Do yole wanna race?

On our final Sunday in Martinique, we tagged along with Popeye and Lisa on SV Tumoltuous Uproar to watch the traditional Martinique Yole boats race in a regatta. We didn’t really know what to expect but Ooh la la! It turned out to be an exciting day.

One of the best teams – look at that coordination!
At the starting line!

What is a yole? Well basically, they are traditional wooden sail boats, originally used by fisherman and to transport goods around the island. Each 10.5 meter yole boat is hand carved out of solid wood, without a keel or any ballast. So they are light and fast, but extremely “tippy.” The masts are made of bamboo, and instead of a rudder, a long wooden oar is used to steer the boat and to help paddle it through each turn or tack. The sails are rectangular and un-battened and extremely hard to manage. To balance the boat, a team of strong, burly, coordinated men hike way out from the boat onto sets of wooden poles, using their body weight and hopefully perfect timing to keep the boat from tipping over. Did I say “hopefully”? Several times during the race, we saw a boat heel over a tad too far, scoop up a whole bunch of seawater, and slowly sink. A race boat then had to tow them back to shore in the “tow of shame” with the boat sinking lower and lower, arriving back to the beach before it completely sank. There are actually members of the racing team whose sole job is to bail out water with plastic bottles and buckets during the race. If you can’t quite picture that strangle jumble of boat parts in action, have no fear ‘cause I took tons of pictures!

So colorful!
Capt. Mike getting ready to help launch team McDonald’s
One man’s trash is another man’s bailing bucket

The best part of the race is the start. Each boat gets dragged down the beach to the water’s edge and turned onto its side. On land, the two masts are maneuvered into place and the team rigs the two sails by tying a whole bunch on knots while the boat is still on its side. Once all the hiking out poles are slotted into place, three or four of the heaviest guys stand up on the high side, lean their weight onto the poles, and slowly (then all of a sudden, very quickly!) they tip the boat upright, with other team mates running in at the last minute to push it into the water. It’s a blast to watch! When it goes smoothly, it’s a work of art. When it doesn’t, watch your head ‘cause it’s all going to fall back to the ground again.

Ready to launch

To start the race, crews wait for the final horn blast and then shove and push these heavy boats full of heavy guys into deep enough water for them to float and start sailing. With at least a dozen boats all starting from that same stretch of beach there’s always a lot of bumping, knocking, crashing, and shouting until they get far enough apart to settle down a bit. Mike and Popeye helped launch the McDonalds boat. Luckily, this maneuver went fairly smoothly and we did not have to experience the local health clinic.

The next best part of the race is watching the boats round a big floating race marker. We took the dingy out to watch the lead boats make the turn from up close. They come in HOT with the team captain shouting out commands. As the turn starts, everyone hikes way, way out on the poles trying to keep their legs out of the water. Not to stay dry (this is definitely not a dry sport) but to avoid slowing the boat down due to drag. The sail guy on the bow basically bear hugs the mast and the spar to force the sail to tack from one side to the other. The boat slows way down and three guys on the stern start rowing with all their might to complete the turn. If all goes well, the sails quickly grab the wind and the boat surges forward on the next leg of the race – with very little bailing required. If it doesn’t go well, the boat loses all speed, scoops up a bunch of water and starts that slow sinking process. It’s very exciting!

We all picked a team to root for and joined the rest of the crowd in cheering on our favorites. I understand just enough French to understand the announcer calling out the team in first position, followed by the second team, followed by the third. At one point, he announced that a team was “trés malade,” I asked, “Did he just say that boat is very sick?” I got my answer a few minutes later when the race boat towed in a bright red yole nearly submerged with its team members sitting in sea water up to their waists. Very sick, indeed!

2 thoughts on “Do yole wanna race?

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