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altThe horn signals the start of the Round-the-Island race in the 31st running of the Heineken Regatta.

Our boat incises the waters off Sint Maarten’s south coast with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel.

On every side the white triangles of other boats decorate the horizon line; in the distance I can see the misty blue heights of Saba.

But our crew has no eyes for Saba, nor lust for sandy beaches, though there’s a perfect one but half a nautical mile off the starboard beam, another one nearby that boasts a great sunset-watching bar.

Behind us in a staggered start because they ship spinnakers, another fleet of boats is a kaleidoscope of sails, a hot air balloon festival á la mer.

But only I have eyes for them. The other crew members keep their eyes cast upon the prize. They are deadly serious.

I am having fun.

Makes sense, this nautical oxymoron. For it is the guiding principle of the Heineken: Serious Fun.

I had fun last night. Serious fun. Surprising how easy those ubiquitous green cans of beer empty themselves. Surprising how the dancing spirit gets you when two hundred other people are out on the dance floor, spot-lit in green light, bass grooves from the live Soca band like a snake that slithers up your legs and burrows into your stomach.

Every night is party night.

Last night the venue was the grounds of the Princess Port de Plaisance Resort and Casino. Tonight the streets of Phillipsburg will flood with crowds as inexorable as high tide; bands will take the stages …

“Let’s get serious, people.”

Mattie Jeffs’ voice is sharp. The crew responds to the skipper’s exhortation with alacrity. On the foredeck Don Sauer and his girlfriend Tracie Greven serve as human whisker poles since we aren’t in the spinnaker class; since we, in the Bareboat class, race a Moorings 50, built for cruising not racing.

We fly to the first mark. A cacophony of sails approaches; voices raised in fear and anger waft across the white-washed waters. We round the mark and make for points north two boat lengths from our neighbor, three boat lengths from another competitor in our class and group, as evidenced by the flag flapping furiously from the backstay – a pennant that matches ours exactly.

The field opens up. The waters flatten. But winds are up.

I ponder new beaches – French ones now.

But my crewmates keep their eyes on the prize.

Hardly the only serious sailors here.

The Heineken (next year’s regatta is the thirty-second) hosts the likes of Volvo Ocean Race veteran Mikey Joubert, Jan Dekker of America’s Cup fame and world champion Peter Holmberg. Past participants have included the likes of Roy Disney and the late adventurer Steve Fossette.

Last year’s entries included Gunboats like “Phaedo”, a Carbon Ocean 82, a Rob Humphrey-designed fifty-four-footer.

Serious sailors, serious boats.

And serious competition as we round another mark.

Now we’re beating upwind through Anguilla Passage. Now a line squall crouches over the hills where an ancient French fort frowns upon the town of Marigot.

Now our skipper, eyes narrowed in concentration, looks at the squall line. He scans the shoreline. He squints at another boat in our class. It’s gaining and cuts into the lee of Marigot.

Jeffs turns the wheel hard to port and we tack violently, heading to the middle of the passage just as the squall hits. “High side,” he yells. “High side.”

The crew responds as one.

Jeffs confers with Sauer. “I hope this is the right move,” he says.

I’ve got temporary blindness, rain lashing my face.

“Are we having fun yet?” I yell over the sudden gale.

But I don’t need an answer.

Back in Canada these people are dedicated racers. Of course they’re having fun.

J.T. Trueman, out of Bay of Quinte Yacht Club, has done the Heineken five or six times, he’s raced in the Lake Ontario 300, he’s even survived two Transats. Lana Washington calls herself a newbie, but she’s J.T.’s partner and she races regularly at home. Kim Lander is an accomplished Shark racer. Jeffs is a veteran of LO 300’s and lots of blue water sailing. Nathan Bresette raced dinghies when he was ten. He’s “Sugar Cane’s” Mr. Fixit. Tracie Greven sailed dinghies when she was twelve and crews for her partner Don Sauer, a strong force on the Eastern Race Circuit and navigator for this trip. Tom Nelson calls himself a greenhorn but he’s got years of powerboat experience, and the rest of the crew seems to have forgiven this particular shortcoming.

I am human ballast.

The storm passes but we’ve made the wrong call. Our closest competitor has velocity made good.

But we start catching up by time we clear the French side and trim sails for a beam as the wind races up the channel between this island and a rust-coloured monstrosity called Tintamarre.

We round the mark. Head south, close-hauled past one of the most hedonistic and popular beaches on the twin-country island hard to starboard. The masts of cruising boats anchored just off Orient Beach are clearly visible.

It’s neck-and-neck now. We zip through the Hens and Chicks, sort of monolithic sculptures rising up like great beasts out of the sea.

The finish line is in sight.

It’s us, then them. We gain, they gain. We harden sheets, they harden sheets.

We cross the finish line three boat-lengths ahead.

We cheer. We shake hands all round. Someone brings out fresh Heinekens.

“That was fun,” says somebody.

“Serious fun,” says somebody else.

We laugh together.

We moor the boat and snug her down. We hitchhike to shore. We make the journey by land to Phillipsburg.

Where tonight the streets will flood with crowds as inexorable as high tide; where bands will take the stages.