Racers and Cruisers
June 2, 2005
To many sailors, cruising and racing are mutually exclusive. Cruisers tend to like anchoring a lot. Once you weigh anchor and raise the sails, you have to worry about the boat heeling over and things toppling. Hell, you have to worry about YOU toppling. And, of course, as soon as you start using the necessary equipment to propel the boat, the equipment starts to break -- which is why you have so many things to occupy your time when you get back to anchoring again.
Racers, on the other hand, actually like life on a tilt. They find a face full of salt spray refreshing. They revel in pitting themselves and their boat against nature and a bunch of other boats, even as their boat begins to disintegrate under the strain. David admits he enjoys the adrenaline rush of racing as long as it's someone else's boat that's being punished and provided that the race is over in time for happy hour. Eileen prefers to skip the racing part altogether and go directly to happy hour. This is why we both love regattas.
Our last log entry ("The Best Laid Schemes ...") was written en route to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, from Lighthouse Reef in Belize. The main reason we were heading for Isla Mujeres was to participate in the Regata Del Sol Al Sol, the annual race from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Isla Mujeres cosponsored by the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and the Club de Yates de Isla Mujeres. By "participate" we mean Eileen was booked to provide shore side entertainment and David was primed to attend the parties at the finish. Rest assured, there's no way we were planning to race "Little Gidding" from Florida to Mexico. Eileen performed for the same regatta when we happened to be in Isla in 1998. We've kept in touch with many of the participants over the intervening years. When the regatta organizers learned we were going to be in the area again this year, they invited us back for a repeat performance.
We didn't need a lot of encouragement to return to Isla. Regatta or no regatta, it's a party town. It's name alone ("island of women") is enough to attract hopeful North American males. The place is filled with bars, restaurants, and tourist shops. Twenty-odd ferries a day make the short trip across from Cancun, disgorging hordes of day visitors who rent scooters and golf carts and sprawl semi-naked on the island's beautiful beaches. All of this might sound a bit off-putting to anyone who is trying to get away from it all, but after a week in the company of only three other boats on a remote reef in Belize, we were ready for some social interaction and a few cheap tacos. And if you look closely enough at Isla Mujeres, under all the tourist glitz and commercial tackiness there are still some remnants of an authentic Mexican fishing village to be discovered. We wouldn't want to spend the whole cruising season in Isla -- although there are a fair number of cruisers who do just this -- but we figured a week or two would be enough to satisfy our bacchanal urges without inflicting too much damage on our livers or pocketbooks.
Races like the Regata Del Sol Al Sol are strange hybrids because they attempt to combine racing with cruising, which -- as we mentioned at the outset --is a little like mixing oil with water. Depending on where they lie on the cruiser-racer continuum, participants have different motivations for joining the regatta. For some normally laid back cruisers, it's a convenient way to kick-start a summer cruise of the northwestern Caribbean. Hard core racers, on the other hand, believe they can whip down to Isla in two or three days, hit a few parties, and make it back to work in Florida before the week is up. Under good conditions, the event satisfies both groups. This year, the conditions weren't good; in fact, they were downright horrible.
The rhumb line course is southwest and the prevailing wind is typically anywhere from northeast to southeast, resulting in a broad to beam reach. By around the beginning of May, when the regatta is scheduled, winter cold fronts are infrequent and the onset of tropical storm season is still a few weeks away. So far so good. Things get a bit more complicated when you take into account the current, which sets to the north at three knots or more in the Yucatan Channel. This means most boats don't sail the rhumb line, but attempt to avoid the current by detouring to one side or the other of the channel.
The wind direction this year was not as expected. The fleet found itself beating into strong southerlies as soon as it left St. Pete. For some boats, tacking into headwinds and steering to avoid the current effectively doubled the distance to travel. Two days out, the slower boats got hit by a front which wasn't forecast to reach them; a day and a half later, a squall line delivered storm force winds. And if that wasn't enough, the wind then died, leaving the battered rump of the fleet wallowing in the middle of the Yucatan Channel, at the mercy of current intent upon taking them back to Florida.
The first boat to cross the finish line, the giant catamaran "Patriot", arrived in Isla in just under two days. The fastest monohull, Steve Pettengill's "Hunter's Child II", finished a half day later. The last boats to officially finish the race limped across the line over four days after the start. More telling of the nature of the event is the fact that half the fleet did NOT officially complete the race. Of the record 46 registered boats, two were towed back to Florida after sustaining damage near the outset and 21 of the remainder completed the race under power, giving them a dubious DNF (did not finish) standing. While three of the 13 boats in the racing divisions were thus disqualified, only five of the 19 boats in the slower cruising divisions were NOT disqualified -- probably as good an indication as any of the difference between cruisers and racers. A cruiser who is becalmed a hundred miles from a free banquet and open bar starts the engine.
There were some sorry sights at the docks in Isla Mujeres as the fleet trickled in. Several boats had blown out sails and the trash bins were soon filled with shredded nylon, Dacron, and Kevlar. One boat entered the harbour missing half its mast and promptly ran aground. Another came in under sail, having lost its engine, and dropped the hook in the middle of the anchorage. The skipper took the dinghy ashore to clear in, the boat dragged in his absence, and the costs of fixing the bent bow pulpit of the boat he slid into were added to his overall repair bill.
In all cases, boats, gear, and crew were soaking wet. As our friend Rick Rhodes, who crewed on the Pearson 42 ketch "Bel Esprit II", explained, "the Isla Mujeres laundry ladies made-out when charging by the pound for dirty laundry, as wet clothing weighs significantly more than dry clothing."
Another friend we know from St. Pete, William Mayberry, crewed on a brand new Island Packet 485. It was his first long distance sail. He's been talking about full time cruising since we first met him at Sail Expo a couple of years ago. When we asked him about the experience, he said, "I thought it was like spending a few days in jail until I talked to the crew on some of the other boats. Then I realized we had it good. We didn't break anything and no one got hurt."
Among the injured was a woman with whom David chatted at the closing party. She had been on one of the smaller boats, a Hunter 35, and managed to crack some ribs when she was thrown into the companionway during a particularly nasty squall. She complained, "It was really stormin' out there. Nobody told me it was going to be like that." She was flying back to the States the next day. "I tell you, I sure do need some heavy duty painkillers. But in the meantime, these margaritas aren't doing such a bad job." She was having some difficulty remaining vertical; we hope she caught her flight.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the trials and tribulations involved in getting to Isla Mujeres, regatta participants didn't take long getting into a festive mood. Eileen performed one day at a beach party and another day at a dock party. In between there was a big awards banquet. Many of the boats also participated in the Amigos regatta, a fun event involving local kids, clowns, and lots of water balloons. We saw our friend William at the final party, just before he was going to head back to St. Pete. He was looking a little worse for the wear. "I don't know about all these parties," he confessed. "I'm having trouble keeping up. I think I need more practice before I'll be a real cruiser."
We think he's almost there.