Where have the boats gone

Published on January 8th, 2024

Bill Canfield, past President of Virgin Islands Sailing Association and longtime regatta director, provides a grim message from arguably the best region to go sailing:

The water is blue, the trades are blowing, the weather is beautiful, and its winter time in the Caribbean…let the sailboat racing begin. In past years, your entry fees were probably completed and you were trying to fill those last crew positions for at least three Caribbean regattas. But unfortunately, that is not today’s reality.

Just 10 short years ago, Caribbean regattas would draw over 1200 entries to a series of well-scheduled sailing celebrations on Tortola, St. Thomas, St Barths, St Marteen, and Antigua. If you wanted more sailing, there was always the casual events on St. Croix, Trinidad, Barbados, and Puerto Rico to fill in the off weekends.

While nothing in these waters or regattas has changed, so why are the entries suffering at each event?

The regattas are still user friendly with a simple CSA measurement rule and lots of great restaurants / housing near the venues. Steel Bands and rum drinks flow till the wee hours with a “no shoes” mentality. If you did not want to bring a boat, no problem, just charter a vessel and race by day and stay aboard and party at night.

The events brought in certified race officers and International Juries to officiate. Each event was more friendly than the last. The courses are around real rocks and small cays, not buoys, and are visually stunning. This is “Sailing in Paradise”, what could go wrong! Let’s explore that question.

This season the total entries for the five key events will be disappointing unless there is a late surge of interest.

Antigua Sailing Week and St. Marteen Heineken Regatta are struggling to hit 90 and 100 entries while in their banner seasons had over 300 attending each island event. BVI Spring Regatta and St. Thomas International Regatta might draw 100 racers between them if things go well with late registration but again close to 100 yachts attended. The St Barth’s Bucket (for boats over 90 feet) would max out around 45 vessels but this year entries are currently at 23.

Unfortunately, Les Voiles de St Barths, a big drawing regatta for high performance boats, was always guaranteed 70 entries, had their title sponsor Richard Mille step away causing a very late cancelation this year.

The big question is obviously what happened? When I look at each event critically, I don’t believe anything was done wrong or silly, so we must look elsewhere for answers to lagging participation When one walks the docks, you only hear positive comments on every aspect of our Caribbean. The sailors themselves love these regattas.

The first place one must look for answers is cost. Fewer and fewer boats want to make the 1500-mile trip on their own bottom and shipping of vessels has gone crazy dollar wise. As boats get lighter, they are less likely to get insurance to head out on a long ocean passage. The delivered vessels also must travel around our islands for three months with wet bottoms requiring paint protection to keep them race ready. Sorry, that’s the Caribbean.

Our local yacht clubs in past years were very supportive of all island events, and we had 50 home grown racing teams traveling to events throughout the islands. Barbados, Trinidad, and the French Island boats sailed north and PR, BVI, US Virgins and St Marteen boats headed south. We all had a ball at the different regattas ending in Antigua which was a great midpoint in April.

The Lord Nelson Inn in Antigua was standing room only as island racers shared rum drinks and said goodbye till next year’s regattas. The big change that killed this wonderful island hugfest is the disappearance of the inter-island airlines that were forced to close their doors as the large airlines created hubs.

Much of the inter-island travel is no longer a 20-minute shuttle plane ride island to island on Liat or Prinaire. For example, traveling from Barbados to St Thomas now often includes spending a night in Miami. Boat crews could no longer return home on Sunday night to work during week as a small crew moved the boat to the next island regatta. This lack of practical transportation has affected not just sailing but inter-island competition in all sports.

My next reason for our drop in attendance will probably surprise many, but more and more sailing families spend $30,000 to $50,000 / year (or much more) on Junior Sailing. Boat charters, $500 a day coaches, and extensive travel are taking all the “cash” out of the family racing boat funds. For many families, racing or cruising together is a thing of the past with junior sailing being the biggest reason.

In the past 10 years, as boats and sails started using more and more exotic materials, boat owners started hiring expert sailors to improve boat performance and justify investment in a new boat. The age of the “pro sailor” was born. One pro quickly became a team of pros and costs to sail a 24-foot boat almost tripled if the winners circle was a driving force in getting enjoyment out of your boat.

What this means is you now have a second family to house, feed, and pay for their expertise at regattas with the top guys getting over $1500 a day. If you can afford it, hiring pro sailors is similar to owning a private jet or a Bentley. It’s your choice where you get your pleasures so go for it! However, this paradigm now keeps many of competitors near home at their local regattas as they no longer are competitive at this wealth-created level.

My final point is the overall cost of racing yachts is no longer in most family budgets. The desire for many to get the best equipment possible with upgrades every 2 or 3 years drives our sport. Gone are the days when you graduated from a Pearson 26 to a Columbia 36 after 12 years of competing and announced this was your last sailboat purchase.

A second scenario is, because your time is limited, you reluctantly switch from sail to power. If you are not a huge wage earner, yacht racing away from your home club in not within your reality. Competitive sailboat racing is very much a rich man’s game now and our sport suffers for it … especially in the Caribbean.

Thirty years ago, the who’s who of the sailing world met in Miami every February for six weeks as they participated in the SORC. I’m not sure there has ever been anything quite like it in our sport. It encompassed everyone in yacht racing and was similar to a Woodstock gathering. You could not miss it!

Miami stayed a sailing center after the SORC dissolved but now it caters to a different type of racer. It’s a mecca for under 30 foot one designs such as the Star, Etchells, Melges 20 and 24, M32, and J70. I think the Caribbean Regattas need go through a similar metamorphosis.

Like Miami, our glory days may be behind us but there is no reason the sport of sailing can’t thrive again in this wonderful group of island venues. Right now, we are appreciative of those that continue to support our events and would love to hear from friends / participants who have enjoyed our waters in the past. We will continue working hard to get you back to the best sailing in the world in the very near future.

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