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Racing the rock

2019 February 1

The Golden Rock Regatta’s mix of shoreside fun with casual racing brings sailors back to the Leewards year after year

I have enjoyed a lot of different sailing events, from local regattas to glamorous destinations. Each had its own appeal, but once I’ve been there, done that,  I rarely return because there are new places to explore. But I made an exception for the Golden Rock Regatta, a little-known Caribbean series that is held in November, featuring long-distance races to a smattering of islands: St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, St. Barths and Anguilla. Exhilarating stretches of racing during the day are followed by nightly raft-ups and casual parties. It perfectly combines the thrill of racing with the adventure of exploring a different piece of paradise each night, which has given me the opportunity to forge friendships with other “Rockers” over the years.

Team Canadian Yankees enjoys the rollicking leg from St Maarten to Statia.
Betsy Crowfoot photo

So when Regatta Chairman Juul Hermsen invited me to return in November and said he was on a mission to help save the regatta, I jumped in and my fiancé Barry Senescu even signed on to captain the race committee boat. Many Caribbean races have been reeling in the aftermath of the hurricanes as venues struggled to rebuild and restock charter boat fleets and vacationers dwindled. For larger regattas with entries in the hundreds, losing more than half of their participants is tough, but survivable. However, for a smaller scale event like the GRR, it could be devastating.

“We put a lot of effort into getting this up and going,” Hermsen said. “To have all the effort and success of the past 13 years wiped out by a hurricane would be very sad, for both the racers and the islands.”

Hermsen was involved in the Heineken Regatta race management in the early 1990s when he observed a lot of boats in the harbor sitting idle during the regatta. His idea to add cruising and bareboat classes to the regatta helped double the size of the event. Since then, bareboat charters have become the norm in Caribbean racing. 

The success of the Heineken Regatta and the boon to tourism didn’t go unnoticed. Hermsen was approached to start an event for “the forgotten island of Statia,” and launched the GRR, centered around November’s “Statia Day” holiday. One of my favorite memories was trekking a half-mile up to town in the pouring rain to celebrate and dance with the locals into the wee hours.

Barry calls the start.
Betsy Crowfoot photo

Arriving in Sint Martin in November, we loaded up at the boulangerie and wine shop convenient to the base in French Marigot. After a first night at the Sunsail base, where our catamaran was being readied, we did our briefing and check out. The charter bases have been doing a miraculous job reincarnating boats damaged by the hurricane, and are exceptionally helpful and grateful to visitors.

The fleet convened at Bobby’s Marina, a full-service marina and shipyard in Great Bay Harbour. Owner Bobby Velasquez has been a perennial victor in the GRR in his Beneteau 45F5, however L’Esperance was still awaiting its final hurricane repairs. A skipper’s meeting in the spacious cockpit of our beamy catamaran readied us for the early morning start.

This stretch of water, where the northeastern Caribbean Sea meets the western Atlantic Ocean, greets the tradewinds with open arms. There is nothing between you and the strong and steadfast breeze. The GRR takes full advantage of the prevailing conditions, with races from St. Maarten to Statia (36 nautical miles); Statia to St. Barths (30 nautical miles); St. Barths to Anguilla (35 nautical miles) and back to St. Maarten (18 nautical miles).  This year’s conditions were brisk, with more than 20 knots each day, gusting 30, streaking the cobalt seas with foam. The races were fast and exhilarating.

Statia is a rugged, green island of just 8 square miles dominated by a dormant 2,000-foot volcano. We anchored in its shadow, adjacent the 17th century stronghold Fort Oranje, in time for a swim. Just a few thousand people live here, but 250 years ago it was thriving, as the main trading post for American revolutionaries.

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