by Dan Leeth
Captains wanting to shanghai a crew would probably look past our motley bunch.
Two dozen of us, clad in shorts and swimwear, stand on a pier. We resemble the usual Caribbean cross-section of urban escapees -- young and old, male and female, cruisers and condo commandos. One common bond links us. We all paid to be sheet jockeys on some of the swiftest boats ever sailed.
"In a few minutes, you'll be racing two America's Cup yachts," announces Grant, the day's coordinator. "They're the real thing, and you'll be the crew."
The group cheers, although most of us have no idea what we are getting ourselves into. We are about to take part in the 12 Metre Challenge, a junior America's Cup competition held daily off the island of St. Maarten. Like the celebrated skipper, Dennis Conner, we will compete for a cup. Rather than silver, ours are made of plastic and filled with rum punch.
Billed as the oldest trophy in sport, America's Cup competition began in 1851 when the British sponsored a 53-mile race around the Isle of Wight. To their horror, an entry from across the pond won. Its name was America, and the trophy became America's Cup. The traveling prize stayed on U.S. soil until an Australian yacht won in 1983. They took the bootie down under. Four years later, Conner brought it back.
"We've got five boats from the 1987 America's Cup competition," Grant tells us. "We will sail two today. One is Canada II. The folks up north spent something in the vicinity of $32.7 million on their unsuccessful challenge. The other is Stars & Stripes, the actual boat Dennis Conner used to beat those pesky Australians."
Grant picks two captains who, like kids on a sandlot, choose up teams. They look for strong arms and wind-jamming experience. Most of us have neither. The last time I was on water, I navigated an air mattress through a swimming pool.
A launch takes us to where the craft bob in the bay. Called "greyhounds of the sea," the boats are as lean and sleek as the bunny-chasing canines. Made of aluminum, they stretch 70 feet long and weigh 35 tons. Their single masts point eight stories skyward. Built for racing, there isn't even a toilet onboard.
Each of us is assigned a job. Those who are challenged physically or inclined toward sloth become timekeepers, navigators or monarchs of the cooler. The rest of us will squeeze Bengay tubes tonight.
"We are going to need grinders and grindettes," says Grant. "You've seen the guys furiously turning the handles onboard the boats? Well, ladies do very well at it, too."
A mixed quartet is chosen to crank the primary winches, and they head to the front of the recessed cockpit. The next victims become mainsail grinders, positioning themselves midship.
"Now, we need a few people to handle the backstays," Grant says. "These wires stop the mast from falling over, so we want relatively sober and intelligent individuals back there."
In spite of that, I'm selected for the task. I take one side near the stern while Matthew, a college-age lad, mans the other. Maintaining the lines are Sherry and Jennifer, two bikini-clad women who serve as "winch wenches."
Ernie, the skipper, introduces his three professional assistants. While he plots strategy and steers the boat, they will handle the technical tasks. The guys explain safety requirements and show each of us how to perform our jobs. A few minutes later, we hoist sails and the boat moves toward the briny blue.
"Our race course is in the shape of a triangle," explains Zalan, the first mate. "There is a single red flag at the top, which is our windward mark. Two red flags at the base form the starting gate. We will begin heading upwind on the first of five legs."
An official on the "committee boat" will signal the start of the race. He raises a white flag to launch the six-minute countdown. Ernie begins maneuvers that he hopes will put us at the line on time and ahead of Canada II. The two competitors move back and forth, jockeying for position.
"Count off the seconds!" Ernie shouts.
"Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven..."
Canada II slips in beside us.
"They're trying to force us away from the flag line," Ernie complains.
"... three, two, one."
The race begins. Sails fill and the boat leans. Up front, someone cuts loose with a cowboy "Yeeee-haaa."
The representative from the Great White North slides into an early lead. At the stern of the red and white vessel, its maple leaf flag flutters from, of course, a hockey stick.
Angling with the wind, we tack to and fro, zigzagging like a sidewinder slithering across a liquid desert. With every change of direction, Ernie calls out commands.
"Primary grinders, give me some medium first gear."
Like pedaling a bicycle with their arms, the folks up front frantically whirl the winches. Hats and hair go flying. Direction shifts. The boat tips, its gunwales scraping the water. Empty cans slide across the cockpit. We brace feet and clench anything solid to keep from following.
"Tighten the backstay," Ernie commands.
That's the cue for me to perform my relatively sober and intelligent task. Grabbing a handle, I reel in the line that tethers the main mast. When it reaches a predetermined mark, I reholster the handle. Like all jobs on board, it's seconds of exertion followed by minutes of indolence.
The boat cuts, slices and charges forward. Its bow, plowing through the waves, sends spray flying. In seeming slow motion, the saltwater deluge hangs momentarily in the air, then crashes down in a drenching shower. Everyone grins. This is racing.
In the sport of speed, having a chance to ride a winner is a rare opportunity. The same year that Dennis Conner skippered this boat to yachting's grandest prize, Al Unser Sr. won the Indy 500, and Chris McCarron jockeyed Alysheba to victory in the Kentucky Derby. I'll never have a chance to so much as tighten Unser's lug nuts or cinch Alysheba's saddle, but thanks to Colin Percy I'm a working sailor on Stars & Stripes.
Percy, owner of the 12 Metre Challenge, is an Englishman who spent much of his early life in Montreal. During a Caribbean race weekend, he came up with the idea of offering rides on America's Cup yachts. He opened for business with two Canadian boats and soon added a third. After a fortuitous meeting with Dennis Conner, Percy was able to lease Stars & Stripes and its backup. While Conner's craft may have won in Australia, here in St. Maarten, it still trails.
We follow Canada II around the flag and begin jibing our way back. Moving with the breeze, the boat sails swiftly. An air of quiet relaxation gives us time to admire the environment.
This one-third scale America's Cup course stretches across the mouth of Great Bay on the south side of St. Maarten. The small island, 192 miles east of Puerto Rico, is split between the French and Dutch. Offering two cultures and a duty-free port, it is a popular stop for cruise vessels. One of the floating resorts lies anchored behind us. Ahead, the Canadians dash toward the turnaround point.
"What do we need to catch up?" Sherry, my winch partner, asks.
"More wind," laments Ernie.
Reaching the gate, we turn and start back. Clanking, flapping, knocking and whooshing, Stars & Stripes slowly gains on Canada II. We chase for two more legs. By the start of the final upwind run, the Canadian hockey stick skates squarely into our sights. A tacking duel begins.
Canada II fires the first salvo by trying to steal our wind. With speed dependent on air pushing canvas, an upwind boat can put its leeward competitor at a disadvantage.
"With the spread we have, his chance of succeeding is pretty slim," Ernie assures us. "Besides, when we turn, we will have the starboard tack. That means we will have rights. He must get out of my way. If we collide, he will be penalized. Plus, if two boats hit, the boss gets more than a little upset."
In a game of chicken of the sea, the skippers run their yachts on an apparent collision course. Honoring the rules, CanadaII makes a last-minute turn. We run side by side, then diverge, choosing opposite tacks toward the finish.
At the upwind marker, the committee boat and the flag form a finish line. In match racing, the first one across wins.
"We're going to do a port tack," Ernie says as we approach the line. "If we cannot make it in front of them without interfering, we will have to go behind, and they will win."
Canada II seizes the advantage, pulling ahead as both boats streak toward the finish. It's close, but today the Molson drinkers win.
On the way back, its Miller time on Stars & Stripes, and Ernie lets some of the passengers take the helm. Like a Ferrari, its steering is tight and precise. Except for safety modifications and the removal of some high-maintenance items such as onboard electronics, the boats are little changed from when they competed for the cup. They are, however, the last of their breed.
The boats we raced were built to conform to the "12 Metre" formula, an equation that governs racing yacht's basic dimensions. That classification of competitors was replaced in 1989 by new rules that take into account modern composite materials and designs.
Our cooler queen hands out another round of drinks as we glide toward port. We moor Stars & Stripes and I join others on deck waiting for the launch. One guy seems to still tingle with knee-knocking excitement.
"It's not that," he says through gritted teeth. "I just shouldn't have had beer when there's no bathroom on board."