With just 96 hours to go - at the time of writing - until the first gun is fired to signal the start of the first race in St Maarten's Heineken Regatta 2004, 252 entries have been received so far, and more are coming hour by hour.
Racing takes place over three days on this unique Dutch/French island, beginning on Friday with a round the Island race starting and finishing in Simpson Bay, just outside the sheltered lagoon that makes the Island such a superb yachting base. On Saturday the boats race from Simpson Bay into the Anguilla channel to the north east of Sint Maarten, finishing on the French side at Marigot - where the island changes it's name to St Martin. For the spinnaker classes there is a Saturday afternoon race in the Anguilla Channel, and finally, on Sunday, the start is off Marigot, finishing back at Simpson Bay and it's back to Sint Maarten too.
To accompany the racing, there is a peripatetic race village of local food stalls, bars, tee shirt and souvenir sellers and of course the legendary Heineken Regatta evening entertainment. At every party venue - wherever the racing finishes for that day - there is a selection of outstanding local and imported bands to set the mood.
At Kim Sha beach on Friday, the local-band-made-good-in-Europe, Intwine, is supported by the Postmen; on Saturday in Marigot it's Youth Waves and Da Bhann; while Sunday's prize giving party back at Kim Sha features the Soualiga Brass Band, 3-Cylinder and finishes off with chart-topping, Grammy nominees the Black Eyed Peas. Not for nothing is this regatta's slogan: "Serious Fun".
With the numbers justifying the organisers' claim that this is the Caribbean's premier regatta, there is also quality in depth throughout the 20 classes.
Down at the smallest level, the beach cat fleet, Thibaut MONIER, previously second in the Hobie 16 worlds, Tornado and Open 7.2 champion, will be competing in a mixed fleet of Nacras, Hobies and Prindles, all looking forward to the promised 18 to 25 knot winds over the regatta weekend. At the opposite end of the spectrum come the amazing Z86 twins, Roy DISNEY'S Pyewacket and Dr Hasso PLATTNER'S Morning Glory.
Brand new, racing for the first time in the world here at St Maarten, the two Z86s incorporate everything cutting edge in yachting technology. Designed by Reichel/Pugh in San Diego, California and built in New Zealand, the hulls and rigs are carbon fibre and feature CBTF - canting ballast/twin foil - technology.
In layman's terms, CBTF means that the keel carries a ballast bulb that can be swung out to the windward side by special hydraulic rams, giving amazing stability and sail carrying power. That's the CB bit, while the TF part involves having paired rudders forward and aft, not just to steer the boat, but to ensure that it can sail effectively to windward - with the keel angling out at up to 50 degrees, the keel is effectively just a strut to carry the ballast, not a foil to stop the boat slipping sideways as in conventional boats. The rudders are elegant carbon fibre foils, which are independently adjusted to steer and also to improve the boats' windward performance.
The crews themselves admit that they haven't yet got complete knowledge of these complex and exciting craft, so expect to see occasional major changes of pace as one setting or another makes a difference. Rivalry on the water will be intense though the boats have been developing together up to now. As the skipper of Morning Glory says, "we've been working together all the way along so it's been good. But when the gun goes the marriage is over! Divorce starts!"
Ally the complexity of these boats with the need to play the usual sailing Grand Master's game of three dimensional chess with the winds, the waves and the currents; then to control a crew of up to 25 members, to take into account the competition between the two virtually sister ships - plus making sure that they don't fall foul of one of the hundreds of other boats out on the water and you begin to see why they are sailed by some of the world's best sailing talent.
Aboard Dr Hasso Plattner's Morning Glory the man in charge is Dee SMITH, a voluble American who comes with a CV that includes everything from the Admiral's Cup to the America's Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race and just about every smaller regatta you can think of. His opposite number, running Pyewacket for owner Roy DISNEY, is Robbie HAINES, match racing star, Olympic Gold medalist and every bit as highly qualified as Mr Smith - just a little quieter.
Though all eyes will be on the golden twins, don't discount the depth of talent in the rest of the division. Caribbean veteran Tom HILL from the Virgin Islands is bringing his brand new 72 footer - with a conventional keel - Titan 12, with the exceptional talent of Alinghi America's Cup team member, fellow Virgin islander, Peter HOLMBERG as tactician.
Then there is Clay Deutsch's Swan 68 Chippewa. Chippewa is going faster and faster year on year, though her crew might be a little lacking in immediate practice this time as she was out on charter just days before the regatta and the crew are having to work flat out to strip her for racing and to set up the racing sails and equipment in time for training and the race days. You might have thought that, as the charter was for the owner's daughter and her friends, something more convenient might have been arranged.
Chippewa won a big series at Key West with seven wins from nine so she might be a bet for the big boat class - if the handicappers can manage to cope with the complexity of the CBTF boats and hand out a fair time correction factor to the swing keel sisters.
With 12 entries in the biggest boat classes, Spinnaker 1 and a further five over 60ft in Spinnaker 2 - including two Volvo Open 60s - the racing forecast is awesome to out of sight. The entry also bodes well for the Caribbean Big Boat Series which includes racing here and at the BVI Spring Regatta, ending up at Antigua Sailing Week in April. Two series out of three to count and boats over 60ft, racing and cruising can enter.
Other stand-outs in the bigger spinnaker classes include a collection of one design Swan 45s, the Transpac 52 Rosebud, a prosaic name for such an out and out racer, and Irvine LAIDLAW'S Latest Highland Fling, a Carroll Marine 60. At 65ft and many tons, the four boats owned by Formula One sailing, chartered either berth by berth or in one case to a full Dutch crew, aren't likely to feature in the overall results, but who aboard cares? It will be all about beating the other boats in the quartet.
Regatta regular Richard MATTHEWS from Oyster Marine in the UK has brought his much-modified 50 footer Flirt to the party after a traumatic shipping saga. The loading was moved from Ipswich to Southampton at a couple of day's notice after a frenetic preparation process - and when it was finally loaded the ship arrived over a week late. There's a lot to prepare on the cream-hulled boat.
Flirt has a new, inverted T-shape, heavier keel in order to bring the centre of gravity forward and save the crew from populating the foredeck in light winds.
Richard will be joined by GBR Challenge America's Cup starting helmsman Andy BEADSWORTH as mainsheet and tactical guru. Andy is one of the most laid-back characters in this role, offering advice in a laconic, style that might sound less than imperative, but ignore his advice at your peril! Flirt, with another tactician, did well last year until a hiccup on the last day dropped them out of the chocolates, so better things are expected this time around.
Smaller boats in the Spinnaker classes include local favourite Synergy which is being sailed by boatyard owner Carl VAUGHAN III for the final time before she goes off to her new owner. Frits BUS will be competing in his Melges 24 2ContactCarib2 and hoping for the strong winds that these little boats love. Another boat for the breeze is Antiguan dentist Bernie Evan WONG'S much loved and much modified Cal 40 Huey Too. Huey has taken top prize before and could do so again if the effeverscent Bernie can control his hyperactive tendencies and concentrate on sailing the boat.
One to watch will be Guardian Star from Trinidad, perhaps the one place where they party harder than here in St Maarten. Guardian Star is a beautifully modified Beneteau First Class 10, sporting a new keel, deck and rudder, and with some fancy new racing sails. Expect good things from this one if the crew can fight their way through the hangovers. After all it's only three days, so give it your best shot guys!
Pleased to arrive in St Maarten this year for the regatta is John HARACIVET with his 38ft Beneteau, the aptly named Tempest. Last year he set out from the Virgin Islands, only for the boat's keel to start falling off. He put back for repairs to suffer another ignominy when he was dismasted after setting off again. Better luck this year John.
In the non-spinnaker division, there is a renewal of the running fight between two of the Caribbean's most colourful characters, Hugh BAILEY from Antigua and Bobby VELASQUEZ from St Maarten. Both of these larger than life characters own marinas and have a taste for gold jewellery, and both want to win! Last year Hugh trounced Bobby, will the tables be turned this year? We'll have to wait and see. Bobby and his crew have even been seen out practising, so he must be taking it seriously!
Bareboats and multihulls
Just about half the boats in the regatta are bareboat charters. There are 24 50ft Beneteaus in Bareboat Division 1 for instance, backed up with everything else you can think of, right down - or up - to a class which includes a gaggle of charter catamarans. This year the multihull division is the biggest ever with 18 boats. Among the racing multi fleet of nine is the Round Britain Race winner and Transat Jacques Vabre competitor Mollymawk, perhaps one to watch.
Interestingly, the Bareboat fleet is becoming more international by the year. For 2004 there is the usual preponderance of Europeans: Dutch leading by miles, but German and British teams in numbers; there are also three Spanish teams, many from the United States, the odd Swiss, Belgian and Canadian, plus one Japanese. I wonder what "Starboard!" is in Japanese?
For local interest, Douggie BROOKES from St Maarten will be trying to repeat his success from last year while M. Beaujon from the French side and Leo LIGTHART from the Dutch will be having their fun too.
One class unique to the Heineken regatta is the Open class, a division that this year numbers 20 boats that sail under a system of moveable handicaps. If that doesn't quite make sense, perhaps a little explanation is in order. The class is for those who wouldn't otherwise race and who can't be bothered with measurement and rating rules.
On the first day the boats race on the basis of a handicap conjured up by the committee, based on a self-measurement form (The boat, not the skipper!).
On the following two days, the rating is adjusted to match the performance of the boat on the previous day. If you sail badly, the rating goes down, if you sail well it goes up. The trick is to sandbag the first day - without making it obvious - and then do just enough to stay in touch on day two, putting in a killer sprint on the final day.
As you can see, this is not exactly scientific, but devised to give a disparate group of boats - from Grote Meid a 71ft steel liveaboard schooner to Trinka, a wooden 28ft Channel Cutter - a bit of fun.
And that's the whole ethos of St Maarten Yacht Club's Heineken Regatta. From multi million dollar maxi to tiny beach cat, it's all a bit of: Serious Fun!