Monday, April 2, 2012

The Rolex Regatta

Most people agree that island life on St. Thomas can be quite backwards.  In fact, there are bumper stickers out there that say, “Welcome to St. Thomas.  You can’t make this shit up.”  However, the one thing that is done extraordinarily well here is sailing.  It’s no secret why Columbus first discovered America in the Caribbean Islands - the Trade Winds are so strong that he didn't have much of a choice.  So naturally, the Virgin Islands provide for some of the best sailing in the world.  Kids that grow up here start learning to sail when they are 3 or 4 years old, some of the best professional sailors in the world live here, and I know of at least 1 person that will be racing in the Olympics this summer.  So, when my friend, whose husband and sister were racing a boat out of Puerto Rico, invited us to go out on her power boat to watch the Rolex Regatta, one of the biggest regatta’s of the year, I jumped at the chance to see what it was all about.

As we all gathered to get on the boat, the weather was questionable.  The sky was full of threatening, dark clouds and rain was in the forecast.  Regardless, we stocked the boat with plenty of food and drinks and headed out to a place where we could see a good deal of action.  The schedule for that day included 2 races with several different classes of boats.  However, the regatta lasted for 3 days with each race scoring accumulative points for the final winners after the 3rd day of racing.  While I know nothing about sailing, my friends explained that each class of boats was rated on a point system to level the playing field and allow for various boat sizes and types to compete.  So, even if a boat beat several other boats to the finish line, that didn’t mean that it was the winner of the race.  Points had to be added and subtracted in order to calculate the true winner of each race.  This makes it tough for someone that isn’t familiar with boats to follow the race, but I was looking forward to taking in what I could.

Once we got to our destination on the course, things got pretty exciting.  Since the boats were transitioning from coming downwind to going upwind as they turned around, the crews had to work hard and fast to change the sails and make a quick turn.  Sailors worked frantically to keep their positions, or gain on other’s positions during this critical point of the race.  To me, it seemed like some of the boats were way too close to one another.  So much so, that I can see how there are accidents during a regatta.  They were all very aggressive, and one boat even lost is mast.  Although we only saw the aftermath of that accident, seeing a sailboat without its mast was an unfortunate sight. 
This boat, full of professional sailors, lost it's mast.

Racing downwind, toward the turn around point, marked by the yellow triangle.

Close competition coming in to the finish line.

Once our friend’s boat, Lazy Dog, had past us we went over to the finish line, which was in the harbor of the main town – Charlotte Amalie.  We anxiously awaited the arrival of the leading boats and cheered them in as they past the finish line in front of us. 

When Lazy Dog finished the race, we caught up with them to see how they had done.  It seemed as though they were pretty good, as they had finished among the leaders for the 1st race!  Since they clearly wanted to strategize among themselves, we left them alone after quickly congratulating them.  As we hung out in the harbor, waiting for the 2nd race to begin, countless boats flooded the harbor and fought for a good position to start the next race. 
Lazy Dog, finishing the 1st race of the day.

In an effort to avoid the congestion of the race's end in the harbor, we found a quieter spot to stay in before the race began.  Apparently, we weren’t the only ones looking for a quiet spot because we came across a small group of dolphins swimming around our boat!  Excited, we all grabbed our cameras to take pictures and followed them around with the boat when they swam off a bit.  At one point, one of them jumped out of the water, spun all the way around and went back underwater.  True to their name, they were Spinner Dolphins.  I’ve wanted to see dolphins since I moved here, so it was one of the highlights of my day.

After the distraction of the dolphins subsided, we watched the 2nd race begin before we headed out to our final destination - the finish line of the 2nd race.  As the race started, each class of boats congregated together and frantically fought for the best position to start the race, then suddenly took off towards the course.  This race seemed to be faster than the first one because by the time we reached the finish line and dropped our anchor, it wasn’t long before the sailboats started coming in with their visibly exhausted crews. 
When they arrived, we congratulated our friends on Lazy Dog and joined up with them in a harbor nearby.   One of the boats had a barbecue on it that someone started to grill cheeseburgers on.  It wasn’t long before those had been devoured, and the guys from Puerto Rico lit up a paella pan and started throwing in tons of rice, fish, vegetables, etc.  While that cooked we all had some cocktails and hopped from boat to boat so that we could meet each other and chat for a while.  Of course, when the paella was done everyone quietly ate every bit of it.  As I ate my delicious rice dish, I couldn’t help but be surprised at the energy that these sailors had after a long day out on the water.  It was clear that this part of the weekend was just as important to them as the race. 

Finally, knowing that they had another long day of sailing ahead of them, we all agreed to let the crew get some sleep.  We stumbled into a dingy and headed back home.

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