All Mixed Up -January 2, 2003
Hiked out on the pries, visiting crew help their Bahamian hosts keep their boats upright
Staniel Cay is located in the middle of the Exuma island chain in the southern Bahamas. It has two main claims to fame: a fantastic underwater grotto where the James Bond flick "Thunderball" was filmed in 1964; and a New Years celebration that draws boaters of all description from far and wide. Never ones to miss a good party, the stalwart crew of "Little Gidding" arrived in Staniel with just a couple of days remaining in 2002. The two marinas in town were packed, mostly with huge motor yachts. There was a lot of pale flesh aboard those boats, rapidly turning pink in the tropical sun. We chose to anchor about a mile north of town, in the lee of Big Major Spot cay, with a bunch of other budget conscious cruisers.
The core of the year end celebrations is two days of sailboat racing. Both events aim to mix everyone together - rich and not so rich, local and foreign, black and white (and pink). On New Years Eve day, the Staniel Cay Yacht Club sponsors a "mixed doubles" Bahamian sloop Class C race. The next day, to start off the new year, the Happy People marina invites all the visiting cruising sailboats to compete in a free-for-all race that features no ratings, no handicaps and practically no rules, except to have a good time. One of the Bahamian sloops races alongside the foreign boats.
Bahamian sloops are open wooden boats styled after the traditional fishing smacks that have plied these waters for a couple of centuries. A Class C boat is seventeen and a half feet long with a mast an incredible 36 feet tall and a boom 25 feet long, extending well beyond the transom. With that much canvas flying, you'd expect a keel that goes half the way to China to keep the vessel upright. In fact, it's just the opposite: Bahamian sloops have shallow keels designed for the shoal waters typical of the area. Why don't they capsize? In the case of Class C sloops, they come equipped with two "pries" - basically, wooden planks - that are cantilevered off the weather rail. There's normally a crew of five: one person to steer and four others to perch on the ends of the pries to keep the boat from falling over. The Staniel race is dubbed a "mixed double" because into this precarious balance are thrown two or three inexperienced visiting crew members.
We've often admired the daring antics of the Bahamian racers, so we jumped at the chance to be crew on one of their boats (well, David jumped; Eileen half-heartedly hopped). The day before the race, we put our names into a draw that would determine who'd be assigned to which sloop. That night we listened to the weather forecast: twenty to twenty-five knots from the Southeast. "Scary," Eileen said. "Exciting," David responded.
On race day morning, we piled into our dinghy and motored into howling wind and cresting waves to get to the yacht club. Through salt encrusted glasses we squinted at the posted crew listings. Three races were scheduled. Eileen was assigned to "Spray Hound" in the first race. "Appropriate name," she commented. David was assigned to "White Ghost" in the second race. "I hope that's NOT an appropriate name," he countered.
Seven sloops were entered in the races, four from Staniel and three from nearby Black Point on Great Guana Cay. They were anchored at the start line with their Bahamian crew ready to go. A couple of motorized tenders ferried Eileen and the other visiting crew out to the race course. "Good luck," David cried. "I hope you win!" Eileen muttered, "I'll settle for basic survival."
Just over an hour later, David greeted Eileen back at the yacht club dock. She was soaking wet, covered in bruises, and wearing a huge smile. "How was it?" he asked.
"Well, at the start of the race, just when we raised the sail, one of the shrouds broke off the top of the mast, which sort of ruined our performance on half of the tacks for the rest of the race. Bob, one of the other visiting cruisers, almost fell off the pries and we had to fish him out. Then "Fredrika" rammed us going around the last mark and put a crack in our stern. And finally, after we crossed the finish line, we accidentally gibed and the boom knocked Brooks, our skipper, overboard. Other than that, it was great!"
David looked nervously out at the race course. If anything, the wind was blowing stronger. "I guess you didn't win then," he stuttered.
"No, but we beat your boat, "White Ghost". She buried her nose in a wave and sank. She's out of the action for the rest of the day."
David's face broke into a big grin. "Gosh, that's a shame. Hey, let me buy you a beer inside the yacht club!"