National Family Island Regatta

“That was a great idea you had to buy a boat,” said Capt. Mike. “This is exactly how I always imagined it would be.”

“You mean not doing any boat maintenance projects, geeking out over sailboat racing, meeting lots of fun and like-minded people, spending indiscriminately on food and drink ashore, and dancing to soca bands all night long?” I asked in reply.

“Yep. Exactly.”

Ok. It’s not exactly real life. But attending the National Family Island Regatta in Georgetown Exuma was one of the highlights of our first cruising season.

More than 70 traditional Bahamian racing sloops gather each year in Elizabeth Harbor for the largest regatta in the country. Boats must be built, owned and raced by Bahamians. Rivalries between islands are strong. This year was the 65th anniversary race, and you could feel the excitement just walking through the Main Street of Georgetown. Or…. possibly I was just feeling the base beat pumping from the DJ booth outside the 242 Liquor Store.

In the days leading up to the start of the regatta, racing boats arrived at Georgetown from all over the country. We went ashore at Government Dock and watched the delicate procedure of unloading the sloops from the mail boats and stepping the masts. I say “delicate” but at times I had to hold my breath because it looked highly likely that the mail boat crane would lower one boat down into the water right on top of the previous boat.

This was our first chance to see the race boats up close and personal, and to start deciding who to root for during the rest of the week. I’m kind of partial to Number 5 – Barbarian because of its artistic paint job. Capt. Mike likes to root for a winner, so he went with the boats from Long Island; Susan Chase and Running Tide.

The first day of the regatta consisted of cup races – winner takes all. It was a beautiful day of blue skies, light winds, and the smell of competition in the air. It all seemed a bit chaotic on that first day; the race schedule just a suggestion, the race course changing frequently based on the direction and magnitude of the wind, warning guns going off at seemingly random times. But we eventually got the hang of things. The best seat in the house to watch the races is from a dinghy, anchored just off the starting line buoy. From this vantage point, you can watch the racing sloops sail or get towed to the start – no motors on these babies – lower the sails, and set the anchor. After some jockeying for position, the starting gun blasts! Half the crew hauls with all of their strength on the anchor rode, giving the sloop enough forward momentum and speed to enable the other half of the crew to haul up the giant sail. A clean start gives the crew a huge advantage!

Now comes the strategy. Do you sail as close as you can for the windward marker? Or do you take a risk for a better wind angle, and sail wide, requiring several tacks to reach the mark? Do you stay in the center of the harbor for clear sailing? Or do you take the race right through the anchorage searching for the perfect line and hoping to avoid hitting a stationary boat?

Then the boats approach the first marker. The skippers are using all their skills and experience to make the turn first, heeling the boat over at an alarming angle, sending the crew out to the very end of their wooden planks to counterbalance the tilt. Tacking after the turn, the boom swings across the boat, huge sail sweeping through the water on the opposite side.

Hopefully, the turn goes smoothly and sets the crew up well for the next leg. If not, there’s a chance the heel over on the turn goes a little too to far, and the sloop scoops up enough sea water to sink to the bottom of the harbor, her crew treading water or holding the tip of the mast until rescued.

Two or three laps of the course later, the boats near the finish line in front of Government Dock where the spectators sitting on the concrete wall or in shaded bandstands, as well as those of us in the dinghy flotilla, cheer wildly for the victor.

Phew. Even after four days of cup races and series races, the thrill did not fade. Capt. Mike and I might be having lunch in the cockpit, or heading to town to get groceries, and we’d hear the 5-minute warning gun, look at each other, and say, “We gotta go watch this race. Don’t you think?” And we were back in Bug and zooming toward the starting line.

So while the races themselves were we loads of fun, the festival atmosphere surrounding the races was also worth the extra week in Georgetown. The week before the races, vendors built colorful plywood shacks on regatta point which became pop up bars and restaurants on race day. Kind of like a county fair back home. Except instead of buying cheese curds, fried snickers, and beer you can buy conch fritters, sheeps tongue souse, and sky juice (aka gin and coconut water). Special ferries brought thousands of people to Exuma for the event, and everyone dressed up and hit the party. Kids were hyped up on sugar, fair games, and cheap plastic toys. Teenagers were looking each other over, flirting and pushing. And adults were renewing friendships with folks from other islands that they might only see once or twice a year. The people watching is top notch, let me tell you!

And then there’s the night life. Cruisers are usually early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise types. In fact “cruiser’s midnight” is generally about 9:00 pm. But live music started each night around 10:00 (Island time) and went as long as the crowd kept dancing. So Capt. Mike and I took afternoon naps and drank lots of caffeine and stayed up later than I have in years. The eclectic music (think Pitbull and Justin Timberlake meets BobMarley meets Caribbean soca music) kept everybody moving

Friday night’s highlight was the Junkanoo Rush Out; a high energy parade of dancers, drums, horns, and cowbells snaking through the festival grounds. As the parade passes by, you just kind of jump onto the end, and the parade gets longer and longer until it sort of collapses into a dance party. There’s definitely a Mardi Gras or Carnival vibe!

A final highlight of Regatta Week was meeting many new cruisers from all parts of the world. Our buddy boats had sailed north without us, so we had to rely on Capt. Mike’s extroverted personality to make new friends in the anchorage. In a week, we met sailors from Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Canada, as well as many new faces from the US. We met two crews sailing on Pacific Seacraft vessels; the first of Sanitas’ sisters that we’ve ever met out on the sea. We exchanged lots of boat cards and email addresses and photos, and hope that we see some of our new friends again, whether it be later this season, or years into the future!

This photo is courtesy of Andrea Whitaker, a real photographer, and fellow member of our dinghy flotilla race watchers group!

One thought on “National Family Island Regatta

  1. We’re so glad you guys enjoyed the Regatta! We followed Running Tide and New Legend back to Long Island; we can see them sitting at anchor about a quarter mile in front of us. They’re getting ready here for the Long Island Regatta, which starts in a few weeks. I guess it’s the second largest regatta in the islands, after the National Family Island. We aren’t planning to stay for it, but with this weather, who knows. We have no idea when we might be able to leave!

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