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Yacht racing: sailing with the Stars

Yacht racing: sailing with the Stars

Strong breezes, crystal waters make The Bahamas a perfect venue for Star Class racing regattas

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
June 22, 2010
June 22, 2010
Simon Cobb and Alex Black

The treacherously shallow, beautifully clear waters of The Bahamas have long been a draw for avid sailors. During the heady days of the 1950s and ’60s, Nassau Harbour would be dotted with the sleek white hulls and arching sails of princely ocean-racing vessels, captained by billionaire playboys and the Hollywood elite. Although the pomp and pageantry may have slipped beneath the briny waves in recent years, regattas are still a firm fixture on the Nassau calendar and the Star Class in particular, which had its Western Hemisphere Championships in Nassau in April, still draws the highest calibre of sailor.

“The sport of sailing has changed,” says Paul Hutton-Ashkenny, former Commodore of the Nassau Yacht Club and regatta chairman. “The days of Pink Gin and the yachting set are over. It’s no longer an elite sport. People do it professionally, for a living, and at the very highest level.”

Hutton-Ashkenny describes the highly technical, two-man Star Class vessel as one of the “rock ‘n’ roll” classes.

“It’s the premier Olympic boat. It tends to be the pinnacle and it attracts more mature sailors, who are very fit and very talented, who have really reached the top of their sport.”

Top-notch sailors, top-notch venue
Designed in 1911, the classic Star keelboat is nothing new to Bahamian waters. One of the islands’ best loved sons, Sir Durward Knowles, excelled in the class, winning the country’s first Olympic medals at the Melbourne Games of 1956 and the Tokyo Games of 1964. This acts as a significant pull for the world’s best sailors to come here and race. “The icons of the class have all sailed here,” says Jimmie Lowe, director of sailing operations at the Bahamas Sailing Association (BSA). “The best of the best. For them, it still has the same appeal and glamour that it has always had.”

The standard of sailor hasn’t changed over the years. “The sailing doesn’t get much better. Warm and beautiful water,” says Mark Reynolds, who has been coming to The Bahamas to race for 32 years. Nicknamed “Star of the Star Class,” Reynolds has won two world championship titles (in 1995, and 2000) and three Olympic medals (gold 1992 and 2000, and silver in 1988). “At the end of the day, that’s really what we are focused on, but we wouldn’t be doing it, if we weren’t having a good time afterwards.”

Paul Cayard, a seven-time sailing world champion, five-time America’s Cup veteran and two-time Olympian, is another big fan of The Bahamas regattas. “Nassau is my favourite place in the world to race,” he says. “The wind, the waves, the crystal clear water and warm temperatures all combine to make this an intensely exotic venue.” The Star World Championship, which Cayard won in Buenos Aires in 1988, he says, is still his most treasured prize.

“Everybody loves to come to The Bahamas, not only because of the quality of the sailing, but also for the lifestyle and hospitality,” says Bill Allen, president of the International Star Class Yacht Racing Association. “The country is also home to Sir Durward, who has been one of the best Star sailors ever–in the top four or five that has ever lived.”

All hands on deck
To keep such a high quality of sailor returning to these shores, you have to run a tight ship, quite literally. Organizing the seven-day Star Class event takes about a year to get everything prepared and a budget of around $80,000 just about covers costs. Even before the week of racing begins, the boats have to be shipped here, security insurance put in place, customs duty exemptions arranged, and volunteers recruited, as well as forklifts, hoists, temporary floating docks and no end of other equipment acquired and logistic technicalities taken into account.

On top of this, sponsorship has to be secured, this year provided by Lombard Odier, and the PR machine cranked up. “Really the amount of detail is quite staggering,” says Hutton-Ashkenny, who oversaw preparations for the regatta this year. “And this is all before even one sailor has arrived.”

For everything to run smoothly during the actual regatta, there are two sides that need to be managed, he explains: the water side and the shore side. “The water side has to be extremely professional because this is a world ranking regatta, so the races have to be run perfectly. But you also have the shore side, where we can showcase our world famous Bahamian hospitality. We try to give the sailors that ‘wow’ factor, so that when they leave they can say that it was genuinely the best regatta they’ve ever attended. Not just because of the sailing, but because of the hospitality.”

To get the best sailors, everything has to be just right. “Just one bad report to the International Sailing Federation will ruin you,” says the regatta chairman.

The Star Class Western Hemisphere Championships used to come to Nassau every other year, but in recent times the regatta has rotated between a larger number of venues, coming back to these shores three times in the last nine years. Lowe at the BSA hopes that in the future, the championships will be held here more often, but, what with the Sunfish, the 49er and 29er class regattas, The Bahamas’ sailing roster is looking pretty crowded. “It takes an enormous amount of work to put one of these events on,” says Hutton-Ashkenny. “You can really only run one professional championship a year.”

Economic impact
For The Bahamas, a regatta such as the Star Class championship, not only gives priceless exposure in sailing circles, but also makes a substantial contribution to the local economy. “Even more so than the ocean races, day racing is of tremendous value to The Bahamas,” says Hutton-Ashkenny. “These are week-long events and all the sailors are staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, hiring cars and so on. It all adds up. Just one of these regattas can pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the economy.”

According to John Lawrence, president of the BSA, when the 49er and 29er classes held their world championship regattas off Grand Bahama in January this year they accounted for “3,000 room nights between the 200 sailors, plus spouses, juries, organizers and sponsors. And some teams–the French and Spanish–came out multiple times to get used to the environment.”

With this in mind, Lowe suggests that The Bahamas needs to more aggressively promote the events. “We have had some very high-profile regattas here in the last three or four years and the Ministry of Tourism is finally stepping up to the plate and seeing the value in sports tourism.”

Future of the sport
To maintain the impetus, Lowe and the BSA are working with the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture and the private sector to develop a youth programme in the hopes that a regatta legacy will live on and keep contributing to economy. “We work with schools, so that the kids can get out on the water and sail,” says Lowe. The programme involves structured lessons with full-time instructors and an eight-week summer camp. In the five years since the programme’s inception, around 800 children have participated. “The programme costs $100,000 a year to run, but it will pay dividends down the road for the future of the sport in this country,” says Lowe. “Some don’t take it any further, but others may become the next generation of Star sailors in The Bahamas.”

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