Tourists sail on famous yachts

“Stand by, primary grinders!” crew member Tom Jarrold bellows in my ear. And suddenly Mike, a 20-year-old student from Seattle, and I — gripping fiercely to the chrome handles — churn madly while struggling to remain standing on the tilting deck.

Canada II, a towering 12-metre yacht, described as the fastest light air boat of its type in the world, plunges her elegant bow into blue-black Caribbean swells, showering us with salty spray. A cheer goes up as, inch by inch, we pulled ahead of the Stars and Stripes, the legendary yacht with which Dennis Conner brought the America’s Cup back to the U.S. from Australia in 1987.

Just another Walter Mitty dream?  Not at all. This was the real thing: I had signed up for the St. Maarten-12 Metre Challenge that many regard as simply the most thrilling attraction in the Caribbean.

Gone to sailing heaven
Ever wonder what happens to those magnificent yachts that compete in the oldest and most prestigious sailing race in the world? Five of the most famous boats, including two Canadian vessels, Canada IInd True North, have gone to sailing heaven, otherwise known as the delightful Dutch/French island of St. Maarten, considered one of the 10 best sailing destinations in the world.

That means landlubbers like me who don’t know their mainmast from their mizzen can actually crew in races between these famous vessels.

The St. Maarten Challenge was the idea of Colin Percy, a British-born Toronto management consultant and sailing enthusiast who, with his wife Jill, bought the Canada II and True North in 1989 and shipped them to the Netherlands Antilles. When Conner agreed to sell them his famous Stars and Stripes at Newport in 1994, the racing stable was complete.

A year later, after Hurricane Luis had battered the island for 22 hours with winds up to 235 miles an hour, that dream seemed shattered. Three yachts, including the two Canadian boats, were sunk at their moorings, and Stars and Stripes lay beached on her side, her hull holed.

Restored after hurricane
Twenty-nine days later, they were racing again, and today about 20,000 visitors a year — many of them stopping by on Caribbean cruises — pay $70 (U.S.) for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience America’s Cup racing.

Anywhere else in the world, that comeback story would be surprising. Not in St. Maarten, which I now think of as Heartbreak Island. For 35 years, not a single hurricane struck. Since 1995, there have been six, culminating in the horrendous Lenny in November 1999 which defied all weather predictions by arriving after the usual summer hurricane season and doubling back as if to hammer the island out of pure malice.

You see the shell of the hurricane-shattered Mullet Bay Hotel as your plane lands at Juliana Airport, yet beside it the badly damaged Maho Beach Hotel has been rebuilt on a grander scale and re-opened October 1, 2000.

With incredible resilience, the people of St. Maarten have fought back. “We clean up,” said Dorothy Lake, of the St. Maarten tourist office. “We’re rebuilding as fast as we can.” Restaurants that were flatter than crepes last November are operational again, and the famous shopping streets of Philipsburg are thriving.

Once again, the 12-metre racing yachts came through unscathed after being pulled from the water before Lenny arrived. “We’ve learned from experience,” said Challenge manager Paul Virgo when I reported for duty.

Racing is safe
Was it quite safe? I wanted to know. The aluminum hulls are “immensely strong,” Virgo assured me. Children under 12 are not taken aboard – unless they have sailing experience. “It could be frightening for them when the boat heels over,” he said.  Is there an upper age limit? “We had a woman of 93 on board,” said Virgo, “with a friend in her eighties.”

 “Everyone has to do something,” said Virgo. “We don’t suggest someone with a heart condition become a grinder (turning the handles that haul the sails). But we have other jobs, like cooler queen (in charge of the beer and water) or timekeeper.”

“What we need,” boomed one of the skippers, barrel-chested Deon Swartz, as we waited for the tender to take us out to the yachts, “is firm, hard bodies for grinders. You,” he said, pointing a finger at me, “you’ll be a primary grinder.”  I questioned his judgment – but he’s the skipper.

“In sailing terms,” said Swartz as we boarded the tender, “this will be like taking a drive in a Formula One racing car.”

Aboard the Canada ll.
And suddenly, there they were: the pencil-thin hulls with sky-touching masts, images etched on our minds from a thousand TV clips. I scrambled into the little forward cockpit in the Canada II’s bow while fellow crew-members Sam Malone, and Tom Jarrold, both of them young salts from England, instructed eight of us in the brutal business of grinding.

Our affable captain, Doug Mutch, from Vancouver, handed out useful safety advice: “It’s not called the boom for nothing,” he said, indicating the long wooden arm that swings with treacherous speed when the boat changes direction. “If you stand up, ‘Boom!’ may be the last sound you’ll hear as you go over the side.”

And we were underway, leaving behind St. Maarten’s palm-fringed beaches and turquoise waters, surging toward the Atlantic. One minute, it seemed, the other two yachts were almost out of sight, then, with blinding speed we were manoeuvering up to the start line.

With a flag from the committee boat, we were off, Canada II heeling over, Tom and Sam shouting directions. No time for fear, no time for seasickness, we were working as a team, and at the end of the first leg we were in the lead.

At the second leg, though, came a complaint from one of our rivals that we had hit a marker in a close encounter with True North. “Nonsense!” retorted Skipper Doug, or some such word, and got into a warm discussion on his hand-held radio with the committee boat. Impatiently, he stuffed the receiver in his pocket as the judge gabbled on. To the chagrin of crew members shouting insults from other boats, our appeal was allowed.

Rum punch all round
The speed of these most powerful of all racing yachts is breathtaking, but what you don’t expect is their turn-on-a-dime manoeuverability. Several times, we seemed certain to collide as Doug brought the boat within inches of our rivals’ sterns, only to swing her around the far side to catch the wind.

The winner? A pesky gust of wind robbed us of victory in the last leg. It may not be Stars and Stripes forever, but it was the Stars and Stripes for now. At the dock, after more than two hours on the water, we got rum punches and purchased crew T-shirts.

“When you return (and a surprising number of our fellow sailors were repeat performers), you get a free T-shirt,” Paul announced. It was an offer, I told myself as we headed back to Philipsburg’s quaint Frontstreet, that I intend to take up.