So just what exactly qualifies as "serious fun" you ask?
To truly experience "serious fun" you just have to have encountered it. And with the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, you only need to try it once and you'll be hooked.
The St. Maarten Yacht Club is in Simpson Bay on the Dutch side of the island and is host to this amazing annual regatta. With a tiny (but incredibly industrious) active membership of 40 members (out of about 140 members total), and with the help of a legion of volunteers, a world-class regatta is staged every year over the first full weekend in March.
The "fun-per-square-foot ratio" is unrivaled at the St. Maarten Yacht Club. The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta is the largest of all the Caribbean regattas, and this year, the event featured a record 289 entries (and 4,000 participants from 30 countries) including a record ten Canadian entries!!
On the flight to St. Maarten, we connected in Charlotte N.C., where we met the first of many enthusiastic Canadians who had chartered a boat and were headed out for several days of racing and a few days of pure relaxation. The flight from Charlotte to St. Maarten was full of participants headed to the main event. We were seated next to a crewmember sailing aboard an Andrews 68 who shared with us a range of local knowledge he had gained over several years of racing in the regatta.
Many of the entries are from the charter boat fleets and race in non-spinnaker divisions. We would race in the big boat spinnaker division. The regatta appeals to both die-hard racers in performance boats, as well as vacationers on charter boats from throughout the Caribbean. This year, there were 22 separate groups, or fleets, each racing on different race courses designed for the various types of boats (mono-hull, multi-hull, charter boats etc.), including separate starts for the charter boats. In fact, some of the best and most exciting racing was in the charter boat fleets! With so many identical charter boats in the area, the racing was competitive and that "one design spirit" wasn't always available in the other mixed fleets. Watching fleets of charter boats like Beneteau 51s rounding marks together, sometimes five-wide, was enthralling to say the least.
The Canadian Yachting magazine headquarters for the regatta was at The Cliff at Cupecoy Beach, a luxury condominium property located at the spectacularly beautiful Cupecoy Beach, just a few minutes drive from regatta headquarters in Simpson Bay. The Cliff property is situated on St. Maarten's "Gold Coast". Cupecoy Beach is known for its caves and cliffs making it one of the most picturesque beaches on St. Maarten. The Cliff property is made up of 71 suites in total, with 30 suites in the rental program, available in 1-4 bedroom configurations, as well as penthouse condos. The location was perfect, particularly since it's so close to the major airport on the island, and convenient to the secondary regatta sites, groceries and the French side of the island.
Adding "serious luxury" to "serious fun" is easy too – you can spoil yourself at the phenomenal Christian Dior Spa located on site. The spa is the first of its kind and a perfect paradise oasis employing only therapists who are trained and certified in the exclusive Dior Method. Perfect for a post-regatta decompression after all that racing.
The St. Maarten Heineken Regatta '08 is designed to showcase the sailing conditions of the island, but also the island itself. The first race in the regatta this year was the around the island race. We were fortunate enough to be sailing aboard a Swan 48, Avocation, and were able to see the island's beauty from the water.
Our skipper Hank Schmitt had an onboard team that was largely made up of Americans who were interested in learning more about racing and some of whom aspire to one day compete more fully in the Caribbean racing circuit. Avocation is one boat where the crew is, for the most part, made up of eager enthusiasts who pay for an opportunity to experience offshore cruising or racing.
Mark, our onboard tactician was "staff' – and was great at running the team through expectations, strategy, goal setting, the importance of clear communications while racing, all the while emphasizing the importance of teamwork.
The boat was quick, solid and handled the waves with ease and grace. Our average wind speed was pushing 25 knots with waves ranging from 4-8 feet, and while we saw speeds of 13 knots, our average boat speed was about 9 knots. Since we were aboard as working crew, taking pictures was almost impossible, especially as we were engaged or involved in a few all-out tacking duels.
The around the island race starts in Simpson Bay, and finishes at Phillipsburg – the capital of the Dutch side of the island. That particular race – the longest single race of the regatta, we completed in roughly 4 hours. To get an idea of the level of competition though, consider that just one bit of bad crew work cost us four positions! Oh well –– racing was just the serious part of the day after all. The post-race parties held each night feature live music, are open to absolutely everyone on the island and are decidedly less-serious!
Day two's racing started once again off of Simpson Bay, but this day ended in Marigot, the main port on the French side of the island. Relegated on the second day to licking wounds and sipping Heinekens aboard a press boat, turned into quite a thrill for us as we encountered a pod of four Humpback whales migrating through the big boat start area! We learned later from several islanders, that in their 20 or more years on the island, they had yet to see the whales!
"Mooring out" but in the protected harbour of Marigot, means water taxis are all that's required to get to shore, and there are plenty available. Rubber zodiac-type inflatable dinghies provide taxi service to all competitors allowing them to partake in the "serious fun" happening on shore. That night in Marigot the undisputed Queen of Soca music, Alison Hinds was the big draw.
The final day of racing was from Marigot on the French side, back to Simpson Bay on the Dutch side. To keep everyone, regardless of boat type engaged, one nice touch is that the race courses differ in length (longer or shorter) for the different fleets. That way all of the boats finish within a short timeframe of each other. The final big party and awards ceremony took place on Kim Sha beach adjacent to Simpson Bay and was closed out with a bang by Grammy-winning recording artist, Shaggy. Note: Shaggy + thousands of people on a beach + post regatta party = more serious fun!
Not only was the racing and regatta management all first class, with sailboats up to 115 feet, but the island itself is fantastic! With numerous beaches to explore, roughly 400 restaurants and 500 rental villas on the island, there is something for everyone! Although the French side operates with the Euro, there are still many places there that do take the American dollar; US currency is the main currency on the Dutch side. Like anywhere, you can find fantastic places both to stay and to eat that fit into any budget.
With the range of accommodations on the island, and with the range of boats available in the charter fleets, it's an ideal way to spend a week or so with friends from your club, and do all the fun things together.
Securing charter boats specifically during regatta time requires a little pre-planning – so start now by contacting the various charter companies in the area. Charter boats we saw were primarily from the BVIs, St. Maarten and Guadeloupe. Also keep in mind that two years from now – in 2010 – it will be the 30th anniversary of the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta!!
On one occasion as we gathered with dozens of others to watch the endless parade of boats returning under the bridge from the race course, it was apparent to us that the gentleman to our right, Heineken in hand, was a Canadian. We introduced ourselves and asked what he was sailing on. "Sailing??" he asked. "Oh no" he said, "we're not sailing", pointing to three more in his party, "we're just here for the party". A few years ago he explained that he and his wife were vacationing on St. Maarten "their favorite island" – and their vacation just happened to overlap the regatta. Since then he said, they've returned five years in a row, and now bringing friends along, ensuring that their visit "coincides exactly" with the regatta, because as he said "this is serious fun". We slipped him Hank's business card from Avocation – and fully expect to see him on the high-side rail next year!