A few years ago our family spent a winter sailing in the Bahamas aboard our sailboat Hirondelle. During the third week of April we were anchored in Joe's Sound at the north end of Long Island. We had to be in Florida by the end of May, and if we wanted to make the return trip without rushing, it was time to go. The easiest way back was to retrace our steps up the Exuma islands including a stop in George Town on Great Exuma Island. There were two reasons for returning to George Town. We could replenish stores but, more importantly, we could attend the Family Island Regatta. The regatta for traditional boats is the Bahamas' most important sporting and social event. Chris and I were intrigued when several people told us that it was sometimes possible for visitors to crew on the racing sloops during the regatta.
It was a Friday when we arrived back in George Town and there were significantly fewer foreign cruising boats compared to our previous visit. Nevertheless over a hundred boats were anchored throughout Elizabeth Harbour, as George Town´s great harbour is called. Earlier in the year there had been more than four hundred, mostly American and Canadian. It would be difficult to fill Elizabeth Harbour as it is a mile wide and almost five long. By April, however, most foreign cruisers have moved on to the Caribbean or were returning to the States. In George Town it was the quiet before the storm and the cruisers who had stayed knew that a great party was about to break out. Later that afternoon we watched a mailboat--as the cargo and passenger ships that ply between the islands are called--arrive from Nassau. Her cargo deck was loaded with racing sloops.
The weekend was spent relaxing and loading up on groceries. During the nights we anchored across the harbour off Stocking Island. Meanwhile, George Town continued to fill with visitors, most of them Bahamians from other islands of the archipelago. On the waterfront facing the harbour and along the road to the government dock a sort of shanty town of makeshift bars and food stands took form. The streets were full of people strolling, some with beers in hand. Music blared out from various high powered sound systems. There was an air of old acquaintances renewed and new ones made. Many of the visitors would have surprised me if they had showed any interest in sailing. They knew a good party. The shore festivities had more in common with Mardi Gras than Cowes Week. Throughout the weekend various mailboats loaded with more sloops and visitors arrived. Several racing sloops from nearby communities in the Exumas or from Long Island were towed in by power boats.
|The Class A racing sloop New Southern Cross leaving Kidd Cove, George Town.|
On Monday morning we moved Hirondelle near to Kidd Cove, the anchorage adjacent to George Town. Most of the racing sloops were anchored in the cove itself. Christine and I watched the activity from our cockpit as the crews went about preparing their boats. The sloops bobbed and rocked from the wakes set up by the constant back and forth of the cruisers' power dinghies. One of the smaller C Class dinghies was rafted to a larger B Class sloop. The smaller boat’s mast was stepped with the aid of the larger's mast. Once the mast was secured the dinghy´s crew attempted to flag down a passing power boat. The crew wanted a tow but the power boaters thought that they were just being friendly, returned the waves and sped on. Chris suggested that I go over with our rowing dinghy and offer to help. I was not sure if I could effectively tow the heavy racing dinghy and hesitated before rowing across. The crew threw me a line although they were surprised that I had no engine. It was an easy pull. As we neared shore the crew tossed a stern anchor and I ran the painter off the bow to shore, no problem. Before returning I asked if they needed crew for the races. They declined my help but suggested that I ask around on some of the other boats. The racing was to start the next day with the high school class. We would try again the next day.
Day One - A Missed Chance
To get away from the noise of George Town, now in full party mode, we again spent the night anchored across the harbour off Stocking Island but on Tuesday morning we returned to Kidd Cove. That morning Chris almost had the chance to race. The regatta rules allow dinghies in the high school category to race with one or two adults aboard. As we watched the racing sloops prepare and go out to the course, a race committee boat approached us and asked if we wanted to crew. Chris went off and I stayed aboard with our two daughters. However, a few minutes later she returned. The officials had found someone else. It was very disappointing as by now Chris and I were quite keen to get on a sloop. We were falling for the ambiance of the event. We love sailing and, for sailors especially, the Bahamian sloops have a unique attraction. After lunch the four of us went for walk in town and along the regatta park. The crowds were even bigger than the day before; and the mailboat brought in another load of racing sloops.
The intent of the founders of the Family Island Regatta was to provide, frankly, financial incentives to maintain the boat building skills and seamanship of the Bahamians. A group of American businessmen were concerned that the sailing workboats of the Bahamas were going to disappear into a haze of gasoline engine smoke. They organized the Out Island Squadron in 1953 to collect a fund of prize money from mostly American yachtsmen who knew and loved the Bahamas. Originally the regatta was known as the Out Island Regatta. Even if the winner of a race can claim bragging rights the prospect of a little cash keeps everyone interested and focused. The tradition of cash incentives continues today in the form of government subsidies for the regatta. Boat owners and crew share in some cash dispersals. The founding of the regatta has been told by one of the American founders, Linton Rigg, in his book Bahama Islands. A good account of the history of the regatta as an organization and its importance to Bahamian society can be found in the second volume of Islanders in the Stream by Michael Craton and Gail Saunders.
|The Bahamian sponge schooner Blanche Eva of Long Island. From J.|
Linton Rigg's book, Bahama Islands.
The importance of boats to isolated islanders is self-evident. In the Bahamas up until the 1950s sailboats predominated in fishing, movement of cargo and in passenger traffic. Most of the fishing boats and mailboats were simple Bermudian-rigged sloops. Sail-propelled mailboats carried passengers and cargo between islands. There were also a number of larger schooners. However, much of the water in the Bahamas is shallow limiting the size of vessels. For those interested in Bahamian life and travel from island to island on the old sailing mailboats I recommend Evans W. Cottman's book Out-Island Doctor. An American, Cottman worked as a medical practitioner who starting in 1940 provided medical services to Bahamians living in isolated communities throughout the archipelago. Cottman's accounts of sailing aboard mailboats, sloops of generally less than 30 feet LOA, that carried passengers, cargo and animals on open decks, are somewhat disturbing. Life in the small and isolated communities was tough. The Bahamas may have been part of the great British Empire but the out islands were neglected.
| The Sloop, Nassau, by Winslow Homer. Painted in 1899 and part of the collection|
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Day Two - Sailing With the King
The day after Chris’ failed attempt to get on a racing sloop I tried my luck. And that Wednesday turned out to be a heck of a day. Early that morning we sailed back to Kidd Cove. Rowing the dinghy about the anchorage I asked at several of the sloops as their crews were preparing for the race. I was repeatedly turned down but one skipper suggested I try a green-hulled boat tied to the dock at the marina. So I rowed over and asked a gentleman who appeared to be in charge if he needed crew. “Hey, you don´t have an engine,” he called out. “I don´t need one,” I answered, and he laughed. Sure, he could use some more crew and he asked me to come back in an hour or so. I rowed back to Hirondelle to wait. I was going to be racing on Lucayan Lady, an A Class sloop. At least, that's what I thought.
An hour later Chris and I rowed across the harbour back toward the marina. The girls stayed aboard Hirondelle but we asked some American friends aboard Wandering Albatross, anchored nearby, to keep an eye on them. As we approached the dock we were passed by a B Class sloop under tow going out to the race course. At the tiller of the sloop was the man I had spoken with before. Someone on the sloop recognised me and called out to us. They wanted me aboard the sloop straightaway. Honestly, I was confused about what was going on but I spun the dinghy about and chased after the boat in tow. I was losing ground but soon the tow line was dropped and I clambered aboard. I said bye to Chris and she rowed the dinghy back to Hirondelle.
I approached and faced the skipper, the gentleman I had met earlier and we shook hands. I introduced myself and he said, “I’m Eric but everyone calls me King.” King was in his 70s but looked fit and strong, like a much younger man. His bare arms were muscled and lean like a boxer´s. He had a deep voice and was well spoken with a distinct Bahamian accent. Of course, I had no idea that I was sailing with a Bahamian legend. Later I found out the “King´s” real name was Eric Gibson and that he was one of the most famous musicians in the Bahamas. The sloop I was sailing on seemed to have been named the A Queen, which took me aback somewhat. It was a while before I could interpret the heavy Bahamian accents of the crew and figure out that the boat's name was actually the Ansbacher Queen, named after an old banking sponsor.
The crew paid little attention to me except to give a few instructions on what to do. There was a laid back atmosphere, obviously, how could a newcomer be taken on with so little fuss and ceremony. I had some racing experience including crewing on an old 8-Metre class yacht and had seen how intense racing can get even at the club level. There was none of that on Ansbacher Queen. I quickly got into the swing of things and out on to the prys. From the helm King watched me intermittently, and my conduct on the pry and during the tacks seemed to meet with his approval. I was simply human ballast, as were most of the crew, and my role was to move my weight to where it was needed. In addition to human ballast the crew consisted of the helmsman, King, a sort of crew chief named Ali who also looked after the jib sheets, and China the mainsheet trimmer. Ali and King worked together as tactician and navigator during the race.
Once I was aboard Ansbacher Queen things happened quickly. In fact, we were heading for the start line off Stocking Island. The wind was out of the south-west and the line, as on other triangular courses, was set perpendicular to it and marked by two buoys. Some of the boats were already on the line. We had an assigned position and it was a matter of finding the neighbouring boats. I was about to find out that the starts in Bahamian regattas are unlike others. The anchor was dropped on the weather side of the line, we let Ansbacher Queen blow downwind until her bow was aligned with the start, her sails were lowered and made ready for a quick hoist.
The start area was crowded with racing sloops, race committee boats and dinghies full of spectators. Noise and confusion prevailed with stage-whisper orders aboard Ansbacher Queen, bull-horn commands from the officials, shouting from the crews around us and cheering from the spectators. One of the crew quickly explained how the start was to play out. The crew, except for the helmsman and sail trimmers, formed a line from the bow aft with each man holding the anchor rode. There was a first gun, the one-minute warning. During that minute the noise diminished somewhat but it was not complete silence. Every crewman on each of the 15 boats gripped the rodes nervously, waiting and waiting. Then the gun. Rodes were hauled in fast, hands sometimes missing their grips, each man's elbows flying and interfering with the man aft. The boat slid forward, gradually accelerating. As the speed increased sails were quickly hoisted. The anchor, once aboard, was dumped into the hold and forgotten. As the sails filled and Ansbacher Queen started to heel, the prys came into play.
|The start. Ministry of Youth and Sport, Government of the Bahamas|
The prys or pry boards are a distinctive feature of the Bahamian racing sloops. A boat designer would charitably call the sloops over-canvased. They are unstable and the pry boards counter balance the pressure on the sail. As the boat heels the crew slide on their butts along the prys--rough 2 x 10s--projecting six or eight feet out from the windward gunnel. Tacking the boat involves sliding your butt back toward the boat, downhill if all goes well, as fast as you can. The last man off the pry, in other words the outer most man, slides the pry across the boat to the other side. This has to be timed with the boom coming across, a tricky maneuver aboard the A and B Classes. There is not much room below the boom as the gooseneck is only a few inches above the deck. As the boat tacks the crew has to scramble under the boom and get across on all fours or slide on their bellies. To make things more interesting one has to be aware of where you put your hands, fingers and toes. They can be crushed in any number of places but especially at the bent bars on the center line that hold down the inboard end of the prys.
I was somehow designated outside man on the aft pry. With all the confusion it seemed the safest place aboard, it was certainly a great place to view the race. Out on the end of the pry I could look down and watch the keel and rudder slice through the crystal water. However, one had to be alert as to what the boat was doing and move accordingly inboard or outboard. It was also important to listen to what the skipper and sail trimmers were saying especially if the command to tack was given. At one point in the race while we were on starboard tack, and with rights, we crossed tacks with another boat. The end of our boom passed just over the heads of the crew on the prys of the other boat. It was very close and I thought that perhaps it would be a good idea to wear helmets. We finished in the pack and everyone aboard Ansbacher Queen was pleased with the result.
We sailed back to Kidd Cove. As we passed I waved to Chris and the girls aboard Hirondelle. Ansbacher Queen was moored with an anchor off the stern and a bow line to the dock. There we set about preparing Lucayan Lady for her race. Most of the members of King's crew had arrived from Nassau around four o'clock that morning and had had difficulty finding a place to stay. They had slept wherever they could. They all lived and worked in Nassau where they maintained a fleet of four racing sloops but had only brought Lucayan Lady and Ansbacher Queen to George Town. Most of the crew had spread themselves out among several other boats for the B Class event but afterwards gradually drifted onto the dock to prepare for the A Class race. There was still much to do before Lucayan Lady was ready. Her sails had still not been bent. In addition to King's regular crew, there were going to be several non-Bahamians aboard, three Canadians (myself included) and an American.
|An A Class sloop approaching the mailboat in George Town.|
During the A Class race things did not go as expected aboard Lucayan Lady but no one got too uptight about it. I had the impression that King and his boys were happy to participate, party and play. The same went for the non-Bahamians aboard. We were late for the start but King and his crew took it in stride--no big deal. Lucayan Lady, and another late boat Who Dat, sailed the course chasing the rest of the fleet. As there was no pressure everyone relaxed and enjoyed the pleasant sail. With longer prys, as Lucayan Lady heeled you found yourself even higher above the water than aboard Ansbacher Queen. Riding the prys the non-Bahamians all wore big smiles. Some of King's boys, however, seemed to be nursing hangovers. Back at the dock the foreign contingent was pleased when King asked us all to return the next day.
Looking to get back to Hirondelle I got a ride in Bob Fleury's dinghy, another of the Canadians aboard Lucayan Lady. With Bob's wife at the tiller we cruised through the anchorage and stopped to ask if any of the C Class dinghies needed crew. At one of the boats a couple of fellows were preparing to race. The skipper turned us down but as we pulled away called us back. I thought that perhaps he wanted only one of us but took us both. The skipper said he was expecting the arrival of a couple of other fellows. He must have thought that it was better to go with two willing, and sober, bodies who were present rather than wait for two others who were ashore perhaps succumbing to the temptations of the party. Bob and I climbed aboard Vitamalt Thunderbird, a new boat that had never been raced. After the mainsail was set we were off with Bob and I out on the prys. I waved to Chris and the girls as we went out to the race course. Wearing bright orange T-shirts with the sponsor's logo we stood out like sore thumbs.
The C Class race was sailed in failing wind but it was the best "racing" that I experienced that day. Despite our performance the skipper, Joshua Green, was not satisfied with the boat's trim, the lead ballast weights needed shifting. He also said that Vitamalt Thunderbird would have been more effective if the wind had been stronger. In the gusts she seemed to make time on her competitors but lost it in the lighter air. Nevertheless, it was good racing. The crew totaled four, the skipper, the sail trimmer and the two Canadians. Bob and I had both raced the A and B Classes and by the third race we were quite adept at the prys. The lighter boat was more sensitive to the wind and working the pry required more quickness and finesse. The variable winds had us constantly moving back and forth but it was a lot of fun. Joshua seemed pleased with our ability and after the finish we were invited back for the following day.
Racing in all classes had given me the opportunity to have a close look at the boats. From a distance the Bahamian sloops have a sleek yacht-like appearance especially the hulls which are kept to a high-gloss finish. The painted rub rails emphasize their beautiful sheer lines. Ansbacher Queen had a white hull with a red rub rail, Lucayan Lady a green hull with the rub rail painted yellow. Up close the boats are crudely but strongly built. Inside the framing has been roughly shaped and some of the frames were not square to the length of the keel. Bahamian sloops have no external ballast but are loaded with lead pigs that are shifted about to adjust the boat's trim. The loose ballast also allows a boat to be recovered if it sinks, which often happens. The regattas are always held in shallow waters and recovering a boat is relatively easy. Once divers are sent down to remove the ballast the boat can be raised.
Despite the intentions of the founders of the Family Island Regatta, over the last half century the boats and their rigs have changed to such an extent that they are now very different from the working boats of the 1950s. The race committee struggles to maintain a balance between tradition and modernity. Of course everyone wants to win and rules have always been pushed by crews and boat builders. Racing sloops, of course, are built to class rules. The boats must be designed, built and sailed by Bahamians. The A and B Class sloops are approximately 28 feet LOA and 21 feet LOA respectively. The boats are of wooden construction and in appearance must be of traditional "Bahamian" hull shape emphasising moderate overhangs, pronounced sheer and a wineglass transom. Winches are not allowed.
Over the course of the last half century the sloops have tended to become "racing machines" built for speed rather than serving as fishing boats or passenger vessels. The racing machine aspect the Bahamian sloops is most evident in the huge area of canvas they carry relative to their hull size. The "recommended" maximum mast and boom lengths for an A Class sloop are 60 feet and 32 feet respectively, and that is on a hull 28 feet in length. The mainsails are hoisted with large wooden headboards that gives the boats a leg-of-mutton look while further increasing sail area. The solid wooden masts are so far forward that the sloops look like cat boats. No spreaders are allowed under the rules and the shrouds reach almost to the truck of the mast. Only A and B Class sloops have jibs which are relatively small though they are critical for tacking. This importance was made clear on several occasions during the regatta. The rules exclude the use of synthetic fabrics, heavy canvas duck is the usual sail fabric.
In contrast, the Haitian sailing vessels which are frequently seen in the Bahamas could be arguably more in keeping with the spirit of the first Out Island Regattas. The crudely built Haitian boats are constructed from local materials, the sails, sometimes incongruously colourful, are sewn together from scavenged advertising banners. The Haitian sailors are generally unwelcome in the Bahamas but at a certain level are tolerated by the authorities. In Nassau we once saw a half dozen anchored near the harbour entrance in striking contrast to the huge cruise ships at the nearby docks. The Haitians play the part of seagoing junkyard dealers collecting anything that may have some value back in Haiti. Several times we saw Haitian boats, their decks loaded with used mattresses, furniture and old bicycles, sail the length of Nassau harbour past the hotels on Paradise Island, past the cruise ships and yachts of the well-to-do. It was an image out of Cottman's book and the old Bahamian mailboats must have looked much the same. The Haitians do not yet need a traditional boat regatta.
|Confusion at the start during an early edition (1950s) of the Out Island Regatta.|
From J. Linton Rigg's book Bahama Islands.
Day Three - Vitamalt, the Drink That Puts Lead in Your Pencil
On the third day of the regatta I had to make an effort to resolve a problem. The previous day the whole time I was racing I kept thinking of Chris aboard Hirondelle and how much she wanted to be out on one of the sloops. Her one chance to race had been quashed but somehow in one day I had managed to race on three different boats. During our travels in the Bahamas we had noticed a reluctance on the part of Bahamian women to get out on small boats. We wondered if it was a cultural phenomenon. The year before we saw a young women driving a power boat working with several fishing boats as we all sat out a weather front behind Chub Cay. We thought it remarkable because it was the only time we saw a Bahamian woman running a boat. At the Family Island Regatta several of the racing sloops had women aboard but they were all foreigners, including one on Lucayan Lady. Clearly King had no issue with female crew so I thought that there would be a chance that Chris could race on Lucayan Lady.
Early on Thursday morning we were again anchored off Kidd Cove. Bob and his wife came round and ferried me over to the marina dock. The B Class race was again the first of the day. The wind was light at the start but gradually picked up throughout the race. Ansbacher Queen was outclassed and we finished third last. Then it was back to the dock to prepare for Lucayan Lady´s race. King was happy to have Chris aboard and that was a relief for me. We had arranged for the girls to go aboard Wandering Albatross. There they would be plied with cookies and candies and pay almost no attention to what their parents were doing. We met King´s wife when she brought sandwiches for the crew.
Lucayan Lady made a somewhat hapless departure from the dock, drifting out of control through the cruisers' anchorage but without hitting anything. At least we made it to the start on time. After we had anchored, and as we waited for the start, an inflatable dinghy of one of the cruising boats approached Lucayan Lady. A woman her late fifties or early sixties in the dinghy hailed King. "Hey, King," she shouted, "I first met you 35 years ago in Nassau." We all looked at her as she snapped some photographs and then moved on. I don't think King had a clue who she was but some of the crew teased him about the encounter.
For the Lucayan Ladies the second A Class race was to be memorable for the wrong reasons, but at least no one was hurt. A 15-knot breeze was blowing up white caps across Elizabeth Harbour. Again I was outside man on the aft pry. Chris was on the same pry but inboard. With her extensive experience racing 470 dinghies she quickly got into the groove of sailing aboard Lucayan Lady. We had a good start without fouling any other boats. Out on the pry with the strong wind it was a hell of a ride. Sitting way above the water, occasionally looking down to see the keel through the clear water and feeling the press of the wind rocking the boat, was exhilarating. It was not to last long. While on the starboard tack, heading for the first windward mark off Stocking Island there was a loud cracking sound, the snap of wood breaking. On the pry and with bodies in front of me, I could see nothing but the boom had a three-foot long split starting from the gooseneck. It was all at once very quiet aboard. What would happen next? Fortunately, nothing really bad.
With hand firm on the tiller King held his course, and sent China forward with a length of rope. Somewhat incredulously, the crew watched as China wrapped the rope round the split to try and hold the boom together like a spline. I do not think anyone believed, certainly not the cruisers, that the repair would hold once we jibed or tacked. Complicating matters was the fact that we were on starboard tack and at the windward mark we would have to round with the buoy on portside. Tacking was going to be a problem in our delicate condition. Ahead of us several boats were about to reach the vicinity of the mark at the same time and there was not going to be room for all of them. There occurred a series of bumps and crashes between various boats, and I was sure that we were going to join in on the fun. Bahamian skippers sail their boats as if they are carry heavy insurance, but perhaps they don't and that no one cares too much. Closing in on the mark we hit the first boat beam on beam. Chris scampered aboard and sat by the gunnel watching to see what would happen next. As Lucayan Lady headed up and leveled off, the ends of the pries dipped into the water. I gripped the pry trying to hold on as the pressure of the water tried to pull me off. I made it to the boat with nothing worse than a soaking. The outside man on the other pry, next to me, dived into the water. We sheered away from the other boat carrying enough forward momentum to take us to the mark just as another boat on the port tack also did. Our bow hit the other boat just abaft of their bow. We were then dead in the water. Obviously we could not go on. We were also short at least two of crew. I looked about but could not find Chris. The fellow who had dived off was now on the pry of another boat that had fished him out and was now moving away. A second fellow had dived off to avoid being swept off by the boom of another boat but came back aboard Lucayan Lady. I could not find Chris because in the confusion she had the sense to dive into the hold. If the boats were not built of wood it would have been a real mess. One of our shrouds had broken in one of the collisions. It was time to lower the main.
Lucayan Lady limped back to the dock under jib alone. There we surveyed the damage. King said that he could fix the boom in time for next day's race. He proposed wrapping the split with fibreglass. Chris and I had experience with fibreglass repairs and we offered to help King. He thanked us but said it was not necessary. I went off to race the C Class race aboard Vitamalt Thunderbird. This time we had a fifth man aboard which helped in the blowing conditions. We had a sloppy start and missed one of our tacks. That was enough to leave us trailing for the rest of the race. We finished eleventh.
|"Bahama spinnakers" in the early years of the Out Island |
Regatta. From J. Linton Rigg´s book Bahama Islands.
Day Four - Another Day at the Races
The fourth day of racing again proved to be most interesting. The B Class boats raced first and aboard Ansbacher Queen it was not to go well. The performance of the crew would have made the Keystone Cops envious. I thought the crew members were not very supportive of the skipper King, most of them arriving late. Most of the crew had been getting into the spirit of the regatta and for the majority admitted to having been out late partying. King with the help of some of his regulars and me, as the visitor, changed Ansbacher Queen's sails. Leaving the dock was a comedy of errors accompanied by a chorus of shouts, orders and counter orders. Confusion in a word. We left the dock with Lucayan Lady's rudder aboard. The intent was to leave the rudder aboard Lucayan Lady which was anchored out. Our tow boat did not understand the various shouts emanating from Ansbacher Queen and we were unable to deliver the rudder as planned. We simply dropped it into the water near the start to be picked up later. The confusion aboard made for a very unsettled atmosphere at least as far as I was concerned. The start went reasonably well but we muffed a tack early on, leaving us dead in the water and the fleet moved on without us. Eventually, when everyone realised that it was hopeless the tension aboard eased somewhat. At one point I was swept off the pry by a wave and I found myself hanging on to the gunnel, my legs in the water. King looked over at me and shouted, "save the man." A couple of the crew unceremoniously hauled me aboard. Throughout the race there was a constant patter between King and his boys. King chastising them that if they stayed out so late they should not expect to do well. The crew, at least some, insisting that they had not been out as late as King thought. Returning to the dock I was wary of what would happen on Lucayan Lady.
We moved Lucayan Lady from the anchorage to the dock and changed her sails. A power boat delivered the rudder. Overnight King had repaired the boom, there was a mass of fibreglass wrapped round the split like some huge bandaged thumb. Chris came aboard and I recounted to her what had happened on Ansbacher Queen. Mercifully we had a tow out from the dock possibly saving us some embarrassment. Despite a good start and more or less competent sailing, we finished near the back of the pack. The wind was again up near 15 knots and at times Lucayan Lady was almost on her beam ends. Those on the prys had a thrilling ride, if somewhat alarming.
Aboard Vitamalt Thunderbird's we put in a good effort in the C Class race but we were frustrated by a decision taken before the race. As the wind was fairly strong during the early part of the day, Joshua thought that it would be more appropriate to race with less sail area. Accordingly we changed to a shorter boom and smaller main. Of course, once committed to such a move there is no way to go back. It would have been better with the larger main because by the time we got out to the start the winds were failing. Nevertheless, we sailed well. The way the course was laid out, the fleet had to sail the downwind leg through the cruising boat anchorage near Stocking Island. Joshua had his hands full keeping the end of the boom clear of the anchored boats. Two of the sloops behind us had a bizarre encounter. One sloop snagged the stay of another boat. The mast of the one boat bent to a phenomenal degree before snapping about two-thirds of the way up. The broken bit came down on the foredeck, fortunately clear of the crew.
After three races I was exhausted and hungry. Chris and the girls were ashore enjoying the party and I found them after awhile of wandering through the crowds of party goers. Music from various sources blared a cacophony of noise. The scantily dressed girls showed off and the guys eyed them. Food and drink was available at various stands. There was a small police presence but it was a happy friendly crowd. Again it was a mostly Bahamian crowd with a few foreigners. The Anglican bishop of the Bahamas was said to be about. If the bishop was looking for sinners no one paid him any attention. The Family Island Regatta was more fun than the timid cruiser´s regatta.
Later over dinner, Chris and I discussed sailing aboard Lucayan Lady. We had no doubt that King was a good, or even an excellent sailor, but his Bahamians were not in his same league. It was obvious that of all the crew Ali was the only one who had sailed extensively. Chris thought that most of King´s boys were very inexperienced sailors. In fact, we learned later that most had only been sailing for a short time, a few weeks in fact. They seemed at times not to realise the importance of King´s commands or instructions. For instance, it was critically important to get the jib around and hardened quickly during a tack or else the boat ended up in stays and stopped dead in the water. The crew also did not understand why going to windward the mainsail was flattened by pulling the outhaul or conversely why the outhaul was released on the downwind legs. Eventually, they would learn these things. Once Chris realised the level of skill that most of the crew had she felt more comfortable taking the initiative in some of the maneuvers, for example, during anchoring and mooring. For his part, King understood that Chris and I were comfortable on a boat in a way that most of his boys were not. I think he appreciated having us aboard. A couple of the crew were oddly adverse to water. One fellow would not go out on the pry because he did not want to get wet and another wore a plastic bag under his T-shirt to keep the spray off. To us Canadians getting wet in the Bahamas was part of the fun, like ducks to water.
|The author kitted out in Vitamalt colours and|
enjoying a sample of the sponsor's fine (non-
alcoholic, by the way) brew.
Saturday was the last day of the regatta. The order of races had changed and it was the C Class that was to go first. Bob picked me up early and we were aboard Vitamalt Thunderbird by a quarter to eight. Joshua had elected to change back to the original longer boom and larger sail. There was a 15-knot breeze churning up white caps out on Elizabeth Harbour. Aboard Vitamalt Thunderbird the mood was upbeat and we were all keen to put in a good race. We had a good start getting away cleanly. Bob and I were as usual on the prys. From the starting line we had gone off on port tack and headed into the corner off Regatta Point, the wind out of the south-west. Off of Regatta Point we flipped to starboard tack and as we neared the centre of the course we were probably in the top five. Legal Weapon was on port tack also heading up the centre of the course. Blanketed by her sails and without a lookout Legal Weapon's crew could not see us. It was obvious to Bob and I out on the prys that we were going to collide. My instinct was to holler "starboard" but as a guest I was reluctant, I did not want to usurp the skipper´s authority. I think Bob felt the same. Just as we were about to hit, Green pushed the tiller over and luffed up into the wind thus avoiding the collision. Legal Weapon heard more than saw us and tacked away clear but we found ourselves dead in the water. There was no option but to drop the main part way and fall off to make some way. We hoisted the main and continued but by then the fleet had left us behind. It was disappointing especially since Vitamalt Thunderbird had been well sailed. Downwind she found her stride and we all felt that we could have finished in the money. Later anchored in Kidd Cove as we helped de-rig the boat we could hear Vitamalt Thunderbird's owner angrily and loudly berating the crew of Legal Weapon. It was unlikely that Legal Weapon´s crew was very much concerned as they had won Class C honors. Good racers they were but showed poor seamanship by failing to keep a proper lookout. As we worked on the boat Joshua quietly said to us that he had luffed the boat because he did not want anyone hurt. He had no other option and had made the correct decision, it's only a boat race after all. I kept thinking that I should have shouted out. The owner asked if Bob and I would be attending any of the other regattas, it was a nice appreciation of our abilities.
Next up was the B Class race and what was to be a dismal performance by Ansbacher Queen. I do not want to give the impression that I was not enjoying myself, I was, but it would have been icing on the cake to have been able to contribute to some better finishes. The B Class races were the most bizarre, frustrating and, frankly, ridiculous. At least Ansbacher Queen had a decent start and we got around the course once completely before things went haywire. It was on the up-wind leg when we missed a tack. The main had to come down and the boat fall away to get some way before hoisting the sail; a very tedious maneuver to have to perform in the middle of a race. We got the boat going and then we missed another tack. Once again we let Ansbacher Queen fall away and got her going and then we muffed the tack for the third time. The problem was a lack of sharpness on the part of the crew especially the handling of the jib, way too slow to come across. The crew fell silent and I felt bad for King. He was frustrated but took it in stride. Unlike some of the skippers I had raced for, King never lost his cool or abused any of his crew. By this time we were hopelessly behind all of the other boats and the pretence was made that we had broken equipment. King elected to sail back to Kidd Cove where we tailed off of Lucayan Lady. We had time to take off the mainsail and boom of Ansbacher Queen. We transferred some of the lead pigs from the B boat to Lucayan Lady. Chris got a ride over and we both helped while most of the crew scampered off to shore, presumably to lick wounds and have some lunch. Chris, myself and some others sailed Ansbacher Queen under jib alone round to the government dock. Chris had the opportunity to steer for a bit. We anchored behind one of the mailboats. Going ashore King bought me a beer and we walked over through the happy crowds to the marina dock.
Gradually the crew reassembled on the dock and we hitched rides out to Lucayan Lady. Another bit of Keystone Cops antics was played out in Kidd Cove. Sailing off the anchor in a crowded anchorage is never without the potential of providing onlookers with some entertainment. We did not disappoint. Sailing through the crusiers' anchorage, fortunately very slowly, we had little way and thus almost no steerage. It was then that we drifted over the anchor rode of an anchored cruiser. The rode slid along Lucayan Lady´s keel until it lodged in the gap between the rudder and the hull. That stopped us and we swung sideways until we were beam to beam with the cruiser in question, whose owners, fortunately, were not aboard. While some of us fended off, a couple of the crew dived in and were able to slip the rode out of the gap. The whole episode was enacted a couple of boat lengths away from Wandering Albatross, the boat where our daughters were being entertained. The girls were able to closely follow their parents shenanigans. It is good that your children can sometimes laugh at you.
Free at last, we sailed off to more adventures. Mercifully we were not late for the start, and neither did we make a hash of it. We were simply outclassed by the other crews. One boat did, however, drop out because of a torn mainsail. The race goes to the swift and cunning, we were neither. We did nothing very wrong, we made all of our tacks and rounded the buoys without trouble, but we were just not sharp enough. The last leg of the race ran from a mark below the monument on Stocking Island diagonally across Elizabeth Harbour to the finish line off Regatta Point. Again I was on the outer end of the pry with Chris inboard of me and it was a glorious few minutes as Lucayan Lady chased after the rest of the fleet. From last place we had a fine sight of the fleet ahead racing over the aquamarine waters of Elizabeth Harbour. For the crowds of spectators, both on shore and aboard boats, it was a grand thing to watch the racing fleet come home. Overhead a glorious blue sky with the odd puff of white clouds. Below us the crystal water curved to the sheer of Lucayan Lady's hull. Perched high up on the prys we had the best seats in the house. As we crossed the line there were cheers and horns blaring. A power boat of full of spectators, or perhaps groupies, approached Lucayan Lady to say hello to and cheer King. He wore a big smile and waved to his friends. The regatta was over.
Lucayan Lady dropped anchor opposite the government dock. There we took the sails off and removed the boom to lay it on deck. Later Lucayan Lady with her mast still standing would be hoisted aboard a mailboat for the trip to Nassau. The crew hitched rides to shore as soon as they could and dashed off for the shore party. Chris and I said thanked King for having us aboard and he expressed his gratitude to us. We said goodbye to the crew chief Ali. Once ashore Chris and I walked up the main street towards the town centre. There was a huge crowd in front of the government building watching the Bahamian Police Band and its break-dancing sergeant-major. We met up with the girls and their escorts from Wandering Albatross. And, we went on to the regatta party for some food and something stronger than Vitamalt like, say, a few ice cold Kaliks.
|A Class A sloop sailing in Elizabeth Harbour off Regatta Point.|
I recommend the following books for those who may be interested in Bahamian history, sailing and the Family Island Regatta.
Out-Island Doctor, Cottman, Evans W., with Wyatt Blassingame, Hodder and Stoughton, 1963
Islanders in the Stream; A History of the Bahamian People, Volume Two, Micheal Craton, Gail Saunders, University of Georgia Press, 1998
Bahama Islands, J. Linton Rigg, 3rd edition, D. Van Norstand Company Inc., 1959
(All images by Chris unless otherwise noted.)