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By Patti Morrow
Sailing is fun, but racing? Even better! And what better place to experience the thrill of speeding through the warm turquoise Caribbean ocean off the island of St. Maarten with the strong trade winds at your back.
As part of my Carnival Cruise excursion, I was not just a passenger onboard one of the America Cup regattas, but I was allowed the opportunity to be part of the crew – something I won’t soon forget.
The multi-million-dollar 12 Meter Challenge Fleet racing boats were Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes, winner of the 1983 America’s Cup, and the Canada II, considered one of the fastest boats in the yachting world. The races date back to 1851 and Queen Victoria, and has since become one of the most prestigious trophies. The impressive, cutting edge yachts which are 70 feet long, weigh 35 tons and have an 86-foot mast are some of the fastest sailing vessels in the world.
After the dockside briefing, I was directed by a surly young male dock attendant to go to the Canada II.
“But I’m writing about this and I really should be on my country’s boat, the Stars and Stripes,” I whined at him for the second time that morning. He just gave me a sour look and walked away. I was only able to calm my bubbling inner rage by remembering that my ancestors emigrated from France, to Canada, before finally settling in Rhode Island.
“I need an active person to be part of my crew!” said Captain Dan as our pontoon boat launched to take us to the waiting regatta.
“Me!” I raised my hand.
“You can grind,” he said. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t what I was thinking.
Some other passengers were assigned “less important roles,”like winching, trimming sails, timing, paparazzi, and watching. And one man received what many thought to be the most coveted job: bartender.
As we pulled up to the racing yacht, the crew pulled me aboard and positioned me at the grinder. Soon, I received instruction on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd gear grinding.
The sails were hoisted, and our boat took on the beautiful and sleek profile that you see in magazines. It was magical.
The captain then looked for the flag to be raised, and the Canada II was off, with the Stars and Stripes right at our heels. Frenetic energy coursed through everyone on board as we all worked as a team, combining tactical maneuvers with manpower to try and get an edge.
At times it seemed like we were going to collide as we raced on the abbreviated version of the America’s Cup course, but the captain shouted orders that the experienced – and not-so-experienced – crew followed to a letter.
The grinding job, come to find out, is the most physically demanding team task. There are four grinders, two facing each other on each side of the boat but with the grinding crank mechanism connected. 1st and 3rd gear crank toward the front, but can abruptly be changed to 2nd by the captain, which winds to the back.
“If you can’t keep up and your hands slip off the handles, jump back immediately,” shouted Captain Dan. “If not, the handles will slap as they come around and break your wrist.”
Since one of the other three grinders was a very large male, the grinding proceeded at his pace, which was fast. Very fast. It took every ounce of my concentration and I had to summon up previously secret muscle power to keep up with the pace while simultaneously staying on balance as the speeding ship tossed from side to side. Somehow I managed to stay upright and fulfill my part.
Naturally the boat’s actual crew did most of the difficult work, but the jobs that we were assigned were actual sailing tasks, so we did have an important role in the race.
After quite a bit of hard work, a replacement grinder took over, and I was allowed to rest in the pit near the front of the boat. Standing in the pit with the wind blowing my pigtails in every direction was very exhilarating, and all the more as the boat suddenly banked steeply and a massive spray of sea hit my unsuspecting back.
The excitement was not just being on board, but avoiding going overboard!
We were ahead for 2/3 of the race, but as we rounded the last leg, we found ourselves neck-in-neck with the Stars and Stripes. At the last second, the judge declared them the winner. How he could make that determination was beyond me. It was that close.
I may have made an obscene gesture at the judge, but if questioned, I will certainly deny that it was me.
Truth be told, winning didn’t really matter. The thrill of the boat slicing through the waves, sometimes at an angle that threatened capsizing, was the real adventure.
Not to mention, back on shore at the yacht club, the rum punch did a lot to dissipate the sting of defeat.
Patti Morrow was born with incurable wanderlust, eventually leading her to a career as a freelance travel writer and photographer. She specializes in women’s adventure travel and has traveled throughout most of the United States and 35 countries abroad.
Patti has been published in numerous media, including International Living, Women’s Home Journal, Travel Post Monthly, MORE magazine, WAVEJourney.com, and Diva Toolbox and was featured on Tori Johnson (of Good Morning America) Spark and Hustle.
She is the editor of Luggage, Lipstick and Laptop, an online resource for women’s adventure travel, and is a member of ITWPA, AWAI, Intrepid Travel, Media Kitty, and TravelWriters.com.