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Going on a ‘beer run’ — Caribbean style

Testing your mettle in race around St. Martin also tests your ability to have fun

Editor’s note: The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta will take place this year March 5 through 8. Robert Beringer — who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., when he’s not sailing in St. Martin — took part in last year’s race and sent along this dispatch.

A record fleet of 284 entrants registered for the 2008 Heineken Regatta, which takes place on the Caribbean island of St. Martin.

It’s one island, but two nations. Named by Columbus and separated at the waist since 1648, St. Maarten/St. Martin evokes images of garish megayachts, colonial architecture and pristine — clothes-optional — beaches.

Primarily known as a day stop for the hundreds of cruise ships that visit each year, St. Martin transforms itself into the center of the sailing world each March for the Heineken Regatta. Since 1980 Corinthians from all over the sailing world have descended on this friendly little place in the leeward chain to test their mettle and compete in one of the 21 classes.

The regatta’s slogan is Serious Fun, and from the moment the crews of the record 284 participating boats stepped off their respective planes at Princess Juliana Airport, it was clear the entire island would be doing its best to make that happen.

Friends in deed

I arrived at the urging of my racing friends from Annapolis, who had done the “Heinie” the last few years and couldn’t say enough good things. But I came with some trepidation, for I am no racer. Aboard my Catalina 34, I cruise the waters of Florida, content merely to arrive at the destination, without regard to the time involved.

The crew of the Beneteau 47.7, Crescendo, though strangers before the race, proved to be worthy competitors.

Aboard our racing vessel Crescendo, a Beneteau 47.7, I met old and new friends and the boat’s owner, Harry Weber, who had recently taken a first in the Caribbean 1500. Serious preparations were in motion for the next day’s first race. I was unceremoniously handed a pair of kneepads by our skipper, Rob Nilsen, and assigned the starboard winch, with photographer Scott Morris doing the same on port.

Ebb and flow

Several times a day the Simpson Bay bascule bridge would rise, and the competing boats would flow in and out of the lagoon, their frisky crews singing and dancing to the delight of the crowd on the patio of the St. Maarten Yacht Club.Watching these monstrous yachts saunter in and out of the narrow passage was great, but it was the newest addition to the racing fleet that really brought the house down: Looking for Elvis, one of the new Gunboat racing catamarans. On its foredeck a fully sequinned king gyrated and crooned for the crowd.

Against the wind

Day One was the 34-mile around-the-island race that would separate the rich guys from the poor. Everywhere there were slick racing boats with colorful ads on their sails and hulls, impatiently waiting for their start. At the one-minute horn the boats charged up to the starting line like angry shoppers the day after Thanksgiving.

With each tack I grunted and groaned over the stubborn winch until the headsail looked like the wing of an airplane. No sooner had I completed the task than our skipper called, “Ready about,” and, “Helm’s alee!”

Huge seas and strong headwinds made the going so bad that 39 boats, retired.  

After the finish, we returned to the mooring in Simpson Bay to discover our neighboring trimaran, Tryst, had been dismasted and withdrawn from the regatta.

It was a rough day for everyone and I should have gone to bed, but there were parties to attend.

A pleasant surprise

Day Two’s race was kinder to the banged-up boats and crews. The sunny skies and lighter winds made it almost a pleasant affair, and it finished on the French side in the quaint little village of Marigot.

As the day ended, the harbor quickly filled to capacity, and, in the dark, the 300 anchor lights twinkled like the Milky Way.

A quick check of the results board the next morning found our Crescendo in second place. We darted back to the boat for a sail change, suntan lotion and a quick pep talk from our skipper, who told us, “We’re gonna have just one chance at the beginning to make it or break it. We gotta do this right!”

At 8:30 a.m. we yanked the anchor and headed out for the final battle. To maximize boat speed upwind, we had to keep the headsail just inches off the spreader. Cindy Bither passed down hand signals from the high side telling us what the telltales were doing.

Fleeting glory

No sooner had we grabbed the mooring ball than everyone began to shuffle to and fro. On everyone’s mind was how we finished.

As the last of the day’s light faded away, Robbie Ferron stood on the stage at Kim Sha Beach on Simpson Bay, calling out the names of the winning boats: “And second place in nonspinnaker 1, from the United States, Crescendo.”

The smiles on our faces lasted all night, and the conversation quickly turned to March 2009 when we hoped to all be back in sunny St. Maarten and doing the Heinie once again.

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Robert Beringer, 51, is a college administrator living in Jacksonville, Fla. He sails his Catalina 34 on the St. Johns and coastal Florida, and he holds a USCG 50-ton Merchant Marine License with a sailing endorsement.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

This story originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.