THE BOOM SWUNG ACROSS the 45-foot sloop Blue Loon, and I scrambled from one side of the boat to the other, ready to topple headfirst into the helm or onto another crewman as we tacked. Balancing precariously on the edge of the port rail, I secured the winch handle and grinded like hell as the jib sail tightened and we started to gain speed. "Come on, come on, come on, come on!" yelled Adam Langerman, our sail trimmer, tactician, and all-around on-boat guru. "You're not on vacation!"
Access and Resources
Registration Information for Antigua Sailing Week is available at 268-462-8872 or www.sailingweek.com. For private boat owners, a Caribbean Sailing Association (268-726-2271, www.caribbean-sailing.com) rating is required to compete, and boats must register through the race's organizational body. The race entry fee is per foot per boat. Private charter companies like Horizon Yacht Charters (866-439-1089, www.antiguahorizon.com), The Moorings (800-535-7289, www.moorings.com), and ...
It was my fourth day at Antigua Sailing Week, and I was caked in suntan lotion and sweat, sea spray was sprinkling salt-crusted drops on my sunglasses, and the low rattle and hum in my ears reminded me of the number of rum cocktails I'd had the night before. Adam, trying not to laugh, was still yelling at me: "One piña colada, two piña coladas!" Mmm, piña coladas.
This half-work, half-play, slightly medicated, slightly intense attitude is typical of Antigua Sailing Week, the biggest regatta in the Caribbean and one of the top-ranked races in the world. Starting the last Sunday in April, about 200 yachts, more than 1,500 sailors, and some 5,000 spectators invade the turquoise waters and rolling green hills of this 108-square-mile island in the eastern Caribbean. Nineteen classes of boats crewed by sunburned Brits, Americans, Germans, Canadians, and Swedes, among others, go head to head in a series of five racesplus a championship eventfor the region's last big hurrah before hurricane season rolls in. During the day, knifelike 70-plus-foot racing boats crewed by America's Cup sailors slice past classic antique ketches, dirtbag floaters, day cruisers, and massive billionaire-owned mega-yachts. At night, in the island's myriad open-air beach bars and seafood restaurants, deckhand kids, retired financiers, and sailing legends rub elbows while quaffing aged rum and dining on fresh fish. It's seven days of sailing and partying that play out like a rum-soaked page of Moby Dick, nautical lexicon and all. Everyone's there to do some hardcore sailing, but they've also come to raise some hell.
I'd touched down on Antigua from high-desert New Mexico after the festivities had started and was promptly swallowed by the island's balmy heat. My father, Ralph, had had a good day. Sipping a Carib (the Caribbean's Corona) at The Beach bar on Dickenson Bay and sporting a dark tan he'd picked up from living in the islands for the previous six months, he told me they'd come in second in the Bareboat IV class, up against 14 other boats. Not bad for a first-time regatta captain. For three Caribbean sailing seasons, my father had been on a self-imposed sabbatical from the aviation industry. In 2002 he bought the Blue Loon and then sailed the entire Windward and Leeward chains. He'd gotten so hooked on the sailing life, and so proficient on the boat, that he'd been toying with the idea of sailing around the world.
For my first day on the water, and the second race in the series, I was relegated to "rail meat," the quasi-affectionate term for crew members used as well-placed dead weight on the sides of the boat, allowing it to heel over just right for maximum speed. That day the sea splashed at my toes while the rest of the crew steered the boat toward the finish line. But just as we were about to cross, a massive 50-foot boat cut directly in front of us. We tacked quickly but bumped the committee boatthe official race boat marking the finish line. "I'm fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing," I said sarcastically to Chris D'Amore, another crew member. "Is it bad to hit the committee boat?" Cracking a beer, Chris, a perpetually grinning rugby player of a man, turned his back to the rest of the crew, stifled a laugh, and said, "Once everyone relaxes a little, this is going to be really funny."
With enough lobster, liquor, and palm trees, just about anything can be funny. That evening, we sat in the rocking cockpit of the Blue Loon drinking rum-and-Cokes, then powered our inflatable dinghy into Jolly Harbour. The sound of steel drums drifted from a gazebo off the main dock while hundreds of lit masts swayed in the harbor. Sailors hoisted slushy concoctions and hauled them from one outdoor bar to another, catching up and talking trash as they went. At about 11 p.m., we wandered into a full-blown outdoor barbecue with about 30 grills and makeshift bars huddled together. I went straight for the fresh Caribbean lobstera clawless, sandy-colored, and more tender version of its Maine cousin.
For the next four days, I sailed and partied in harborside bars like Skullduggery and the Last Lemming, knocking back espresso martinis as I went. In between, there was "Lay Day" on Pigeon Beach, where sailors competed in tugs-of-war, sail-bag races (the nautical version of the potato-sack race), drinking relays, a coed beachwear swap, and, ahem, a wet-T-shirt contest.
Somehow we escaped a penalty on the second day, and by the fifth, the last official day of racing, we were in third place in our class but had not yet won a race. One boat, Justice, had edged us out every day, and although we were out of the running for an overall first-place finish, we had one last chance to stick it to them and snag some pride.
Boats zigzagged back and forth within feet of one another near the starting line, jockeying for prime position. Three boats to our starboard side were coming dangerously close to crossing the line before the starting gun fired. "Push them up!" yelled Chris. "Hold your course, Ralph!" That's when a crack! resonated as Justice was smacked by another boat. The gun went off, and we scooted right out in front of our competition. Sometimes one good maneuverone lucky momentis all you need. A couple of hours later, we crossed the finish line with over a minute to spare for our first and only win of the week, securing us a trophy for second place overall. Cheers went up, beers miraculously appeared, and my father, as even-keeled and controlled as they come, smiled broadly, his teeth so white he could have lit up a Christmas tree.
A few days later, the globe-trotting yachties were all saying goodbye to each otherand to the Caribbean. Some were crewing on private boats fanning out in different directions, and some would hook up in the Mediterranean or Newport, Rhode Island, where most of the big yachts were heading. Either way, the sailing and the partying would go on. My father was getting ready to sail back up to the British Virgin Islands to put his boat up for hurricane season.
After drinking champagne out of our trophy cup and making a pit stop at the swanked-out Lord Nelson's Ball, I capped off the week on the deck of the Blue Loon, sipping vanilla rum with my father and musing about nautical phrases, boat repairs, racing tactics, and whether or not he'd have to give all this up and go back to work. He thought he might have toalbeit reluctantly. "It's not a bad way to live," he said, almost mournfully, of race week, onboard living, and the vagabond sailing life. Dreading the moment when I'd have to put my socks back on and leave the life behind, I couldn't argue with him there.