The captain of the maxi yacht Martella makes it clear what outcome he expects from this morning's match race off the west coast of Barbados. As we motor out of Bridgetown's Shallow Draught, our competitor comes alongside and Capt. Bruce Slater points to the yacht's sleek red hull and waving crew members. "There is the other boat, Athina," he says with a smirk. "Also known by its other name losers."
I've signed on to the Ocean Racing Challenge a 10-nautical-mile race that takes about three hours, including training, racing, and victory celebrations with my husband and two teenage sons to learn about hoisting, grinding, and trimming the sails of an elite racing yacht. Funny that the first lesson I learn is in "the art of shit-talking", to quote Capt. Slater.
This good-natured ribbing between competitors is just one of the things that makes the Ocean Racing Challenge feel authentic. The business plan for this new activity (launched in Barbados in the summer of 2006 and based on a similar program in Sydney, Australia) is straightforward. Buy two world-class yachts. Put two gung ho captains at their helms. Sell spots on the yachts to seasoned sailors and novices who want to pretend they are seasoned sailors. Add a few professional crew to ensure the novices don't trash the hardware. Take the yachts out on the water every day. Race like you mean it.
Clint Brooks, the mastermind behind the Ocean Racing Challenge and, on this overcast morning, the captain of Athina, definitely means it. With his deeply tanned face, unruly hair barely kept in check with a well-worn baseball cap, and eyes that flash with intensity, Brooks seems a poster boy for serious sailing. Which he is.
Brooks was born and raised in Barbados "My family goes back generations," he explains and has an impressive racing résumé that includes crewing for Team Caribbean in the America's Cup. But Brooks isn't interested in perpetuating the image of sailing as an elite sport for the rich and richer. Rather, he wants to use the Ocean Racing Challenge to bring sailing to the masses. "We want to demystify sailing," he explains. "We want ordinary folks to see it's actually quite easy."
It's also quite thrilling, largely because Athina and Martella are the real deal. Each worth about US$20 million in the 1980s when they were built, according to Brooks, the yachts competed in the 1989/1990 Whitbread Round the World race, now known as the Volvo Ocean Race. Athina's racing name was NCB Ireland, and she finished a respectable eighth. Martella didn't finish because, as Brooks explains, "She suffered a slight impact with a whale," lost her keel and flipped. The Uruguayan navy salvaged the yacht, and a team of sailors raced her under the name Uruguay Naturally in the 1993/1994 Whitbread. She's been racing ever since, finishing in the top five of every major event she has entered. In 2006, her first year in Barbados, Martella raced in the Mount Gay/Boatyard Regatta and came first in her class.
The yachts are 24 metres in length with masts that are an impressive 33 metres tall (Martella) and 35 metres tall (Athina). The mainsails weigh about 115 kilograms each. The yachts are mono hulls that, when they are under sail, lean. A lot. In fact, during our prerace brief in the Ocean Racing Challenge lounge, Brooks urges us to use the bathroom before stepping onboard. "It takes a bit of talent to use a head [toilet] when we're leaning 45 degrees," he explains.
During the prerace brief, we meet the other guest crew members, 18 of us in all between the two boats. The Martella crew of nine includes me, my husband, Kent, and our sons Shane and Spence; Mike and David, two local fellows who are giving racing a whirl; and Gus and David, a father- and son-in-law from Scotland who raced earlier in the week (with sunburns to prove it) and are back for more. Our ninth member is Bob from Cheltenham, England, who is celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary with his wife, Pat. She has opted to join the Athina crew, while Bob will race with us on Martella. "We thought it was a good way to spend our anniversary," Bob says.
I'm a little concerned watching Bob climb aboard the yacht. While the rest of us move quickly into place, Bob totters, and Cleveland Wood, one of three professional sailors who will help sail Martella, must hold his arm. But once Bob settles into his role as keeper of the jib, he becomes the consummate sailor, acknowledging each of the captain's orders with a militarylike "Okay, Captain, trimming" or "Okay, Captain, loosening" as he works the rope.
Motoring out of the harbour, Capt. Slater explains the strategy we'll use to win the race. It's mostly sailor-speak and I'm a bit lost, as is the rest of my family. We agree that our survival strategy will be to listen carefully and do exactly as we're told. The four of us, plus the local guys, are assigned to the pedestals to act as grinders, trimming and loosening the sails. Gus and David get the job of hoisting Martella's mainsail and, later, her spinnaker.
Clear of the harbour, the hoisting begins. We practise tacking and trimming the sails, then signal to Athina that we are ready to race. From the get-go it is intense, but in a most excellent way. The crew is attentive to the captain's orders and works hard to make things happen. Grinding proves to be an exceptional upper-body and lower-back workout. We grind in pairs, and quickly learn to leap back from the whirring handles when we can't keep up with our partner's pace.
The two yachts race down the west coast of the island and along the southern shore. It is exhilarating to fly along the surface of the azure water without the noise and fumes of an engine. There is much strategic jockeying for position, and I only manage to grab my camera a couple of times to take photos of our crew and Athina in action. My favourite moments are when the grinders are directed to climb to the high side of the yacht and dangle our feet over the edge for counterbalance. With the spray and the wind and the thrilling angle, it's the best seat in the house.
At the buoy in front of the Hilton hotel we jibe, bringing the boat across the wind, and begin our race back. The captain yells for the spinnaker to be raised, but the halyard is not played out properly and, when the wind catches the sail, the rope begins to run. David lets go quickly, but Gus is lifted off the deck and suffers rope burns to his palms before he can loosen his grip. The sail hits the water, and we lose precious minutes as the crew scrambles to make things right. Finally, the spinnaker is in play and the jib down, and we can focus on catching up.
It's a thrilling pursuit as we lean to 35 degrees and run at speeds of up to 15 knots. Gradually, gradually, we gain on Athina until, in the final minutes of this 80-minute race, the yachts are within metres of each other. We surge to the imaginary finish line running between a red buoy and the escort boat. Athina does the same. We come second by seconds.
Capt. Slater is good-natured in defeat, but you can tell that he's bummed. "We'd have beat 'em if it wasn't for our clusterfuck," he says, referring to the numerous things that went wrong with the spinnaker. That's a new word for me, and I laugh at such a perfect descriptor. There sure is a lot to learn on a racing yacht.
Links: Ocean Racing Challenge ( www.oceanracingchallenge.com/ ) runs three races daily in the high season (October through May). The cost is US$95, including transportation to and from your hotel. For a laid-back, beachfront stay, try the Southern Palms Beach Club in St. Lawrence Gap ( www.southernpalms.net/ ), which has double rooms from US$145. For information on Barbados, see www.visitbarbados.org/ . The writer sailed as a guest of Ocean Racing Challenge.