The whispers begin as soon as we reach the Bahamas. Family Island Regatta is soon ‘mon. As we move down the Exuma chain we find them propped up under trees, behind local bars, on main streets. We see wooden masts with giant C-clamps holding them together, paint cans on the ground, men talking. Family Island race boats are based on traditional working boats and bear little resemblance to the carbon/kevlar creations we are used to thinking of as raceboats. They are pure sailboats with vast canvas and heavy wooden masts and booms.
The racing fleet is made up of 50 to 60 boats split into five classes by overall length. They range from 13-foot dinghies with a two-man crew to the big 28-foot A class with as many as 18 crew members on each boat. The event draws spectators from all over the world with junior races (under 17 years old; C class), Special Cup races (all classes), and the regatta’s three-race series for all classes. The first regatta was in 1954 and the boats were truly working boats. Now, although they’re based on traditional designs, these boats only race. For several days before the event mailboats arrive without their usual cargo of bananas and bread. Instead, the boats arrive.
The races begin with each boat anchored, sails down. 10 or so of the crew heave on the anchor rode to get the boat moving while the others haul up the sail. Not easy on a boat with no winches and a 60 foot mast. The course is laid out as a straight upwind/downwind course but you know how it is. Wind shifts. These are not reaching boats, not with that much canvas. The reason there are 18 or so crew is because these things are so ridiculously overcanvased they need the extra ballast. The ballast/crew are on leeboards. When a tack or jib is called, the ballast hustle onto the deck and lie down. The boom swings across with a good 24 inches of clearance, the leeboard is pushed over and the ballast climbs over. Of course, if the wind dies, then the ballast/crew must hold on tight as it’s a wet ride. Not every boat arrives fully crewed so crew are recruited in the rum shacks that line Regatta point.
The rum shacks are a story to themselves. 24 hours before the Regatta was scheduled to start the rum shacks were a pile of palettes, and a few workmen lounging around. Never we thought, never will they be ready. We underestimated the thirst. On opening day Regatta point was lined with huts serving (what else) conch fritters, fried chicken, mac and cheese and enough rum to drown a sailors thirst. In between the shacks are speakers the size of a Mack truck blaring out music. Seriously, we anchored a mile away over at Volleyball beach and our boat vibrated with a bass beat for 4 days. But after some time spent in the rum shacks sleeping through the music wasn’t a problem.
Back to crewing. If you’re looking for a ride, hang out in the rum shacks. Look as large as possible. Don’t bother mentioning your sailing qualifications, no one cares. What they’ll ask is “how much you weigh ‘mon?” Then, “be at the dock 9 a.m. (Bahamian time). Show up at 9. Wait. Have some rum. Wait. At some point people will gather. The captains will ponder the sky while ignoring you. Have some more rum. After ruminating at the clouds, the captain will look at the potential crew and call out, “winds strong, you 200, you in, you 220 you in, you 160, sorry ‘mon, maybe tomorrow”. Of course, it could be a light day and 150 gets in while 220 stays behind in the shacks.
Sure there’s rules. Might is right.
Here’s a lesson. If you’re used to racing in other places, where public safety is paramount, don’t visit here. At least not in a Hobie. Or if you must sail your tiny little Hobie onto the race course don’t even think that they’ll stop and wait for you to get out of the way.