Bahamians are back for family regatta

Published on April 25th, 2023

The National Family Island Regatta is the largest and oldest of the many yearly Bahamian wooden racing sloop regattas. After a three year pause due to pandemic concerns, the regatta returned in 2023 with racing on April 19-22 in Elizabeth Harbor at George Town, Exuma. Report and photos by Jan Pehrson:

Eighty-seven wooden sloops from the far-flung, 760-mile-long island chain of the Bahamas arrived to compete for prize money, trophies, bragging rights, and fun. Not to mention an adrenaline rush they won’t soon forget! Sloops from distant islands were transported as deck cargo on inter island barges; sloops from closer islands arrived under tow.

Bahamian sloop racing is unique in the world. Class rules are few, making for exhilarating and often unpredictable racing. Skippers, owners, and boat designers must be Bahamian, and sloops must have the hull shape of the traditional fishing workboats that are their ancestors. There can be no fin keels, winches, or electronics. The idea is to sail with skill rather than modern devices.

There are four racing classes – Class-A (28 feet long), Class-B (21 feet long), Class-C (17 feet long), and Class-E (12 feet long). With long overhanging booms and huge, billowing sails that easily overpower the hulls, sails are balanced by movable human ballast hiking out on “pry boards” held to the deck by large staples. The pry crew – hopefully! — keep the sloops from capsizing.

Hundreds of sailors, sometimes as many as a dozen to a boat, descended on George Town, ready to rumble! They brought with them extra booms, masts, sails, and lead ingots used for ballast so they could tweak their boats during the regatta as wind conditions changed.

It’s also about sailing with your cousins against the families from other Bahamian islands and coming together after the racing for some good times.

Major adrenaline began flowing on the windy first day. The action was so fast, it was hard to track. On the way to the first start, I saw several sunken boats. Crews were plucked out of the water. Lead ingots and masts and booms were removed. Boats were refloated and towed back to the harbor.

Then I saw Tari Anne, the Class-B boat sailed by the kids of the Exuma Sailing Club. As I watched, kids jumped off the pry board into the water. Next came a loud CRASH! Lonesome Dove from Abaco, on port tack and so at fault, hit Tari Anne broadside.

There were no injuries, but Tari Anne had a large hole in her wooden port side and limped back to the dock. How did this happen? Skippers driving these boats can’t see around the enormous sails and so depend on their crew to look ahead and tell them when to change course. Sometimes things go wrong.

The sloops, some valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, are not insured. When there is an accident, the sailors themselves make repairs. I assumed that Tari Anne was out of the regatta due to the damage, but to my amazement, the hole in Tari Anne was repaired overnight in a combined effort led by the skippers involved in the crash — Dallas Knowles of Tari Anne and Jeff Gale and Andrew Wilhoyte of Lonesome Dove.

The close competition between the two boats continued during the regatta with no more mishaps. Both boats went on to win prizes: Lonesome Dove first in class, Tari Anne third in class, most outstanding skipper Jeff Gale of Lonesome Dove.

On day two, more drama! National champion Stefan Knowles sails these hugely overpowered boats on the edge, to win. As he sailed New Susan Chase V of Long Island toward the weather mark his boat was knocked down in gusty winds, right in front of my camera.

As I snapped photos of her big red underbelly, her crew jumped on her keel. Their quick action and combined weight kept this Class-B sloop, 21 feet long and weighing about as much as two cars, from sinking, despite the open hatch in her deck.

What happened on the boat? “Too much sail area and instead of lowering the sail the guy hoisted it,” said bowman Ian Knowles, Stefan’s brother. “We’ve had similar situations before; this doesn’t bother us after many years of sailing.”

During the four days of racing, adrenaline continued to flow. The excitement never lets up.

Sloop skippers’ range in age from 80-plus-year-olds to teenagers. The elders keep it connected to history; the youths keep it vibrant.

The older skippers learned to sail as boys, going to work on the sea before the days of motorized vessels. Most of the younger skippers developed their skills in organized sailing programs in international dinghies such as optimists and lasers.

Two of the older skippers are Emmett Munroe (84) of New Courageous and Lee Armbrister (79) of Ants Nest. They grew up together in Duncan Town, Ragged Island, the home port of both sloops. Both have worked all their lives on the water.

Emmett is the oldest skipper in the regatta. “This is my last rodeo!” he says. “I came out of school at 15 and went to sea with my father. He was in the sloop trade between Cuba and Haiti. We had only a compass and used dead reckoning. I was a captain on the trade boats, barges and tugs and mail boats.”

Emmett and Lee worked together as teenagers on a two masted wooden sailing schooner named Sally. Twenty-eight feet long on deck and wide as she was long, Sally was slow. One time when the wind died and they were late getting into port, their families sent out a search party.

Currently, formal sailing programs in the Bahamas are producing winning young skippers in international classes like Optimists, Sunfish, and ILCAs. Recognizing their skills and wanting to keep sloop sailing thriving, experienced sloop skippers are intentionally stepping down and giving up their tillers to the young.

Like most of the young skippers, Cochise Burrows (22) learned to sail from a coach in Optis. “I started with Coach Robert Dunkley sailing Optis at Nassau Yacht Club at age eleven. Robert took me to major international regattas in Miami, Italy, Bermuda, Canada, and other countries. We just had the 2022 Optimist North American Championship at the Nassau Yacht Club and there were 155 boats.”

When Cochise was offered the opportunity by the owners of two winning sloops, Class-B Ole-Boy and national Class-C champion Whitty K, to cross over from international sailing to Bahamian sloops, he said yes. “The vibe of a sloop regatta is fun, in Optis the vibe is competitive and strict.”

Once a winner in Optis, Cochise is now a winner in sloops. In this year’s National Family Island Regatta – his very first – he made quite an entrance by finishing second in Class-B in Ole Boy. “I see a lot of youths coming up. I hope I can be a symbol for youth” he says.

At the regatta, other young captains were everywhere, encouraged and mentored by their elders. After all, these are the family islands.

In Class-C (17 feet long): Cristo Cartwright on Sacrifice, Dawson Knowles on Miss Rowie, Elron Rolle on Spray Hound, Jubante Rolle on Confusion, Chris Rolle on Bul Reg, Brandon “Sands” McPhee on Fugative, and Joss Knowles (15), Tanaj Manos (16), and Alvin McKenzie (18), all taking turns skippering Termite.

In Class-E (12 feet long) twenty-four sloops competed, mostly driven by young skippers. Class-E is specifically designed as a youth class.

In addition to the young captains, many crew members are young. Youth has its advantages in Bahamian wooden sloop regattas. When you are young, you can run all over the pry boards! When you are old, all you can do is sit on them!

Race Results:
Class-A: (1) New Legend, Long Island (2) Running Tide, Salt Pond, Long Island (3) New Courageous, Ragged Island
Class-B: (1) Lonesome Dove, Hope Town, Abaco (2) Ole Boy, Salt Pond, Long Island (3) Tari Anne, George Town, Exuma
Class-C: (1) It Ain’t Right, Hope Town, Abaco (2) Xena, Mangrove Bush, Long Island (3) Sassie Sue, Mangrove Bush, Long Island
Class-E: (1) Captain Peg, South Andros (2) Papa, Mangrove Cay, Andros (3) Miss Agnes, Mt Thompson, Exuma

MORE: The House of Assembly recently named Sailing the national sport of The Bahamas. – Full report

Jan Pehrson is a sailing photojournalist who spends summers in San Francisco, California and winters in St. Pete Beach, Florida. As a racing and cruising sailor and Coast Guard licensed skipper, Jan’s familiarity with sailing and the sailing community lends an in-depth element to her prolific array of photographs and articles. Contact her at

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