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The Last Gentleman's Yacht Race: The 24th Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta

A Classic Yacht Under Sail

Sincerity 1928

Sincerity 1928

By Jennifer Farley

Maybe It’s Mayday For The Last Gentleman’s Race In The Caribbean: The Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta 2011
I have this fantasy about how my life and career are all just fair winds and following seas because I never dumped my Outward Bound sailing instructor boyfriend, the scion of a famous Newport, R.I. family with a “cottage” to match their tea-trade money moniker.

The dream hinges on a 19-year-old brat realizing that the coming generation of investment bankers do not belong at her dining table. Dumping a man you love for the usual sailing vices is pedantic when matched against the realities of, say, insider trading, cooking the accounting books, or being boring and embarrassing in myriad other ways, all of which would be thoroughly investigated in dating escapades - and a marriage to a defense contractor - in the years to come.

But perhaps I digress.

After a decade off, I decided to relaunch my writing career. Within days I had ongoing paid work from my upstate New York village newsweekly and a lifestyle magazine. However I needed a new narrative calling card with which to approach top national editors. I leaped at an invitation to attend the 24th Annual Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, held April 14-19, 2011, and hosted by the Antigua Yacht Club.

People from outside the sport said it beat any boat show. Sailors waxed rhapsodic.

“It’s the most impressive yachting event in the world,” said a British yacht-history expert. “It also still has the most freedom... no guard boats, no prohibited areas, no jobsworths in fluorescent jackets.”

Although it had been 13 years since I penned a travel feature, I’d been the Asia Correspondent for Delta Airline’s Sky magazine. Drop-in stories inevitably entail dire logistical surprises, which gets old. But I’d quit journalism after reporting on equities for Bloomberg News.

The Racing Committee Boat

Tivoli, owned by John E. Spenlinhauer III of Kennebunkport, Maine

Tivoli, owned by John E. Spenlinhauer III of Kennebunkport, Maine

All About The Motor Yacht Tivoli

Watches & Rum : The Classic Sponsors

Luxury watchmaker Panerai and Mount Gay Rum were the main sponsors of the 24th Antigua Classic. When asked what the event sponsors paid, Regatta Chairman Kenny Coombs said “We do not give out any financial information on our regatta.”

Founded in 1860, Florence-based Panerai makes watches in Switzerland and has long supplied the navies of Italy and Greece with an array of precision timepieces.

In 1993, Panerai began selling luxury wristwatches to civilians, soon receiving an unlikely boost from actor Sylvester Stallone. After buying a production style for himself, Stallone commissioned the “Slytech” model, with his autograph on the back, which he gave to friends.

In recent years, Panerai has become closely associated with the yacht world by underwriting regattas, restoring boats, and hiring top marine photographers.

Mount Gay Rum, produced by Mount Gay Distilleries Ltd. of Barbados, dates from 1703 and sponsors over 110 regattas worldwide. At each event, Mount Gay gives away a limited number of distinctive red hats to competitors. Newly-issued Mount Gay race hats fetch in excess of $100 on Ebay.

Sugar cane, from which rum is made, is the top crop of Barbados, allegedly the spirit’s birthplace. Still the most British of the Caribbean islands, Barbados is often the first landfall for European boats following the trade winds and Gulf Stream currents to the Caribbean. In the 17th century, a rum-barrel from Barbados was proof of having sailed to the New World. For centuries, members of Britain’s Royal Navy were given a daily ration, or tot, of rum, a practice discontinued in 1970.

Together with some friends, in 1991, English yachtsman Michael Briggs, a lawyer and investment manager who lives mostly in Antigua, formed The Royal Naval Tot Club of Antigua & Barbuda. Initially the group met casually to toast the Queen with the old-time sailor’s rum-ration; today, the Tot Club has more than 500 members globally and has slightly widened its scope.

“We’re all meteorological migrants,” said Briggs. “And we like a drink now and then.”

Perhaps the most colorful of the many characters I met in Antigua, some sleuthing revealed that Briggs is a member of the Lloyd’s of London insurance market, established in 1688, providing capital to the risk pool. Traditionally, these members are known as “Names.”

An existing Tot Club member must sponsor an aspirant, who gets tested on Royal Navy history. The Club meets at 6 pm each evening and reads aloud a selection of that history pertinent to that day. A toast is then raised, different for each day of the week, but always ending with the words, “...and the Queen, God Bless Her.” Other activities include entertaining visiting members of Her Majesty’s warships, among them, Prince William, the new Duke of Cambridge.

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In keeping with its love of heraldry, during the Classic, the Tot Club directs the event’s picturesque parade of a fleet worth at least $80 million, were the regatta yachts actually available for sale, a racing official said.

At the Classic, Briggs captained the St. Briac, a French-built 44-foot gaff-rigged schooner, technically a Bermudian Ketch, on behalf of the boat’s owner, “Sir Phil” Kerin, recently recovered from a near-fatal sailboat fall. At the results ceremony, the bohemian team from Classic competitor Old Bob presented Kerin with a special prize for being “the person who worked hardest to get his boat ready.”

Nelson's Dockyard & the Dockyard Museum

Old Bob


Antigua Race Week & The Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta

Back in the sixties, yachts gathered in Antigua’s English Harbor - the only surviving Georgian dockyard in the world - began to challenge each other in races to celebrate the end of the Caribbean season, before returning the Mediterranean, an itinerary known as “the milk run.”

When Antigua Race Week formally debuted in 1967, all competitors were classic yachts, as in, mostly made of wood; privately owned by reasonably well-off “gentleman” sailors (as in, inheritors and retirees); and depending on the size, usually crewed by friends and family.

But over the next 20 years, faster modern racing yachts, owned by aggressive entrepreneurs and professionally crewed, began to dominate. Private owners of large yachts increasingly mitigated running costs while keeping their vessels and crew in top order by making them available for charter part-time.

In 1988, Antigua sailing organizers divided April’s racing into two week-long events: the Classic Yacht Regatta for vintage yachts and replicas, and Race Week for the sharp new racers.

The Classic, with its wide variety of yacht types, became the most charismatic and visually stunning competition in sailing. This year 58 boats competed in 14 categories; their sizes ranged from 26 to 140 feet long. For most of the contestants, it’s about the camaraderie and spectacle. To a few, however, winning matters most; victories add value and prestige to a yacht.

“This really is the last gentleman’s yacht race in the southern Caribbean,” sighed one judge. “It’s still about sailing, and not just about money.”

Most of the smaller yachts in the Classic were crewed by the owner’s friends and family. The really huge “Spirit of Tradition” boats, including the J class yachts, Velsheda and Ranger, cannot sail safely without experienced professional crew. On mid-size vessels there exists much crew diversity, depending on how seriously the owners take racing and whether they employ captains or do it themselves.

“These big yachts have a command center somewhere in Europe telling them how their sails may be technically adjusted to perfection via computer,” said a member of Old Bob’s foredeck crew, adding that such technology support defeated the “whole spirit of sailing,” in his opinion, anyway. He’d like to rule out the computer-assisted tweaking.

But sources said the financial support provided by the billionaires and investment syndicates who today own almost all of the world’s behemoth racing yachts was “essential” to the continuance of nearly obsolete events like the Antigua Classic.

The global yacht market is valued at about $44 billion annually. It’s also in a state of flux, as concerns about the sinking U.S. dollar and the rising economic presence of China - which saw a 33% rise in its number of millionaires in 2009 and a 25% increase in some company’s yacht sales in 2010 - forecast overall market change.

This was in addition to escalating fuel prices, aging Western-world yacht owners, and a generational shift away from attending sporting events for entertainment.

24th Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta Complete Results

Newport, Rhode Island

The International Yacht Restoration School

Herding Cats, The America's Cup, & J Class Yachts

Regatta organizers have figured out the best way to keep all the boat owners happy is to make sure most yachts who complete the Classic win something. It’s more fun that way, although it makes reporting on the winners a bit like herding cats.

In sharp contrast, the America’s Cup - the oldest active trophy in international sport, donated in 1851 by a British group to the New York Yacht Club - divides neatly into defender versus challengers. Next held 2013 in San Francisco, the America’s Cup attracts the world's most competitive sailors, yacht designers and wealthy sportsmen. This culminated with the J class regattas of the 1930s.

To many, the giant J class yachts, with masts as high as 170 feet, represent the Golden Age of yacht racing. Only 10 were built and raced for the America's Cup and other trophies between 1930 and 1937.

Railroad heir Harold Vanderbilt’s Ranger successfully defended the 1937 America’s Cup, defeating the British challenger Endeavor II at Newport; it was the last time J class yachts would compete for the America’s Cup.

Although there have been bigger and faster yachts, the J’s beauty - and cost - captured public imagination, while bringing seafaring tycoons together with boat designers to achieve advances like aluminum masts.

World War II brought an end to J class production, and a 20-year halt to the America’s Cup. When the competition resumed, new rules enabled smaller, less expensive yachts to compete.

In the eighties, the J class yachts were nearly extinct. Due to the efforts of well-known yachting world satirist and Vietnam-era anti-war activist Elizabeth Meyer, a granddaughter of the first president of World Bank who also owned the Washington Post publishing company, two J class yachts, Endeavour II and Shamrock V, were rescued and painstakingly restored. Meyer bought Endeavour II in 1984. She’s president of J Class Management and founder of Newport’s International Yacht Restoration School, and has had a role in the restoration over 80 classic yachts.

Since then, there’s been a tremendous revival of interest in J class yachts. In 1998, for the first time in 60 years, three original J class yachts, Endeavour II, Shamrock V and Velsheda, raced in the Antigua Classic.

This year’s Classic saw the return of J class rivals Velsheda and Ranger, who vie against each other in regattas all over the world.

Although Velsheda, 1933, had her keel in the mud for many years, she was completely restored in 1996 and races as a 15-year-old boat. Ranger, however, is a 2004 replica of Vanderbilt’s yacht, true in design but updated for safety and comfort. Except on race days, the dueling crews are fairly friendly, but it’s said that the owners, both respected sailors and businessmen, rarely speak.

Via investment vehicles bearing other names, Dutch apparel-retail magnate Ronald de Waal, 58, owns Velsheda; Atlanta apartment-complex king John Williams, 67, owns Ranger.

The two J’s crashed at the Classic two years ago, heightening owner tensions. Word on the dock was that Ranger’s for sale as Williams wants a faster boat.

For the second consecutive year, Velsheda prevailed at the Antigua Classic. Ranger courted public opinion by spiritually adopting Old Bob, a 40-foot Hartley Norsk Gaff ketch with a cement hull, an able and comfortable boat which only seems scruffy in the company she keeps at the Classic.

Old Bob is owned by charter captain Bob Buller and Emma White, seemingly the most popular live-aboard sailing couple in Antigua. The lovely Welsh-born White sometimes works as a boat nanny for the very rich. Ranger gave Old Bob endless cheers, Ranger t-shirts, and huge bags of gourmet sandwiches daily.

The J Class Yacht Ranger

Bob Buller, captain and owner of Old Bob

Bob Buller, captain and owner of Old Bob

Antigua Horizon Charter Vacations

The Sheep Are Out of the Barn & All the Laundry's Up

Picturesque turns of phrase caught my writer’s ear at every turn during at the Antigua Classic. My favorite was the expression, “the sheep are out of the barn,” which, when used by sailors, means that the wind is blowing around 15 knots and the surface waves show whitecaps, i.e., the wool of loose farm animals. In such conditions, you might “put all the laundry up,” as in, hoist your sails to full expanse.

Most sailors wished the wind had blown a bit harder on April 16 for Race Two, but I was grateful the racer I sailed, Old Bob, did not have to tack more frequently. Surrounded by first-class crew, I was astounded at being given a job. The British-born owner-captain did have to ask me to pull lines “more smartly,” however.

As the day progressed, the morning’s mild breeze stalled. The captain brought out his guitar and we all sang along to Crosby, Stills & Nash.

As we languidly approached the final mark, Emma passed out broken paddles. In a big show of farce, we pantomime-stroked the air, as the Racing Committee cheered Old Bob to the finish and sounded the final horn. Overall, Old Bob came in second in her class but first in the hearts of many.

Lymington, Hampshire, UK

Corrected Time, The Racing Committee & Changing Winds

Sailboats have many variables. Experts measure them according to an internationally recognized formula as to how quickly they might be able to sail versus how well the crew actually makes them perform. This handicap, known as “corrected time,” is how yachts of a wide range and date of manufacture may fairly compete against one another.

This year, both Ranger and Velsheda flew in booster teams of professional sailboat racers from New Zealand known as “ruggers,” after the national pastime of rugby. Some of the other boats complained, but there’s no rule against it. Two Classic owner-captains said widening the import of “ruggers” marked the beginning of the end, because only Velsheda used to do it, likening the practice to mission creep.

Representing the J Class Association was Mike Beggs, 71, from Lymington, Hampshire, UK. Lymington’s a major yachting center with three marinas; it’s also the building place of the schooner Alarm, which famously raced America in the challenge kicking off the America’s Cup.

Beggs, a former executive with Castrol Oil, a global maker of motor oils and lubricants for cars, has one of the best - if unpaid - jobs in all of yachting: he flies around the world watching J class yachts compete. How did he get this plummy deal?

“I was in the right place at the right time,” the yacht-measurement expert and race arranger said, adding that the J’s are “simply the most stunning sailing machines ever built.”

Together Beggs and I watched the first two days of the Antigua Classic on the Racing Committee boat, the swanky motor yacht Tivoli, owned by John Spenlinhauer III of Kennebunkport, Maine. Tivoli - insured for $4 million - will also be the committee boat for the upcoming New York Yacht Club Regatta in mid-June, the owner said.

Does the prestige of having been the Committee boat at the Antigua Classic pave the way for the New York Yacht Club gig, which is paid, I ask?

“Of course,” said Spenlinhauer, a retired printing-business owner. “That’s not why I do it, but yes, it’s a prestige thing, to be the committee boat here,” he said.

The race judging was presided over by Alfred Koolen, 2010’s St. Maarten Yacht Club Sailor of the Year, a regular volunteer Race Officer at the Antigua Classic. Koolen and his racing partner Jamie Dobbs, on Lost Horizon, won almost every regatta they entered in 2010.

Other officials observing from the Committee boat included “gunner” Steve Spanis, an Antigua home builder originally from Canada, who holds one of the few international firearms licenses recognized by the Antiguan police. Australian-born clarinet player John Nobbs, and his wife, Fran, kept careful records of starts, finishes, rule violations and boats dropping out of the race for various reasons. And there were many others, all working hard to make results fair and accurate.

“Sailing is a lot like sex,” said Pat Bailey, the third man, or dispute-settling judge on Tivoli. “It’s sometimes fun to watch, but a whole lot more fun to do,” he said.

A resident of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Bailey manages real estate for Little Switzerland, a mostly duty-free luxury-goods retailer catering to the cruise-ship crowd. The chain was acquired by Tiffany in 2002 and sold to NXP Management Co. at a loss in 2007. Unlike many others in attendance, Bailey was acutely aware at how shifts in global debt markets might soon crash down on this last holdout of old-school sportsmanship.

Indeed, the sexual simile seemed highly appropriate.

From the sidelines I’d witnessed the atrocious end of polo as a so-called “gentleman’s sport” in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s, when commercial banks mounted professional polo teams headed by by shareholder-funded “patrons” who were actually corporate officers, in order to foster deposit relationships with polo-playing sultans and sheiks.

Thus I knew, while watching the 24th Antigua Classic, that however determined these old yachties were, the end of this era nears.

You see, the world is in such a state of upheaval right now that even this last bastion of sporting purism is today hard up against mighty winds of economic and social change. A few Antigua Yacht Club racing committee members admitted as much on the observation boat.

Returning from Race Two, on Old Bob, April 16 2011

Returning from Race Two, on Old Bob, April 16 2011

All About Stormy Weather

Olin Stephens, Stormy Weather, The Fastnet & Bolero

Several historically significant mid-size yachts participated in the 24th Antigua Classic. Perhaps the most illustrious is Stormy Weather, a 54-foot yawl designed by the famous Olin J. Stephens II when he was only 25.

In his long lifetime - he lived to 100 -  Stephens created over 2,200 sailboats, including Ranger (with Starling Burgess) and other America’s Cup winners, mostly through Sparkman & Stephens, the New York naval architecture firm that he co-founded in 1929 with yacht broker Drake Sparkman.

Stormy Weather’s the younger sister of Dorade, built in 1930 for $28,000, designed by Olin with his brother, which received a ticker-tape parade - one of only two ever given for yachting prowess - in New York after winning the 1931 Trans-Atlantic race.

In 1935, at the dawn of her career, Stormy Weather won both the Trans-Atlantic and the Fastnet race, which many consider to be ocean racing’s ultimate test of skill. At that time, the Fastnet competition appealed to the new breed of ambitious amateur cruisers with minimal crew, as opposed to the prewar yachtsmen needing up to 30 hands to race giant vessels like the J’s.

The prize - known as the Fastnet Challenge Cup - was one leg of the three-event Admiral’s Cup from 1957 to 1999, but that international regatta was last held in 2003. Several groups are looking into whether the Admiral’s Cup can be revived but it looks doubtful.

The biennial Fastnet race, next held this August, has twice attracted world attention from outside the sport.

In 1979, a severe storm resulted in the deaths of 15 competitors, the worst disaster in the history of yacht racing. Sixteen years later, pop star Simon Le Bon, of Duran Duran fame, was trapped under the hull of his boat Drum, along with five others, for 20 minutes, when the yacht’s experimental keel broke off, causing it to capsize. They were rescued by the Royal Navy.

Under longtime owner Paul Adamthwaite, Stormy Weather sailed repeatedly in the Antigua Classic, and as a founding yacht, even donated a trophy to the regatta.

Stormy Weather’s present owner, Christopher Spray, of London, an investor in several successful Internet-related businesses, basked in the appreciative warmth extended by all involved for her homecoming to the Classic.

“I can’t think of a better legal way to have fun,” said Chris. “We had the great-grandson of the original owner on board,” plus a crew member from her recent Fastnet race, the technology venture-capitalist said.

In this year’s race, Stormy Weather placed first in her class overall. Sailed by her Australian captain, the dashingly handsome dark-haired Tarquin Place, 36, of Melbourne, Stormy also placed third in the single-handed race held on opening day.

Tarquin leads a crew of two on Stormy Weather’s charters in the Mediterranean. Like most yacht owners, Spray does not publish a set charter rate, since the price depends on the number of people, destination and date. However, four people for a week is about 10,000 Euros, Spray said.

In October, Chris will follow Sir Ernest Shackleton’s route over South Georgia - the largest of the inhospitable South Sandwich Islands - with Skip Novak, Drum’s captain in the Fastnet when she sank.

They’ll sail to South Georgia from the Falklands on Novak’s boat, Pelagic Australis, and then travel overland to reach a whaling station on the island’s far side. The island's only inhabitants are a few British government officials and scientists from the British Antarctic Survey.

Shackleton, an Antarctic explorer who died of heart attack in 1922 and is buried on South Georgia, was not widely known in his own lifetime. But several books and articles published in the late nineties catapulted Shackleton to cult status as a role model for crisis leadership.

Bolero, another acclaimed Sparkman & Stephens yacht, also returned this year to compete in the Classic, placing first in her class overall, too.

“For me, Bolero’s the second most beautiful boat on the water: I was actually on my way to view her when I heard that my good friend Ed Kane” had bought her, said Chris.

Launched in 1949 and representing an array of post-war advances, the iconic Bolero, a sleek black 73 ½ -foot yawl, rotted damaged in a Florida canal for almost 40 years. New owners Kane and Marty Wallace restored Bolero and brought her to the Antigua Classic in 2004.

Shackleton's Lessons In Leadership

  • Shackleton\'s Way | Fast Company
    Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton never reached the South Pole. So why is he a legendary model for leadership in our age? Because sometimes, surviving the impossible is success enough.


Canada's Sylvia Goodeve

Count On Your Compass: “Nothing So Satisfying As Sailing To Windward"

Since ancient times, leaders and writers extol sailing as not only exciting, but a great teacher of valuable skills and metaphors which have wide application.

According to Canadian executive trainer Sylvia Goodeve, sailing teaches teamwork via the classic acronym, “together everyone achieves more.” In her blog about lessons from sailing which apply to life in general, Goodeve says that above all a sailor must “trust the foundation,” which is the sailboat itself and all the designers behind the craft and equipment aboard.

“I don't question the safety of the boat; I rely on it completely. In heavy wind, squalls, and all kinds of seemingly disastrous situations...” she maintains faith that the foundation will survive.

Secondly, says Goodeve, trust the skipper, who makes the final calls and is ultimately responsible for the boat and crew. This leader earns trust through her capable skill-set and respect for her track record.

And finally, trust the team. Be it rookie or seasoned crew, it’s the team which makes the boat move, but it’s the leader’s communication skills which transmute her experience into collective action, writes the licensed professional certified coach.

In terms of getting along with others, quite often it’s not sailing skills which matter most, sources said. The ability to maneuver a boat into a crowded area will define how well you get along with your neighbors at a dock or harbor, since no one wants a dangerous and costly collision.

“This is the real test,” said Buller, the owner and captain of Old Bob, making careful note of who was at the helm of the moving vessels around us, as we returned to the crammed marina after the pacific afternoon of Race Two.

Another lesson all good sailors must master is the ability to sail a course from point A to point B in a variety of wind and weather conditions.

Even with today’s GPS navigational systems, the old-fashioned compass, which points to magnetic north, is the single most valuable instrument on the boat. With only a compass, a sailor can orient herself and keep the vessel headed in the right direction, even when there’s no visible land or stars, and electronic instruments fail. Electric devices and items containing iron may cause a sailboat’s compass needle to deviate but a professional adjuster can fix this.

A widespread cyber attack might target power plants, jam satellite-based systems such as GPS, and take down the Internet. The ensuing chaos on land and probable radio silence would quickly affect boats at sea.

Looking forward, the future of sailing is likely to cleave along financial and affiliation lines in rather short order.

Diesel costs and potential shortages may soon warrant sailed security patrols as conflicts around the globe coalesce over fresh water, food and fuel.

While the super rich from all nations will remain in wealth’s comfortable bubble, there was talk even at the Classic of “piracy getting personal.” It’s widely expected that the global security outlook will drive itinerary changes even for them, as recently Italy and other popular yacht destinations have seen an influx of refugees arriving by boat from war-torn areas such as North Africa.

Finally, the emergence of China as the world’s dominant super-power, surpassing the U.S. in many economic terms, will also alter the world of yacht racing, in ways yet unknown.

But for now, don’t cast the future of the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta to Neptune quite yet, given the deep pockets and vast passion of its ardent lovers.

“As for sailing,” said Mike Beggs, the J class expert, “it remains the epitome of man’s struggle” to harness the forces of nature to do his bidding. Apparently defeating the laws of physics, there is “nothing so satisfying as sailing to windward,” the blue-eyed old salt noted.

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