March 23, 2006
If there are any budding sociologists out there who would like to combine academic research with cruising tropical waters, we've got a great dissertation topic for you: social structures in the cruising community. To some, this may seem like a contradiction of terms. Certainly when we first cast off the dock lines over a decade ago, everyone we met on the water spoke of fleeing the rat race, pursuing personal goals, getting away from the madding crowd. Almost by definition, there shouldn't be any structure to the cruising community; elaborate rules, organized groupings, and scheduled events should be anathema to the rugged individualists who are out there plying the seven seas in solitary bliss.
As it turns out, with some exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we've observed that often there seems to be a direct correlation between how long people have been cruising and how much they crave routine, regimen, and recognition by their peers. If you don't believe us, we can suggest a number of laboratories where you can test our thesis for yourself. Any place where a lot of transient boats hang out will do, but the ultimate testing ground is George Town, Bahamas.
George Town is cruising Mecca in the Exuma island chain in south-central Bahamas. Typically, the number of transient boats will peak at about 400 around the beginning of March when the annual cruising regatta usually takes place. Neophyte cruisers in George Town quickly learn there are rules to be followed; these are announced each morning on the VHF radio net. They are told which VHF radio channels they can use; when they must avoid transmitting on their ham or SSB transceivers; where (and where not) they can dispose their trash; how they should conduct and dock their dinghies; and so on. Presumably these self-imposed regulations are necessary to mitigate potential conflicts in a crowded anchorage, but most -- such as burning an anchor light at night and refraining from anchoring in the commercial ship channel -- are commonsense and we would like to think that any competent mariner would behave appropriately without the reminders.
Most cruisers develop interests and hobbies to keep themselves occupied during those brief moments when they're not repairing their boats or schlepping provisions. Some activities are pretty difficult to do on one's own, so it's useful when there's a mob around that's interested in playing, say, volleyball, bocce ball, or bridge. If this is what interests you, George Town is the place to be. But in George Town, even pastimes that we might consider to be solitary pursuits are subject to organization. Water colourists meet to paint en masse. Yoga enthusiasts contort in group classes. Even dog owners are invited to walk their pets on a designated beach at a scheduled time. There's hardly a minute during daylight hours when there isn't some sort of organized group activity taking place. And as dusk approaches, just in case you might miss the occasion of the sun slipping below the horizon, dozens of conch horn blowers announce the fact with an earsplitting cacophony. So much for enjoying a moment of personal reverie at the end of the day.
The organizational imperative reaches a frenzied climax when regatta finally rolls around. For a whole year, a cruising regatta committee has been communicating regularly and making decisions about schedules and logistics. The committee comprises over a dozen volunteers who each head a group charged with organizing a particular regatta activity. In the weeks approaching regatta, all forces swing into action to cement the final details. Then it's ten days of events, one after the other, day and night: opening night dance, pet parade, tennis tournament, bridge competition, baseball game, beach golf tournament, several volleyball games, swimming races, "coconut harvest", sand sculpture competition, scavenger hunt, an entire day of children's activities, bocce ball tournament, dinghy and kayak contests, and the closing night variety talent show. Oh, and did we mention the sailboat races? There are two days buried somewhere in the schedule when misguided cruisers attempt to race their boats inside the harbour and outside in the open sound.
Local lore has it that when the first cruising regatta was held in 1980, there were 32 transient boats in the harbour. One of them was "Meriah", owned by Joel Fine, a cruiser and dentist who was working in the local clinic. More out of boredom than anything else, Joel suggested that everyone take an afternoon off from the rigours of the cruising life and race their boats around the inner harbour. Thirty-one of the others took him up on his idea. The only boat that didn't race was "Catticus Rex", owned by Scott and Theresa Kirk. "Catticus Rex" drew seven and a half feet and Scott and Theresa were concerned they'd go aground in the shallow harbour. They became the turning mark.
Twenty-six years later, 31 boats registered for the first of this year's two sailboat races (only 26 registered for the second, shorter race). Coincidentally, this is the same number of competitors as participated in the first regatta -- although there are more than ten times as many boats in total attendance. We openly admit that we're among the majority of boats that don't race despite the fact that this event is called a regatta and most yachtsmen will argue that central to the concept of a regatta is the notion of racing. We, like most of the others, are just too lazy to stow all our stuff, weigh anchor, and sail around in circles -- especially when our chances of placing are about as remote as winning a million dollar lottery.
David loves racing on OTHER people's boats, however, and at every George Town regatta that we've attended he's managed to ingratiate himself to more motivated sailors and secured a crewing position. Unfortunately, the boaters who typically take him on as crew are pretty desperate, probably a reflection of how unlikely it is that they'll take top honours. On more than one occasion, David's been on the boat that's won the Turtle Award, meaning it finished dead last.
This year, David had his hopes up. Through a mutual friend, he was recruited to crew on "Bad Boy", a newly commissioned Jeanneau 54 sloop. It was anchored less than a hundred yards from "Little Gidding". It was sleek and shiny and menacing. Surely it was a contender. David told Eileen, "My racing talents have finally been recognized. This year I'm going to be part of the winning team."
Eileen ferried David in our dinghy over to "Big Boy" a few minutes before the appointed meeting time. Doug, the owner, heartily greeted him. David's delusions of star recruitment quickly evaporated as dinghy after dinghy brought over more crew members. Soon there were no fewer than 14 people on board, including some power boaters who had never sailed before. "Well, I don't mind sharing victory with most of the rest of the harbour," David said charitably. "It's still better than the Turtle Award."
"Bad Boy" had two steering stations, electric winches, and every electronic gadget known to man. It probably could have been sailed quite competently by two people. Since only Doug and a couple of others had ever sailed on the boat before, it was wisely suggested that the assembled multitude practice a bit before the start of the race. They weighed anchor, raised the sails, and headed into the middle of the harbour. Sailing upwind, Doug announced his intention to tack. The tensioned sheet was released, the headsail hesitated as at slid past the spreaders, and the opposite sheet was brought in. David expertly applied his finger to the button on the electric winch. "I could get to like this," he said. Then someone looked up at the sail and said, "There's a rip near the leach."
There was no mistaking a six inch tear that on the next tack became a twelve inch tear. With 15 minutes left before the starting gun, a hopeful voice suggested they break out the duct tape. Doug shook his head and made the obvious decision. "Sorry folks, we're not racing today." Later that day, a friend was hoisted in a bosun's chair and discovered the culprit: an incorrectly installed cotter pin near the end of one of the lower spreaders had snagged the sail.
Eileen was disappointed when David returned a mere hour after she had dropped him off; she had been hoping to have the boat to herself for the day. David took the hint and went out in the dinghy to take photos of the race. On the last day of regatta, we spent most of the afternoon and evening helping with the variety show. David was the sound man and Eileen acted as stage manager, roles we've done before. But for all the other events, we were just spectators. In previous regattas, we've participated in several of the competitions. This year, we were aggressively recruited to join a team for the coconut harvest, an event that we've won in the past, but we declined. Any Olympian knows that after reaching the pinnacle, it's all downhill.
Maybe we're getting too old for all the energy and enthusiasm that regatta demands. Or maybe we've lost the knack or inclination for being organized. We had a good time on the sidelines, though; two aimless individuals in happy disarray.