Lit Bits

ROUND BARBADOS MEMORIES: The Most Fun Race I Ever Sailed

race start

I have studied with some interest the results of the most recent running of the Mount Gay Round Barbados Race, which this year boasted a record-breaking seven race records broken. I was amused too to see that it was billed as the 82nd running of the event. A deft bit of marketing I reckon, as the race, in its current form, was but two years old when I sailed it in 2012. At that time it purported to be a reincarnation of a much older round-island competition amongst trading schooners that dated back to the 19th century. Tradition has it the consolation prize for the last boat to finish was a barrel of Mount Gay rum, and that skippers loitered about the course for days attempting to win it. The first recorded round-island race, in 1936, was between five schooners. The winner was Sea Fox, which belonged to a New England rum smuggler, Lou Kennedy, who allegedly, when sailing on the Maine coast, would amuse himself by spiking lobster pots with bottles of Mount Gay.

I’m not sure I ever believed all this (the bits about the rum, I mean), but I do know the present race was the brainchild of Mount Gay’s current managing director, Raphael Grisoni, an avid sailor who came to Barbados from Paris, France, some years ago to run Mount Gay for its parent company Remy-Cointreau. Originally from Marseilles, Grisoni at the time I met him was racing a J/24, Bunga Bunga, in local round-the-buoy events.

36 race start

The start of the 1936 race. Despite what it says on the marquee, it has not been held every year since then

Raphael

Raphael Grisoni, a fine fellow indeed, who revived the race in 2011

Mount Gay and the Barbados Tourism Authority, in their infinite wisdom, flew me down to Barbados so I could sail the 2012 race with Raphael on a Farr 65, Spirit of Juno, chartered from OnDeck Racing. Also aboard were a horde of serious French sailors (including Figaro and Mini Transat vets and a 470 Olympian); a New York attorney (originally from Australia) and his American wife, who won their rides in a charity auction; and four paid OnDeck crew (a skipper, two deckhands, and a cook), representing between them a mélange of British and Italian ancestry.

I tend to be wary of these large impromptu multi-lingual racing crews. Sometimes they work out fine, but often they degenerate into testosterone-fueled pissing matches where everyone feels insulted and no one really understands anything anyone else is saying. This time, I’m happy to say, it worked out great. The vibe onboard was congenial and relaxed, no one got mad or confused, and (thanks to some huge wave slaps we received on the windward leg) everyone got (more or less) equally wet.

The race format was very simple—a staggered pursuit start, with slower boats going off first, and the course, as the race’s name suggest, was simply around the entire island of Barbados, a distance of about 70 miles, with no manmade marks save the start-finish line in Carlisle Bay right off Bridgetown.

map

Barbados in map format

One nice feature of this was that during the race we could easily discuss and analyze our progress by simply pointing at the Mount Gay logos on our crew shirts and red caps.

hatches off

Barbados in hat format

Boats in the fleet that year ranged from a 105-foot brigantine all the way down to a couple of J/24s, one of which was sailed singlehanded. We were lucky in that we had a sistership, another OnDeck Farr 65 with a charter crew (and an identical sail inventory), so we reckoned we could at least look forward to some one-design match racing. In all there were 27 boats competing, only two of which—Idea, a 78-foot Reichel Pugh maxi (also with a charter crew aboard), and Silver Bullet, a hot 30-foot performance cat—started after us.

Our one-design competition, unfortunately, was short-lived. We did have a fine joust with our sistership, Spirit of Isis, on the start line, with lots of shouting and near collisions in the final minute leading up to the gun. But by the end of the first leg, a gusty reach north on starboard tack up the west coast of the island, it was clear we were sailing appreciably faster. After we tacked around North Point and turned southeast, we stopped worrying about them altogether.

windward

Sailing up the west coast of the island (Spirit of Isis is to windward, but behind us)

The fun thing, of course, about being on one of the larger, faster boats in a pursuit race is that eventually you get to overtake many (or hopefully all) of the slower boats in front of you. What’s less fun is watching faster boats behind you slowly reel you in.

All during our closehauled port-tack leg down to Kitridge Point, as we slashed our way through the steep tradewind seas (including one slab-sided monster that sent a wall of white water sweeping down the length of the deck) we kept a nervous eye out for the tiny white sail of Silver Bullet and the much bigger black sail of Idea behind us. We were heartened when we saw that they were both struggling to get around North Point and that the distance between us was growing. Our sense of optimism took a big leap upwards when a pod of about a dozen dolphins, quite large ones, came bounding over the water towards us and frolicked in our roaring bow wave. We cheered like lunatics escaped from an asylum and, for a brief time at least, felt invincible.

spinnaker

Our big red spinnaker

By the time we reached Kitridge Point and turned downwind on the penultimate leg of the race, we had passed five boats and were looking good to pick up the rest. The launching of our big red asymmetric spinnaker, emblazoned with the Mount Gay logo (yet another conveniently located reference for tactical discussions), went off without a hitch, and our speed surged upward. Surfing down the faces of those big waves come all the way from Africa that had previously been whacking us in the face, we watched gleefully as our knotmeter hit spikes as high as 15.

But even as we passed by all the boats in front of us, we saw Silver Bullet and Idea accelerating behind us as they too finally turned the corner at Kitridge Point and popped open their chutes in turn. Now the gap between us started steadily decreasing.

downwind

Surfing downwind after rounding Kitridge Point

Watching Silver Bullet, the catamaran, we soon realized we had little or no chance of holding her off. She was, effectively, in a class of her own, flying at speeds well over 20 knots when she caught a wave with her kite trimmed properly. Her three-man crew, two of them hanging precipitously to windward from trapeze wires, were no doubt tired from wrestling with the large seas for so long, but they were also clearly energized by the fantastic performance of their boat and were driving her well.

The boat we really wanted to beat was Idea. Besides being 13 feet longer than us, she was a much newer design, with lighter, much more modern construction, and what looked like a fresh suit of fancy laminated sails. To best her would be a serious accomplishment and seemed as if it might be within the realm of possibility. We watched her creeping on us, and slowly the tension aboard increased.

Time came to jibe our spinnaker at South Point, on to the last leg of the race, and our optimism needle took a little jump upwards again when we pulled it off without a hitch. It rose even higher as we watched Idea mess up her jibe. We cheered for a bit when we saw her chute wrapped in a nice big knot, but soon her crew got it sorted out and were back up to speed.

It all came down to the last few miles, a short reach from the south end of Carlisle Bay up to the finish line. We had thought we might need to switch back to our jib here, but we found we could just carry our spinnaker if we stayed in as close as possible to the shoals off the south end of the bay. About two miles from the finish, Silver Bullet at last powered past us, almost as if we were standing still. Looking behind us, we saw Idea was still coming on, holding on to her spinnaker as well.

Just about half a mile from the finish, Idea finally passed us to leeward. It seemed a relief almost, and there was no shame in it. We had done an excellent job to keep the race so close.

But then came a cry from Michel, our oldest crew member, the ex-Olympian: “Ce n’est pas finis!”

Looking up, we saw the crew on Idea had decided they couldn’t hold their spinnaker anymore. They bore away and started a sail change, their chute fluttering downwards even as their jib slid up the forestay. We passed them again, praying they would make a mistake. We now had our spinnaker sheeted in to the limit, and when gusts came through we could barely control the boat, our boom coming within inches of tripping in the water as the boat heeled precipitously.

The crew on Idea were perfect. They doused the chute cleanly, got the jib up and trimmed and were coming on again. The finish line by now was just a few hundred yards away.

The last minute or so of the race was a delicious eternity. It didn’t really matter whether we beat them or not. What mattered was that moment… and the fact that we were in it, striving to beat them.

In the end they crossed the finish line about a half boat-length in front of us. And as a dramatic exclamation point, our spinnaker self-destructed, exploding into pieces, just as we crossed the line after them.

spin stow

Stowing the remains of our spinnaker after the finish

It was, most definitely, the most fun, most exciting sailboat race I’ve ever been in. And I won’t be too surprised if this stays true for the rest of my life.

cockpit party

Party in the cockpit after the race

alison

We take turns signing Alison, the smallest member of our crew

You can imagine the aftermath. Intense crew bonding in the cockpit after we anchored as we drank fine French wine and nibbled on foie gras. Then ashore for rum and more bonding.

Mount Gay rum, of course.

There were a total of six race records broken in that 2012 race, which wasn’t too surprising, given it was only the second time the race had been run. One of those records, for best time by a monohull, I’m proud to say was set by Idea, which was mere seconds faster than we were. The one-day round-island event has now morphed into a proper multi-day race series, but still the biggest prize you can win by far is the one you get for breaking a record in the round-island race: your skipper’s weight in Mount Gay Extra Old rum.

I figured for our race in 2012 that translated to almost 140 total gallons of free rum [185 (estimated average skipper weight in pounds) divided by 7.94 (average weight of a gallon of spirits in pounds) = 23.30 gallons times 6 = 139.8 gallons].

This year, with seven records broken, that estimated yield has risen to 163 gallons.

I think we can all drink to that.

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