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26th St. Maarten Heineken Regatta

Once again, boats came in quantity and quality to St Maarten in March, with some 264 entries and the now-customary tapestry of America’s Cup idols, Whitbread veterans, affluent owner/drivers, big-boned Dutch bareboaters and familiar Caribbean campaigners crossing the start line on Friday March 3.

However, the light winds which plagued the Silver Jubilee edition returned for a second consecutive year, this time forcing a complete cancellation of the third day’s racing. Outright victory, then, for Heineken, with around 2,000 parched sailors buying rounds of cans for breakfast rather than rounding the cans, but disappointment for competitors, with many battles still unfinished.

Regardless of what the wind had in store, the line-up this year was stunning: Tom Hill’s Reichel-Pugh Titan XII returned with the intention of continuing last year’s Caribbean clean-up, as did the Swan 56 Lolita. Also in Spinnaker 1 were two Transpac 52s and two Farr 60s, one of which, Numbers, was packed with crew from Alinghi. Also on the water, their canvas looming over the regular fleets, were the Wally 77 Carrera, Peter Harrison’s Farr 115 Sojana and a dozen more Swans. In Spinnaker 4, local hero Paul Dielemans, an Olympian in 1996, returned on Swan Benelux 2, coming fourth in the Round the Island race.

With winds at 15 knots, the opening day’s race had competitors literally bolting out the traps to get underway. A total of five boats in the Spinnaker classes crossed the start line early, giving Race Officer Andrew Rapley a taste of what was to come in his first Regatta in charge. In other dramatic cameos, the skipper of Team Atlantic had to withdraw and take five stitches following a smack from the boom, and Chairman of the Steering Committee Robbie Ferron heroically dived into the water to rescue a buoy snagged by a bareboat doing a 360 penalty.

In 3 hours 43 minutes, Sojana took line honors in the Round the Island Race, despite being one of those boats to suffer a start recall, but it was Titan who took first place on corrected time. Other winners on Day One were last year’s overall winner, Lazy Dog, in Spinnaker 5, Lolita in Spinnaker 2, Frits Bus’s Carib Natufit in Spinnaker 6 and Vega Prima in the tight Spinnaker 7. Perhaps the surprise of the day came in Non-Spinnaker 1; the annual duel between Bobby Velasquez and Hugo Bailey relegated to a fight for second place, when Three Harkoms took first place.

Friday’s night’s excellent bash on the Philipsburg boardwalk had clearly taken its toll as some fuzzy crews set off on Day Two towards Marigot, with the winds dying progressively. An added feature to this year’s regatta was a leeward/windward series for the spinnaker classes in Great Bay. Titan once again dominated, winning all three races in the day and showing that she’s not just a fast boat, but also carries a versatile, expertly drilled crew. Affinity, a Swan 48, was another boat to complete a hat trick of wins to finish the regatta with a 100% record, as did Lazy Dog. One of the most interesting duels was an old one – Frits Bus and Jamie Dobbs enjoying a classic St Maarten/Antigua battle in Spinnaker 6. Two wins apiece left this one frustratingly poised.

By the end of Day Two, Race Officer Rapley was already shortening courses and by Sunday morning, with 3 knots of wind available, it was curtains. No quibbles at all with the call – Rapley had a storming regatta, but this was a bitter pill to swallow.

Philippe Herve, skipper of Vanille in the ruthless Spinnaker 7 class, voiced the frustrations of many. “It was a big disappointment not to have the last race. It was the best conditions for the boat and the class was still open.”

For Antiguan legend Karl James, trimming Jib and Spinnaker aboard Sojana, it was a case of being cruel to be kind. “I hate to go to regattas where people try to salvage a regatta,” he said. “I believe that they learnt from last year. Even if people come down to race, they don’t want bad races.”

Both sailors had praise for the new Windward/Leeward trial, which was well received across the classes, even if James didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. “The boat is almost as long as the legs,” he said. “It’s very hard work!”

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