Slow & Steady... Wins the Turtle Award -March 28, 2002
Around this time twenty-two years ago, there were twenty or so cruising boats at anchor in George Town, the Bahamas. There wasn't much happening on shore. The big event of the week was the arrival of the "Grand Master", the mailboat from Nassau. Having lots of time and not much to do, one of the cruisers, Joel Fine, suggested they organize a yacht race in the inner harbour. Joel was a dentist from the States who had sailed to George Town on his boat "Meriah" and was working in the local clinic. On his initiative, the annual George Town Cruising Regatta was born.
Back in 1980, almost all of the cruisers in the anchorage heeded the call to race. Scott and Theresa Kirk, however, were concerned about the shallow depths in Elizabeth Harbour and the seven and a half foot draft of their sailboat, "Catticus Rex". They became the turning mark for the race. Scott and Theresa were here for this year's regatta on their new boat, "Grayheart". They told us they were amazed at how the event had grown from an ad hoc one day affair to the present ten day extravaganza. This year there were 390 boats in attendance. Although still planned and run entirely by volunteers, the regatta now has many sponsors, including Boat US, and pumps a significant amount of cash into the local economy.
In last week's log entry, we described some of the many competitions that are now part of the regatta. Although not immediately evident, sailboat racing is still very much at the core of everything. In fact, the dates of the regatta are determined each year according to the tide tables so that boats like "Catticus Rex" don't become turning marks (intentionally or otherwise). Even with the assurance that we probably wouldn't go aground, we (along with about 90% of the other cruisers in attendance) could think of several reasons why we'd rather not race our home. Instead, I generously offered to crew on anyone else's boat and Eileen planned on having "Little Gidding" all to herself for a day or two.
I met an easy going solo sailor named Derek in the "Chat 'N Chill" beach bar a couple of days before the first race. After a few beers and numerous swapped lies, I had a crew position on Derek's boat, "Unity", an Allmand 31 sloop. I hazily recalled Derek mentioning at some point in the evening that he had won honours at the previous year's regatta. The morning of the Elizabeth Harbour Race, Eileen dropped me off at "Unity". I studied the boat's bearded waterline and frayed rigging and said, "By the way, Derek, what prize did you say you won last year?"
"The Turtle Award for last place in The Around Island race," Derek proudly announced. "Oh," I replied.
Rounding out the crew on "Unity" for the first race were: Jack, an experienced sailor with international racing credentials; Kaj, the owner of a small, impeccably maintained wooden ketch; and Mary, an outgoing young nurse visiting on her parent's boat. Some of Mary's more obvious assets were scarcely contained by her bikini.
The first race comprised two laps of a triangle course in the inner harbour. "Unity" had a good start and was first in her class for all of ten seconds. Then the other boats began to move through. In the cockpit, Derek drove and Jack and I worked the sheets. Kaj and Mary had foredeck responsibilities. Kaj dumped buckets of water on the crew of any boat that passed close by. Mary thrust herself off the bow pulpit, Titanic style, and blew distracting blasts on her conch horn. Several passing competitors commented on the volume of her lungs; more than one helmsman strayed off course.
Derek and Jack discussed tactics on the way to the upwind mark. "We should be able to get a lift from the tidal current if we head toward the middle of the harbour," Jack reasoned. We tacked accordingly. A bunch of boats steamed past. We tacked back. More boats steamed past. Jack looked glum.
By the completion of the first lap, the entire fleet of 27 boats was ahead of us. "We might not come first," Derek conceded. "Unity" maintained her position to the finish. There were five boats in our class. One scratched before the race started. With her huge handicap, "Unity" managed to edge ahead of another boat on corrected time and take third place. Derek was jubilant. "Nothing will stop us now," he exclaimed.
For the second race, two days later, the course went outside the harbour and around Stocking Island - more of a long distance, open ocean event. Mary contemplated the prospects of being remote at sea with no one to appreciate her horn blowing techniques and wisely chose to crew on another boat. She had several offers. Marla, Kaj's wife, took her place on "Unity".
For The Around Island race, the boats were assigned individual start times that corresponded with their handicaps. Theoretically, if everyone sailed the perfect race, all the boats would cross the finish line together. An added feature of the race was a fishing competition - there was a prize for the boat that caught the biggest fish going around the course.
"Unity" started first, making it to the cut at the north end of the island without being overtaken. Derek and Jack discussed tactics again. "I don't think we do so well on the tacks," Derek observed. "Let's take one long tack out and one long tack back in at the other end of the island". We headed out to sea. The other boats paraded out of the cut and hugged the shore. We kept heading out to sea. The wind got lighter.
I was responsible for the two fishing lines and fussed about changing lures, removing seaweed and untangling hooks. Derek went below to cook some chilli for lunch. Jack took over the helm and made numerous forlorn attempts to improve sail trim. Kaj and Marla sat on the rail and worked on their tans. Off the stern, Stocking Island slowly shrank on the horizon.
Finally, Jack announced, "If we continue this course much longer, we'll make our landfall in Africa." By this time, we were all feeling a bit lonely and agreed to tack back in. Stocking Island gradually grew larger. I changed lures again, with no success. Jack persisted in half-heartedly adjusting the sheets. Marla's tan threatened to turn into a burn. At long last, we got within sight of the mark at the south end of the island. Derek asked, "Where are all the other boats?" At that moment, the race committee's runabout came out of the cut, headed straight to the mark and the crew began pulling the buoy on board. "Hey!" Derek yelled, "We haven't rounded it yet!"
"Don't worry about it," they laughed. Derek was momentarily deflated. Then the race committee chairman announced over the VHF radio, "Unity, you can head straight home now, everyone else has crossed the finish line." Derek beamed. "Break open the beer, we've won the Turtle again!"