Spring is coming and there's no better time for a sailor to enjoy the Caribbean racing scene than 27-29 March when the International Rolex Regatta returns to St Thomas Yacht Club for its 36th edition.
The three-day event indulges hard-core competitors in the Caribbean's most professionally run and scenically beautiful races while offering families a wealth of options for vacation fun, including day-tripping to the other nearby US Virgin Islands of St John and St Croix.
"What makes the regatta stand apart is the physical location of the club,"
said long-time competitor Tony SANPERE (ISV), who cited both the energy in the harbour and easy access to race courses on Pillsbury Sound and Cowpet Bay as "conducive to having more fun."
While some boats anchor off the club and others stay at American Yacht Harbour and Yacht Haven Grande, SANPERE has always berthed at the club's T-dock, flying his burgees and Rolex flags as part of the festive presence there.
"I first sailed to St Thomas in 1969, so when I go there it's like going home, in a sense,"
said SANPERE, who sailed the very first International Rolex Regatta in 1974 and then returned in 1996 to race every annual edition held thereafter. "This year, I have stepped up from Cayennita (a Soverel 27 in which he won the 2005, 2006 and 2007 events) to Grand Cayennita [a J/36, built in 1981, that he acquired last year]. It is a good, light-air boat with brand new sails, new equipment, new bottom paint, even a new crew, so I have no excuses."
Like many others who repeatedly mark their calendars for this event, SANPERE enjoys the format of the racing the most. Friday serves up buoy races for the IC/24 One-Design class and a combination of buoy and through-the-islands racing for classes sailing under the Caribbean's CSA handicap rule and the more global IRC rule. Saturday is a race from St Thomas' quiet east end to the bustling harbour at Charlotte Amalie and back. (With winds blowing 20-22 knots last year, everyone had a war story to tell when they got back to shore.) The last day is devoted to two races, one being the traditional Pillsbury Sound race, set between St Thomas and St John.
"I don't like up-and-down windward/leeward courses,"
said SANPERE. "I like to go around the islands and that is what the International Rolex Regatta offers for my Performance Cruising Class - navigational and very tactical races."
While participants can count on casual island-style beach parties and nightly entertainment at St Thomas Yacht Club, they also can break away to downtown Charlotte Amalie for an up-town party Saturday night at Yacht Haven Grande. Steel and reggae bands as well as special food tents will supplement the usual non-stop activity at this luxury mega yacht marina, which includes 48 slips for yachts up to 450 feet complemented by dozens of boutiques and restaurants. This year, as a supporter of the International Rolex Regatta, Island Global Yachting has offered competitors free dockage at both its Yacht Haven Grande and American Yacht Harbour properties. Combined with the organizers' economy-sensitive offer to lower entry fees by 25%, this has resonated powerfully through the racing community.
Ron O'HANLEY's (USA) Cookson 50 Privateer, fresh from victory at February's Pineapple Cup Montego Bay Race, will return to redeem itself after winning "hands down" the opening day's race at last year's International Rolex Regatta and then suffering an equipment failure that took the boat out of the running for the rest of weekend.
"I have no doubt we would have won last year,"
said Privateer's captain Ian HENDERSON (USA), who seemed comfortable being tagged a favourite again this year for the IRC racing. "What we like about this regatta are the logistics and the race committee,"
he added. The International Rolex Regatta, which is part of the 2009 US-IRC Gulf Stream Series, last year attracted the attention of campaigns from the States and Europe when it became the first Caribbean regatta to offer IRC racing without the need to be measured under the CSA rule as well.
Fellow Newporters Phil and Wendy LOTZ (USA) are planning a family getaway with their entry of the Club Swan 42 Arethusa. "We have not sailed in the Caribbean in over 20 years, so we're excited,"
said Wendy, who met her husband in 1975 while they were both sailing for Babson College. The pair will sail the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta before heading to St.Thomas and then stick around for the BVI Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival. The International Rolex Regatta and the BVI events are linked to form Virgin Islands Race Week, now in its second year.
"There is really something for everyone at this regatta,"
said Event Co-Chair John SWEENEY. "It's why the last weekend of March is now etched into every racer's mind as the time when the 'Crown Jewel' of Caribbean racing takes place - where sailors can enjoy St Thomas' reliable breezes, warm azure waters and world-renowned Island hospitality."
A.H. Riise, Official Retailer of Rolex watches in the US Virgin Islands, takes an active role in sponsorship of the event. The St Thomas shop is one of the largest in the Caribbean and is located on the historic waterfront of downtown Charlotte Amalie. Rolex is known for sponsoring famous offshore and grand-prix events such as the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, Rolex Fastnet Race, Giraglia Rolex Cup, Rolex Middle Sea Race, Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup and the Rolex Farr 40 World Championship.