St Maarten Heineken Regatta kicks off the Caribbean inshore season. David Harding met teams who’d made remarkable voyages to take part

The Caribbean regatta season is something of a pilgrimage to the sun, drawing competitors from across North America as well as across the Atlantic. Those coming from northern Europe or the Mediterranean often cross in the ARC rally or RORC Transatlantic Race. Then, after competing in your chosen events, and perhaps enjoying some cruising downtime in the islands, you have a choice of sailing or shipping the boat back for the European summer.

The St Maarten Heineken Regatta (SMHR) is the first big inshore regatta of the Caribbean season, after the offshore RORC Caribbean 600, and was the first time many new arrivals to the Caribbean this year had lined up against one another. Adopting the slogan ‘serious fun’, the event lays on competitive racing over four days, each ending with a seriously loud party.

From two to four

Given the timing and the geography, it’s no surprise to find a fair few boats completing the RORC’s Transatlantic Race before heading north to Antigua for the RORC Caribbean 600 and then enjoying a fast fetch across to
St Maarten, 90-odd miles to the north-west, a week later.

One boat to compete in all three events in 2023 was Kate Cope’s Jeanneau Sun Fast 3200, Purple Mist. Kate and her co-skipper, Claire Dresser, made headlines this year as the first two-handed female crew to complete the RORC Transatlantic. The boat is well known in racing circles in the UK, Cope being heavily involved in the double-handed offshore series. She started sailing relatively late in life, and moved from a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 36i to the 3200 in time for the AZAB in 2019.

Melges 24 flying the St Maarten colours. Photo: Laurens Morel/SMHR

After many more short-handed events around the UK over the following years, Cope sailed to Lanzarote in 2022 for the start of the RORC Transatlantic. Once across Biscay, she hopped around the Spanish coast in short legs by day, staying in shallow water in the hope of avoiding attack by orcas. Purple Mist succeeded in evading the whales, while other boats that ventured further offshore at the same time did attract the orcas’ attention.

After an enjoyable double-handed Transatlantic and Caribbean 600, Cope and Dresser were joined by two more crew, Suzie Anthony and Claire’s daughter, Emily, for the St Maarten Heineken – an event they entered ‘just for fun’. Kate had never done any crewed around the cans racing, so even sailing four-up was a new experience – and a challenging one on a boat that’s geared towards being sailed short-handed. In double-handed offshore racing each of the two crew is effectively sailing solo most of the time, while in St Maarten they were up against fully crewed J-Boats and a French Archambault which won five of six races to easily take the CSA 7 class win.

“I have never sailed fully crewed before,” said Kate. ‘In two-handed offshore events, whoever’s at the helm is normally managing the mainsheet, traveller and backstay too – that’s how the boat is set up. Inshore racing with a crew is a new experience and is definitely more pressured. I prefer sailing offshore!”

I joined Purple Mist for the 30-mile race around St Maarten on the breeziest day of the event, when conditions picked up from the usually consistent 14-17 knots from the east-north-east to 20-plus during the odd rain squall. Several of the VO65s and 70s came powering down to our leeward mark just as Purple Mist and a group of earlier starters were rounding, which certainly kept everyone on their toes for a minute or two.

Full speed and full sun protection for HH42 Ino XXX crew. Photo: Laurens Morel/SMHR

ARC and onwards

Another British boat that had made the passage to St Maarten was Fatjax, a Shipman 63 owned and sailed by Iain and Jacqueline Kirkpatrick. Fatjax made their Atlantic crossing via the ARC rally, having previously completed an ARC in 2019 and sailed back to the UK for a refit in 2022 after their round the world plans were disrupted by pandemic lockdowns.

Entering the regatta was a last minute decision for Ian and Jacqueline. Having chosen to take a year out before rejoining the World ARC in 2024, they were cruising the West Indies and heading to St Maarten anyway when the urge took hold to do some racing. But the couple are experienced racers, and if the name Fatjax sounds familiar, there’s good reason: Iain successfully campaigned two earlier boats of the same name (an X-332 and X-37), notching up multiple wins in Cowes Weeks.

Entering the St Maarten Heineken involved picking up some extra crew in Antigua and flying in a family friend at short notice from England. But the results made it worthwhile: Fatjax counted three 1sts to win her class convincingly against some doughty contenders such as Rubicon’s Clipper 60 Bluejay. Fatjax was sailing with upwind sails only, the ageing asymmetric that came with the boat having given up in mid-Atlantic.

Four VO65s crossed the Atlantic to race in St Maarten after the opening stages of The Ocean Race Sprint Cup to Cape Verde, along with two VO70s. Photo: Laurens Morel/SMHR

Fatjax was undoubtedly one of the most elegant boats in St Maarten, her condition reflecting the enormous amount of work that Iain put in to restoring her from a seriously neglected state after he and Jacqueline bought her in Palma in 2017.

Now, despite being a family cruising yacht and a home for extended periods, she’s still sailed with a seriously competitive edge when the occasion demands. As Jacqueline explained: “Iain still sails her like a dinghy. We don’t carry any excess weight when we’re racing and we empty the water tanks every day.”

Another boat to have made the pilgrimage south, though from the other side of the Atlantic, was the J/133 Bella J, owned by Raymond Rhinelander and based in Nova Scotia. Rhinelander’s decision to enter the Caribbean 600 was made only in September 2022, whereupon Raymond’s ‘boat co-ordinator’ and co-skipper, Sarah Nicholson, swung into gear. She sailed the boat down in November and December with a crew of four or five, picking weather windows and stopping in Virginia and the Bahamas before island-hopping down the Caribbean. They encountered some brisk conditions en-route, sailing in 38 knots under J4 and triple-reefed main, and recording a peak boat speed of 19.5 knots.

Their efforts were rewarded with two podium places in CSA 5, while the class win went to Pamela Baldwin’s Antiguan J/122 Liquid. The boats will likely rematch, as Antigua Sailing Week was next on Bella J’s agenda, followed by the Antigua-Bermuda race on the way home. Like several other boats making lengthy treks, Bella J’s crew arranged storage for their cruising kit in Antigua, where they underwent a mini refit.

The immaculate Shipman 63 Fatjax is raced hard despite being a liveabaord cruiser. Photo: Laurens Morel/SMHR

Southern visitors

By far the longest-travelled entrant at St Maarten this year, which attracted over 100 boats from 25 nations, was Guy Chester from Australia on his 46ft Lock Crowther-designed trimaran, Oceans Tribute.

Chester bought the boat unseen while cruising the Caribbean several years ago in a 52ft Crowther catamaran and looking for something faster with three hulls. He took possession in New Zealand after sailing the cat back across the Pacific. Then he put Oceans Tribute through several stages of re-fit before heading via New Caledonia to his home town of Cairns.

Next it was on to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Réunion and South Africa. Apart from the leg to New Caledonia, the trip was sailed single-handedly. Finally he sailed the 6,500 miles from Cape Town to Antigua, again on his own, in 27 days, clocking up a total of 16,500 miles since leaving New Zealand.

Rubicon’s Clipper 60 Bluejay of Portsmouth enjoying some three-sail reaching conditions. Photo: Laurens Morel/SMHR

“Solo sailing in a racing trimaran wasn’t frivolous!” he commented. “The boat was well set up for offshore when I bought her, but I added much more for single-handing across oceans. I have all the alarms and I still sleep with the mainsheet led to my hand down below.”

His Caribbean regatta programme in 2023 had already included Barbados Sailing Week, the Caribbean Multihull Challenge in St Maarten and the RORC Caribbean 600 before arriving in St Maarten, with other events planned to include Les Voiles de St Barth, the BVI Spring Regatta and Antigua Sailing Week. Over the next couple of years Chester also intends to take part in the Rolex Middle Sea Race, Fastnet and the RORC Transatlantic.
“This year I’m doing most of the Caribbean events that include multihulls, but I haven’t stopped sailing since 2019,” he adds.

Multihull competition at St Maarten was tough and included Loïc Escoffier in the ORC 50 Lodigroup, in which he’d just won the Multi class in the Route de Rhum. Anthony McVeigh’s British-registered Schionning 51C, 2 2 Tango, took the overall win in St Maarten.

Antiguan J/122 Liquid dominated its class. Photo: Laurens Morel/SMHR

Despite being appreciably shorter, and older (built in 1991), Oceans Tribute had to give seven minutes an hour under the CSA (Caribbean Sailing Association) rating to the Schionning by virtue of being much lighter. Chester finished ahead on the water in every race but rarely managed to save his time.

“I’m still learning how to sail the boat [in racing conditions],” he explains, “though having amas that are only 40ft long limits my speed in a seaway.” He still took pleasure in clocking 17 knots upwind when the water was flat enough and crossing tacks with the VO65s and 70s, six of which made up CSA Class 1 with a mixture of fully-professional and pro-am crews. For the 65s it was a fill-in regatta between the European legs of their Sprint Cup as part of The Ocean Race, and as the biggest yachts in St Maarten they inevitably attracted much attention.

Pros and amateurs

The Beneteau First 53 Yagiza, sailed by an American race-charter team with a small full-time crew and Philippe Falle as boat captain, was another pro-am boat. Yagiza also completed the RORC Transatlantic and the Caribbean 600, with several other Caribbean events in the diary before shipping back to Europe.

Guy Chester’s Lock Crowther Trimaran, Oceans Tribute, which he sailed solo to the Caribbean from New Zealand. Photo: David Harding

“A lot of owners prefer to ship their boats home because sailing back across the Atlantic does add wear and tear,” observes Falle. “But shipping costs more than doubled after Covid. They’re beginning to come back down, but shipping and the cost of living in general seem to have kept a few European boats away from the Caribbean this year.”

He enjoys the racing in St Maarten, though points out that “courses with short legs are hard work because it takes us 10 minutes to pack the kite!”

Local boats also make up a good number of the entrants. One regular is the 36ft Dick Newick trimaran, Tryst, based in St Maarten for 50 years and rebuilt several times following hurricane damage. Sailed by Arthur Banting, she punched well above her weight in a class of much bigger boats to finish 2nd overall in Multihull 2. There was also a good fleet of local Melges 24s duking it out in CSA 3, with the Puerto Rican Melges 32 Lazy Dog adding to their trophy cabinet to take the class win.

Live music – St Maarten Heineken Regatta prides itself on ‘serious fun’. Photo: Laurens Morel/SMHR

A regatta has to offer something special to attract entrants from far and wide, including top international race boats, and still leave everyone smiling at the end of it. Everyone I spoke with in St Maarten voted the racing as among the best in the Caribbean, and particularly enjoyable for its varied courses around the coast. As for the parties – well, they’re what St Maarten is famous for, helped along by the odd splash of rum and a can or three from the long-standing title sponsor. ‘Serious fun’ sums it up.

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