Tuesday, April 21st, we set sail from Long Island to George Town for Family Island Regatta. We raised anchor early, just after the 6:30 weather, and after motoring out of the Salt Pond anchorage, we turned northwest and cut the engine.
Winds had originally been forecast to be light, just 10 knots or so, from the stern quarter, so we were expecting a spinnaker sail, but then St. Christopher (as we heard one cruiser refer to Chris Parker a few days earlier) upped the wind forecast to 15 to 20 knots, still from the southeast (behind the beam) but stronger than we expected. We had 10 to 12 knots for the first 20 minutes or so, then the wind slowly died down to 3 or 4 knots (and our boat speed dropped from over 6 knots to about 3 knots). We watched the wind, and watched the wind, and after a while pulled out the spinnaker - the big asymmetrical one in the ATN sleeve, so we could avoid a near disaster like the last time we flew the mizzen spinnaker - and hauled it up. We sailed for less than an hour under spinnaker, making between 4 and 6 knots depending on the apparent wind speed (between 3 and 8 knots), but then some squalls began moving towards us in the gray, cloudy skies. After watching the squalls on radar and the wind speed on the wind indicator for a long while, the winds did begin to pipe up over 10 knots so we doused the spinnaker and turned on the engine to motor past the squalls. We left the spinnaker on the foredeck, expecting to hoist it once we were past the squalls, but as it turned out, the wind filled in and we finally hoisted the mainsail (we had dropped it earlier when we raised the spinnaker) and furled out some jib. The wind piped up to over 20 knots and didn't drop back to under 15 knots (apparent wind speed - actual winds were higher, since they were behind the beam and we were sailing 6 to 7 knots) until we were almost at George Town. We made the 40 miles to George Town, including sailing in through the cut in the reef (no engine) and sailing right to the anchorage, in six and a half hours, again averaging between 6 and 7 knots. In our last 3 days underway, we covered about 140 miles in less than 22 hours, using less than two gallons of diesel fuel (mostly for anchoring) and averaging nearly 6.5 knots.
We set the hook at Hamburger Beach/Monument Beach on Stocking Island at George Town. We planned to stay less than a week for the Bahamian Family Island Regatta, but with Chris Parker forecasting a "compression zone" (persistent high winds, 20 to 25 knots) through at least the following Monday and maybe even into the next week, we knew we could be at George Town longer.
Family Island Regatta is a week long series of sailboat races, pitting racing crews and boats representing the Bahamian "out islands" - the sparsely populated islands outside Nassau and Grand Bahama. When we were in Duncan Town on Ragged Island in the Jumentos, we met some guys who were heading up to George Town to sail their boats (including the New Courageous and the Good News) in the regatta. We had heard that the regatta is a real cultural event, by Bahamians for Bahamians, and we had been looking forward to being here for regatta. The regatta was started back in the 1950s when a British sailing enthusiast realized that with the advent of the outboard engine, the era of working sailing/fishing boats was doomed, and that could spell the end of an era of local boatbuilding.
We (especially the boys) have been checking out and learning about the regatta boats, and have learned that there are three classes of traditional Bahamian-built sailboats that are raced. Class A boats are 28 feet long, Class B boats are around 20 feet long, and the Class C boats are 17 feet long. These tiller-steered, wooden boats are rigged with their tall masts stepped well forward in the hulls and somewhat raked back, and sailed by crews of up to 14 or more. The most distinguishing feature is their extremely long booms, which are quite a bit longer than the boats themselves! Sails are fairly loose canvas, and are cut large, with a piece that seems to hang below the boom (the better to drag in the water on downwind legs, it seems). In addition to the series of Class A, B and C races, there is also a junior class, which is a series of races in the Class C boats with kids between 8 and 16 manning the tillers (steering the boats) and comprising most of the crew (each junior class boat is allowed to have two adults on board).
The winds were fairly light on Wednesday, the first morning of the regatta, but forecast to pick up in the afternoon, so we headed over in the dinghy to George Town, about a mile ride across the harbor. We got our most important errands done (restocked on red wine for us and gasoline for the dinghy), and filled a couple of water jugs, and then we headed over to the area where a bunch of shacks had been set up to sell food and drink, accompanied by very loud music, to all the folks in town for regatta. While walking along, we found a couple of guys standing by a boom that was being rigged on one of the boats, and the boys started talking with these guys. Suddenly, one of them looked at Chris and asked him if he could sail, and if he and Josh wanted to sail on a C Class boat in the junior races that day! They were sailing the Queen Brigitte, representing the Acklins Islands (just east of Long Island and northeast of the Jumentos), and they needed a junior crew (along with the two early-20s guys who would work the sails) to sail the boat. After just a few seconds of quick consideration, we said yes and Dave headed back to the dinghy to get the boys' lifejackets. Nancy and the boys accompanied Captain Remaldo and Derek to the registration area to have them officially added to the crew, with Chris designated as the skipper. While at registration some of the other Bahamian crews asked Nancy if she knew of any other kids that would race on their boats! So, Nancy got on the radio and called the other kid boats we know in the anchorage, and Dave flagged down a dinghy with a Canadian family with kids, and pretty soon there were a half dozen C Class boats in the Junior Class race with a dozen cruising kids on board and at the helms!
When Nancy and I motored over in the dinghy (we had been following them the entire way, taking pictures and shouting encouragement, along with a dozen or so other dinghies) to retrieve the boys, we found them lining up for another race. How many races, we asked? Three! There were two more heats to go! So, off they went. This time there was a crowd as they turned around the mark, but Chris jostled the Queen Brigitte through and headed for the downwind leg. The winds had shifted some, and this leg ended up being dead downwind, a difficult point of sail and one on which it can be tough to avoid accidental jibes.
Well, several of the boats did jibe, with some crew going in the water, but the Queen Brigitte romped along, bouncing precariously from side to side, sometimes dipping the boom and sail into the water and then sometimes dipping Dakota and Josh on the hiking board into the water, but they didn't lose anyone overboard and they didn't jibe, until the very end. On their first jibe one of the race official boats yelled to the crew "no jibing, the crew's too young!", and the second jibe occurred right at the finish line, but both were well executed (which is to say, nothing broke, and no one was hurt or lost overboard), and the Queen Brigitte crossed the finish line, in 6th place again.
On the third race, Nancy and Dave lined up in the dinghy to be able to take a movie of the start, and the movie shows it all. After the Queen Brigitte had taken a good position, another boat came late and anchored very close, and at the start the two boats got too close and the other boat's boom swung in front of the Queen Brigitte, spoiling what looked like a good start. In the commotion and confusion, the other boat finally set a sail and got away, but the Queen Brigitte ended up in irons and unable to fall off and sail until the fleet was too far away. Declaring that there was still a full day of racing ahead, the boat's real captain, Remaldo, decided to call it and head back for port. Another boat also made the same decision, and Nancy and I helped tow them back to the harbor.
The boys got official Family Island Regatta Junior Race T-shirts, and nearly a dozen cruising kids got a real authentic racing experience courtesy of Liberty's Chris and Josh. We celebrated with four plates of BBQ ribs with peas 'n rice, mac 'n cheese and potato salad from Ms. Smith's stall #29, and then, after finishing our grocery shopping, we headed back to Liberty for a well deserved evening of rest. The wind had piped up from the north during the day, and we got soaked (as in, completely soaked!) on our dinghy ride back across the mile wide harbor.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Regatta week had lots of exciting sailing, lots of wind, and good fun with lots of other kid boats in the harbor. The weather was windy! We did get stuck in a compression zone, between high pressure to the north and low pressure to the south, and had 20 to 30 knot winds for over a week. Despite the wind, we got out in the dinghy several times to watch the races. While the Class C and Class B races are certainly exciting, in their 17 and 20 foot wooden sailboats with tall masts and very long booms, it is the Class A races that are the most exciting of all. These 28 foot boats are crewed by 14 or more guys, 4 or so handling the tiller, sheets and sails, etc., and around 10 sitting on long "pry boards", hanging over the water on the upwind side of the boat to keep it from heeling over too far when sailing into the wind. Several times we anchored our dinghy (along with lots of other dinghies and larger powerboats) right at the "mark", the buoy around which the racing sailboats must turn before heading back to the start line. Because of the strong winds, the race course had been just two long legs, from the start line to the turn mark. They sailed 3 laps, so at the mark we got to watch them turn around it 3 times in a race. There is always much excitement at the mark, occasionally with boats jostling and crowding each other, and sometimes there are even collisions. During our travels in the Jumentos and Long Island, we met locals who own or sail on some of the boats, so the boys had picked "favorite" boats. Chris especially knew lots of the boats and who to cheer for. In fact, we ran into many of those locals during the Regatta and one from Long Island even took us out on his big speed boat to watch a race.
During the races several people fell overboard (and were quickly picked up by the chase boats that follow the racing fleet back and forth between the marks), and one boat even sank. Its mast was sticking up in the harbor a couple of days later, the boat yet to be recovered. One unfortunate incident hit home for the boys - the Queen Brigitte suffered a broken mast in a Class C race on Thursday, just a day after Chris skippered her in the Junior Class race. The guys sail these boats really, really hard, and post-race boat repairs are frequent. You can see boats with holes in the hulls patched with JB Weld, Bondo and even Great Stuff (spray-on expanding foam insulation) - whatever is readily available and will keep water out.
After watching races each day in the dinghy, we would head back to Liberty, generally quite wet, for showers and evenings on board. Saturday was a highlight of the regatta - the last day of racing, parades in town, and a performance by the Royal Bahamian Police Force Marching Band. We met several other kid boats on shore and walked around among the food and drink stands, watching races from Regatta Point (a spit of land that sticks out into the harbor and from which a good view of the start line can be had), enjoying gin & coconut waters and barbeque and loud music and general commotion. As the last Class A race was wrapping up, with Tida Wave securing a close victory over Running Tide, a local marching band (complete with a girl's rifle squad) played on the main street. A large group of us had stopped on the sidewalk right at Regatta Park, and that turned out to be center stage for the marching bands - we basically had front row seats! Eventually the Royal Bahamian Police Force Marching Band came marching down the street, with a very distinguished 50 or 60 something year old man as the drum major, all in uniform, and with the drummers each sporting traditional leopard skin mantles, with the heads hanging from their shoulders onto their backs and the tails strung between their legs and hooked to their belts. Their marching precision, on the narrow street with crowds pushing in from the sides, was amazing, and with typical Caribbean flair the drum major "got down" with some boogie-type movements that one would be hard pressed to see from a US military or police band. There was drum tossing too, and other cool marching band moves, that made the day truly special.
After the Royal Bahamian Police Force Marching Band finished up, we bought a couple of plates of barbeque with mac 'n cheese from a local vendor - picture a grill and a rickety card table on a dirty street corner, and this guy was in business. We sat on the edge of the dinghy dock and ate our wonderful dinner, and then beat into 20 knots of wind and 1 to 3 foot swells for a wet dinghy ride back to Liberty.
The 20 to 25 knot winds continued to blow through the next week, so we hung out in George Town, enjoying a beach barbeque/bonfire/marshmallow roast one night with over 30 kids, plus plenty of other fun activities, daily school and chores and nightly pot-lucks and get-togethers. As the weather moderated late in the week, boats started to leave the harbor, most heading north back to the US, but some heading east to enjoy a few more weeks in the islands. Although a large group of kid boats planned to go to Conception Island (where we visited by ourselves in December) and then Cat Island, we had not had enough of the Jumentos, so on Saturday, May 2nd, we pulled our deeply buried anchored from the sand and set sail for Hog Cay Cut and the Jumentos.
Dave, Nancy, Chris & Josh
Aboard SV Liberty anchored at Hamburger Beach,
George Town, Bahamas
Two of the 28ft. Class A boats
racing towards the finish
Duncan Town's Class B boat
Queen Brigitte sqeazing past the Exumas'
Legal Weapon, which also carried cruising kids
The crew of Queen Brigitte:
Chris, Remaldo, Dakota, Josh, & Derek
Queen Brigitte races to the finish with Chris at the helm and Josh and Dakota on the pry board
Chris and Josh help prep Queen Brigitte for the race
The first leg of the race was an easy sail
Queen Brigitte lined up
for an anchor start
The boats all line up on a start line, sails down, and anchored on very long anchor rodes. At the start gun, with Chris at the tiller of the Queen Brigitte, Derek and Remaldo (the Bahamian guys on board) hauled on the anchor line with all their strength and raised the mainsail while Josh and their friend Dakota (from the cruising boat Priority) pulled the anchor rode into the boat. The little sailboat gained speed, and when they reached the end of the anchor rode and hauled up the anchor, Chris turned the boat off the wind while Remaldo and Derek trimmed the sails. Off they went, tacking out to the marker buoy over a half mile away. They rounded the buoy and headed back on the downwind leg, with the huge boom swung way out and the sail sometimes dragging in the water. These little boats are set up with planks called "pry boards" that slide back and forth in braces so that when the boat is sailing hard on the wind and heeling way over, a couple of guys (called pry riders, of course) can crawl out on the boards on the windward side to act as ballast to keep the boat from tipping over. While Chris steered and Remaldo and Derek manned the sails and boom, Josh and Dakota - the pry riders - crawled out on the pry boards, hanging out over the water, to keep the boat from tipping! With rails often in the water, the Queen Brigitte raced along, crossing the finish line 6th out of 15 boats, a respectable finish for the Acklins.
Chris at the helm, Josh & Dakota on the pry board, and the sail in the water!
Make shift stands sold food and drinks and blared loud music
10 guys on the pry boards keep the boat from healing over too far.
We all came out in dinghies to watch the races
Queen Brigitte suffered a broken mast; another boat sank!
The Royal Bahamian Police Force Band
The drummers all sported traditional leopard skin mantles
Dave and Chris enjoying Regatta
Josh learned how to wakeboard!
Josh, Parker, Casey & Chris having fun at Regatta
30 cruising kids showed up for the bonfire!