Hold Tight and Plan to Get Soaked

Hold Tight and Plan to Get Soaked

April 17, 2023

If your notion of sailing is gliding smoothly along while calmly drinking champagne, there’s more to the story. The reality for competitive sailors at Les Voiles de St. Barth Richard Mille is a face full of stinging spray, followed by another, another and then another.

For this regatta, the geography of St. Barthélemy is to blame.

“The island is centered in the Caribbean where the trade winds are strongest, and it’s positioned with the Atlantic Ocean right there,” said Peter Isler, navigator of the Pyewacket 70, and a St. Barth veteran. “When you leave the harbor and turn the corner, you are hitting waves that have built up over thousands of miles of open sea.

“Some of the smaller boats might never go to sea for real, but at St. Barth a sailor can have the experience for a few hours — I wouldn’t bring my mother — and then be back in shelter with the sun still up,” he said.

There is no better example of small than a 24-foot Diam trimaran, which usually races only short courses. There is no “downstairs” on a Diam 24. Racing around St. Barth, Erick Clement, the skipper of the Karibuni, said, “We feel the energy and the power of wind and sea.”

Speed counts, too.

“My crewman Morgen Watson has a role in high-end international sailing, but last year, crewing on a 70-foot monohull, he saw our little 24-footers keeping up,” Clement said. “He wanted to play our game. Morgen tells me, ‘The boat is smaller, but the thrills are bigger.’”

A multihull such as the Karibuni is wide. Crew members ride high when the boat is angled over and working to gain distance upwind, but not high enough to avoid sheets of spray. Downwind is even wetter, with speeds tripling. Clement then gets the fire-hose treatment. “I can’t wear sunglasses in the deluge,” he said. “I think I need a helmet like the guys in SailGP.”

Pierre Altier, skipper of the Crybaby, a Diam 24, said he normally raced with three people in “wet suits, helmets and goggles.”

Part of the mystique of racing at St. Barth is to thrash through the days that are brilliant and bruising, then party like there’s no tomorrow, until there is.

“St. Barth started small, taking all the good features of other Caribbean regattas and then giving it a special feeling of its own,” said Bernie Evan-Wong, skipper of the 37-foot Taz. “People ship boats from the other side of the world, just for this experience.

“It’s intense, to be honest,” Evan-Wong said. “It takes effort from everyone, and I have an amateur crew. Nobody gets paid, but I take good care of them because there is no hope for success unless you have the same team over and over, and they’re motivated. As a team, we all feel especially motivated by the buckets of chilled rosé they bring us when we take our bruises back to the harbor.”

At rest, the crew can have all the bonbons they want.

The perks of St. Barth are not wasted, even on a pro like Ricky McGarvie, whose job will be to work at the skinny front end of the 47-foot Stark Raving Mad IX. But those perks are earned.

From past experience at St. Barth, McGarvie described “waves that are higher than the deck, and when we make a sail change, the deck I’m working on to get one sail up and another sail down might drop right out from under me. Then I come crashing down and meet the boat coming back up.

“And maybe we crash straight ahead through the next wave and for a moment I’m under water. I have to keep the proverbial one hand for myself, or I’d be overboard. Ever seen a rider launched off a bull? But at the same time, I really need both hands for the job.”

Isler of the Pyewacket 70 said the rocks and islets used as turning marks “make for some of the most scenic eye candy in the world. It’s an added attraction to sailing a boat that feels alive under your feet.”

He is racing with a familiar group on Pyewacket 70, a speed machine that demands a professional crew.

The 70-footer was built about a decade ago for the around-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, an event with boats designed to deliberately generate massive amounts of spray, while skirting iceberg waters. The boat is now owned by Roy P. Disney, a grandnephew of Walt Disney.

“On Pyewacket, we see some of the best teamwork you will find in any sport,” Isler said. “You have to have that. Any time the wind hits the midteens or better, blue water comes rushing down the deck. We’re always overrunning the wave ahead, and the reason people talk about sailing into fire-hose spray is, that’s what it’s like.”

Should any member of the team make a mistake, especially downwind with the boat being pulled by its biggest sails, with the driving power balanced — or unbalanced — high overhead, the boat could spin out of control, roll on its side and risk breaking equipment or people. That’s a lot of boat to imagine with a deck bucking and vertical, especially if you can’t walk on the water that is now beneath your dangling feet.

Pushing for maximum performance while avoiding such a moment is what the pros do.

“It’s like riding a runaway subway car in New York City,” Isler said. “Or I guess not, but it isn’t like anything else, either. That’s where teamwork comes in, and trust.”

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