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25th Anniversary St. Maarten Heineken Regatta

With the March deadline looming, it was time to check with Heineken Regatta Director Mirian Ebbers for any newsworthy last-minute entries.

“Jimmy Cliff,” came her reply.

“I didn’t know he sailed,” I said, wrongfooted.

“He doesn’t. He’s headlining the final night.”

There in a nutshell lies the appeal of the St Maarten Heineken Regatta – big names across the board, whether behind a microphone or a team of winch grinders. The regatta whose catchphrase is ‘Serious Fun’ is almost unique in its ability to throw top sailors against each other during the day for heated sailing exchanges on the water, then bring everyone together in the evening for a cool beer and a shuffle to some live music.

Hardly a secret this year is the fact that the Heineken, which runs from March 4 to 6, is celebrating its Silver Jubilee. If you find yourself standing next to an America’s Cup or Whitbread legend at the bar, the sense of nostalgia surrounding this year’s regatta should be a reminder that ‘twas not ever thus. The Heineken started out with just 12 boats from the local area putting a race together. Only the most delusional would have imagined in 1980 that it would one day become arguably the biggest draw in the Caribbean racing calendar for visiting yachtsmen, whether on board a chartered bareboat or top-of-the range Maxi.

Last year, 238 boats did battle off the coast of St Maarten, in 6 overall classes from Beach Cat right up to Big Boat. The Bareboat class was divided into six divisions. St Kitts’ Dougie Brookes took Bareboat 1 ahead of 18 others boats aboard the Beneteau 50 Island Flyer, while Mark Duranty came out top of the largest fleet in Bareboat 3, beating off 22 others on the 45’ Beneteau Island Flyer. Bareboat 5, and the overall Most Worthy Performance cup went to Hans Richter’s Vague a l’Ame (Sun Odyssey 40).

Multihull racing at the Heineken has still yet to reach the entry numbers of old, but the competition is as thrilling as ever. Pascal Marchais’ Hobie 16 Quicksilver Eyewear won a 7-strong Beach Cat Class while Dominic Mouillac snatched the Multi Hull Cruising Class aboard Fantastic Lady II. In Multi Hull racing, Richard Woolridge’s Triple Jack came out on top, besting Pat Turner on the world’s oldest existing Trimaran, Tryst.

The two Non-Spinnaker classes are rife with enduring rivalries. In One, Bill Higgenson was crowned champion on the Frers 80 Volador, while in division Two, Antigua’s Hugh Bailey, on the Beneteau 435 Hugo, beat off his old foe Bobby Velasquez on L’Esperance. To be continued…!

The six Spinnaker divisions combined performance and personality, with a story in every race. Trinidad took the glory in division 6 thanks to the 34’ Beneteau Guardian Star, whereas Antigua came out top on Spinnaker 5 with Tony Maidment’s 34’ Dehler Budger Marine. With Swans, Farrs and Formula 1’s going head to head throughout the classes, Spinnaker was the one to keep an eye on.

And so we did. Spinnaker 1 threw up the inaugural face-off between the two canting keel Z-86 Maxis, Morning Glory and Pyewacket. After three days of fierce but amicable racing, Dr Hasso Plattner’s Morning Glory snatched the headlines from Roy Disney’s Pyewacket – the last time these two would race each other with smiles on their faces.

Finally, the Open or Fun classes provides competition for those boats who can’t get a rating. Nick Maley’s 27’ C&C Pumkin had the most fun in this class, beating 16 other boats.

This year’s regatta will once again see racing in Spinnaker, Non Spinnaker, Bareboat, Multihull, Beach Cat and Open Classes. The coveted blue Delft jugs from yesteryear have been replaced by trophies including The Columbus Cup (overall winner in Bareboat Class), the Around the Island Trophy and the ‘Most Worthy Performance’ Cup.

The schedule begins with the Round the Island race on Friday, starting from Simpson Bay and finishing this year in Great Bay. On Saturday, boats will race from Great Bay to Marigot, returning on Sunday to Simpson Bay for prize giving and entertainment.

Then, no sooner will Jimmy Cliff has sung his final bar, than the planning begins for 2006, give or take a few days. The Heineken Regatta catapulted itself into the major leagues years ago, drawing in one by one everyone from Ted Turner to Dennis Conner, Laurent Bourgnon to Chris Dickson. The secret has been to combine meticulous preparation and a vibrant volunteer base with an unpretentious, carefree spirit where disputes are ultimately settled in the bar not the protest room. Cheers!

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