As Barbuda faded into the distance, the little Cariacou Sloop ‘Sweetheart’ found her wind and deepened her wake. On a broad reach with such a large main there was some weather helm, but the four of us on board were all thoroughly enjoying the speed, and with unusually flat seas there was little to worry about as the 35′ wooden vessel, previously used for fishing around the Caribbean islands, edged closer to the French island of St.Barth.
Unseen but not far away, similar boats were making similar passages, bound for the port of Gustavia and the West Indies Regatta – a celebration of the traditional trading and fishing vessels of the Caribbean.
They arrived one by one, brightly painted and enthusiastically crewed, a patchwork of boats designed to work these fair waters. Some had been pimped for racing with dyneema and jamming cleats, and others were held together with twine and fencing wire, but they were all built on the beach by eye, with basic tools and whatever wood could be found nearby.
Many boats bought goods from other islands to trade and sell – artisanal food, clothing, piles of coconuts, and quite a few unusual characters were all unloaded onto the dock, while various music instruments and suspicious looking bottles appeared from all over the place. Small children disappeared up masts, and somebody set to work butchering chunks of meat with a machete on their aft deck.
This regatta has been taking place since 2009, but this year was a special one – After many years of research and filming, the documentary Vanishing Sail was premiered on the first evening. This stunning film follows the history of traditional boatbuilding in the Caribbean and follows master ship-wright Alwyn Enoe and his sons as they build one last wooden boat in an attempt to revive interest in a skill that has largely been forgotten in this part of the world. It received enormous praise and applause from the crowd in St.Barth, as did the decision to postpone the skippers briefing the next day to a more civilised hour.
The weather over the next couple of days was ideal, with wind speeds of 15-20kn and flat water in the lee of St.Barth. The elegant sloops bombed around some interesting courses, narrowly missing one another in their attempts to work out which islands were to to be left to which side, and where on earth the finishing line was. The racing was hard and fast, but not viciously competitive – everyone agrees that the main thing is to have fun and promote the spirit of these boats, and every vessel wins a prize, which are as diverse as ‘most children on board’, and ‘fastest (and only) schooner’.
On the last day, the entire fleet formed one enormous raft in a beautifully protected bay, and several hours were spent chasing turtles, sharing picnics, and untangling anchor chains. One more race back to port followed, and another night of music on the dock before the vessels set sail once again back to their respective islands, some going as far as Grenada, over 300 miles to the south.
In ‘Sweetheart’ we had a long upwind beat back to Antigua, into moderate swell. It was extremely wet both inside and out, but the bright full moon kept our spirits up, and I reflected that the West Indies Regatta must be one of the most fun and relaxed sailing events in the world. Hopefully it will go from strength to strength, and these unique and beautiful boats will become, once more, a common sight in the Caribbean Sea.