Keep Your Eyes on the Pries -May 2, 2002
Last Saturday, David was sitting in the dinghy contemplating the fact that a dozen beefy Bahamians on a couple of wooden planks were rushing towards him at neck level. The planks were cantilevered off the weather rail of an incredibly over-canvassed racing sloop. At the last moment, the Bahamian boat swerved one way, our dinghy lurched forward the other way, and David escaped decapitation by inches. He and a small flotilla of other small boats were anchored at the windward mark of the Family Island Regatta race course, discovering what Bahamian sailboat racing is all about. It was a visceral experience.
The Family Island Regatta, held each year in George Town around the end of April, is the oldest, largest and most prestigious event in the Bahamian race circuit. The first regatta was held in 1954 and was organized largely out of concern that many of the traditional working smacks in the Bahamas were suffering from indifference and neglect. Race organizers hoped that the preparations necessary to ready the vessels for competition would improve the material condition of the fleet. In addition, sailors from all across the widely scattered islands would have an opportunity to gather for some sport and hopefully attract visitors from abroad to spectate.
The working boat focus of the regatta was paramount. The first regatta magazine stated, "No yachts, or boats built exclusively for pleasure purposes will be allowed to race against the working boats." On the subject of rules, the magazine went on to suggest that, "good sport should be fun ... the complicated racing rules used in yacht racing circles are more conducive of acrimonious argument than they are of fun. As a consequence, these races...will be sailed without any racing rules at all." A few things have changed in the 48 years since the first regatta was held. Although still based on the design of the traditional smack, the boats racing now are built solely for the regatta circuit. While some observers would contend it's still pretty lawless out on the race course, at least a few rules seem to have crept into the proceedings.
A couple of days before the start of last week's regatta, race boats and their crews flooded into George Town from across the country - from the Abacos in the far north to Ragged Island in the extreme south. It appeared that just about every mail boat, inter-island freighter and large fishing trawler had been pressed into service to transport the contenders to the big event. All of the assembled boats were made of wood, including the spars, and were Bahamian designed, built, owned and sailed. They were divided into four classes according to size. Class "A" featured the largest boats and drew the most spectators and the biggest bets.
A Class "A" racing sloop is an amazing sight. Its length overall is 28 feet, its beam is ten feet, and draft six feet. The mast is an incredible 60 feet high and, even more incredible, the boom is 30 feet long, extending well beyond the boat's transom. The mast is stepped well forward, allowing for an outrageously huge main sail and a narrow blade of a jib. With so much canvas billowing in the wind, a crew of 15 is required: one to tiller-steer, two to work the sheets, and the other 12 to keep the boat upright.
On the upwind legs, two wooden planks called "pries" are extended out on the windward side of the boat. The crew clamber out on the pries, the heaviest individuals being assigned the outboard ends. In gusty conditions (as they were last week), the men on the pries are constantly shifting back and forth to counteract the force of the wind on the sail. Tacking is a complicated piece of choreography requiring everyone to scramble off the pries, the boards to be slid across the deck to the other side, and the crew to reassemble on the newly positioned pries, hopefully before the boat capsizes.
The races last week were particularly exciting. For the start of each race, the competing boats were anchored at close intervals along the starting line with sails folded. When the gun fired, the sails were hastily raised and the anchors hauled in. Chaos prevailed as each boat struggled to get underway in a maelstrom of flogging sails and tangled anchor rodes. Once the boats cleared the start area, it was a brutal slog to the windward mark. With a lot of wind and a lot of prize money in the offing, the skippers took a lot of risks.
Among the big boats, "Running Tide" from Long Island was holed in a collision during the first of the three race series. With half her crew bailing, she still managed to finish fourth. She limped back to one of the freighters, was lifted by a crane, and the crew patched the hole. The next day, "Running Tide" finished first to tie "New Courageous" from Ragged Island in overall points. On the final day, the two leading contenders battled it out around the course with "Running Tide" squeezing across the finish first to take the series.
It was on that final race that David almost lost his head. A gust of wind and near collision at the mark drove "Silent Partner" into the spectator fleet. One moment David was having flashbacks of his past life and the next he was watching the fast receding transom of "Silent Partner". Upon returning to "Little Gidding" he told Eileen, "Maybe next time we should watch from the spectator stands on shore."
Cheers, David & Eileen