with Carriacou sloops. So, the Captain changed the voyage plan just slightly. Instead of clearing into mainland Grenada, we would sail for Carriacou first. We would sail to the land where the sloops were built and meet or reunite with the shipwrights who had built them. It was an appropriate next step, for it made our departure from St. Barths a joyous and not wrenching affair.