Ann Abel tells about her experience sailing in one of St. Barth’s famous regattas, Les Voiles de Saint Barth. Abel writes: “Here’s the thing about regatta: It’s more accessible than you might think. Here’s the other thing about regatta: It’s harder than it looks. Also, kind of scary.” Les Voiles de Saint Barth usually takes place in the very windy month of April. This year, it was scheduled from April 11 through April 19. Here are excerpts about Abel’s experience with Ondeck Sailing, a sailing company in Antigua, which accepts all-levels of sailing experience, and her exciting week of racing on a 39-foot boat.
Both of those truths became clear to me earlier this month, when I returned to St. Barth for the island’s less-serious regatta, Les Voiles de Saint Barth. I’d signed on to crew on an all-levels-welcome boat with Ondeck Sailing, a premier sailing company in Antigua.
I’d sailed with Ondeck before, during a “chase the race” and lesson during Antigua Race Week a couple years ago, and liked their inclusive approach. “Sailing is one of those few sports in which people of any age, sex, ability and background get thrown together and come out a tight team,” says Kay Anthony, a co-owner of Ondeck, who was on my team in St. Barth.
Any ability is the key phrase there. Her husband, Pete Anthony, says they started Ondeck about ten years ago with a focus on encouraging new people to get into sailing—the training school offers more courses than anyone else in the Caribbean, and the regatta arm sends a boat to every race throughout the winter season, selling individual places on each to people of various skill levels. “We aim to make people feel welcomed and comfortable about learning in a fun environment.”
I put those promises to the test. When I arrived in St. Barth, my experience was limited to that “chase the race” and a three-day basic keelboat certification program last summer in the BVI. I needed help getting help getting onto the boat, and I’d never seen a spinnaker in person. The next day, I was helping to fly one, as part of a team of eight on a 39-foot boat.
Racing, obviously, is nothing like pleasure cruising. I spent the first afternoon scared, and that was just the relatively mellow practice day. But after four days of racing, I had my sea legs. (Sort of: My main roles on the boat were sometimes fetching bottled water, sitting on a rail as ballast, and staying out of the way.) It helped that Ondeck hired top-notch professional crew. Skipper Nick Newling-Ward remained the picture of calm through the inevitable mishaps, and first mate Ebbe Strendell provided much-appreciated humor (and excellent scrambled eggs). Both were unfailingly competent, endlessly patient and reassuring, as were my other five teammates, all of whom were far more experienced than I.
Les Voiles de Saint Barth is itself a welcoming environment. There are plenty of 100-foot racing machines and a few sexy catamarans with their all-pro crews, and plenty of people who take the competition as seriously as at any other regatta. But many of the 70 boats in Les Voiles this year were smaller, and like we came to define ourselves, “serious about having fun.” [. . .]
[Photo above by Christophe Jouany.]