Canada II vs. Stars & Stripes in St. Maarten

by Rodney Smith

On the winning yacht in the Stars & Stripes race in St. Maarten
On the winning yacht in the Stars & Stripes race in St. Maarten

When my wife and I signed up for an Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard Emerald Princess in January 2010, I never dreamt it would include a hair-raising race aboard an authentic 12-meter racing yacht; one of the actual yachts from a former America’s Cup Race.

Indeed, I couldn’t imagine why I’d want to leave the sumptuous creature comforts of our majestic cruise ship for more than a quick trip ashore — we’d been aboard for three days already and I still hadn’t found time to explore the wonders of this regal ship.

My elder brother Randy, of course, suggested this little Caribbean shore excursion while at St. Maarten. “It’ll be a blast,” he goaded. “The girls will be too busy shopping to miss us! Not scared are you?” he said with a knowing smile.  Since we were toddlers we’d been getting each other into one mess or the other, so I should’ve known better than to accept the challenge of joining he and our cousin Ken on the St. Maarten 12 Meter Challenge.

Anyway, off we went to the far end of the beach where the friendly staff helped us sign up.  A small tender took us out to our boat.  Oh, sorry “our yachts.”  Oops, sorry again “our racing yachts.”

In addition to the local captain, first mate and second mate; each boat had a crew of eight — that’s right, no passengers — everyone had a job to do. The Stars & Stripes enjoyed a fully American crew, while we were six Canadians and three Americans aboard the Canada II.

As we left the protected harbour the sails billowed proudly as the Canada II leapt forward across an emerald sea topped with foaming whitecaps. For the next 90 minutes or so we stowed our sunglasses and battened down our hats as the challenge was on!  I was thrilled with the chase and quite enjoying myself until the captain announced our first “tack.”  Suddenly, as we heaved promptly into the wind, I found myself flung to one side of the cockpit to face a now menacingly dark sea skimming swiftly by mere inches from my bulging eyes!

Almost positive that I’d gotten a glimpse of a rubbery fin or two keeping pace with our boat — “yacht, “whatever — I scrambled back to my assigned post just as the captain shouted, “Where’s my port-grinder – GRIND!” I’d barely started grinding (working a two-handed winch to tighten the sails) when “He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” countered with, “RELEASE!”  Of course, just seconds later his Lordship was calling for his starboard-grinder (me again) to GRIND then RELEASE!  Then GRIND! Then… well, you get the picture!

We were short of a full crew that day so I had the pleasure of being both port and starboard grinder.  At 58 I wasn’t quite as nimble as my younger days, but with tremulous legs I managed to stumble back and forth to the captain’s changing whims and fancies. As the crew struggled to keep our feet and respond to the flurry of nautical terms thrown our way, our captain and mates bounced around the boat as if blessed with Velcro-soled sneakers!

As the race continued, the lead kept shifting back and forth between the Stars & Stripes and the Canada II.  However, as we regained the mouth of the harbour our sleek red & white yacht crept ahead to beat out our competitors by just half a length!  Our cheers drowned out any sobbing from the other boat and by unanimous vote we anointed our three USA team-mates as “honorary Canadians” — what else could we do as the proud and victorious crew of the Canada II.  Once back on dry land we all shook hands and joined together to toast one another’s efforts.

Walking back along the white sandy beach to return to Emerald Princess I had to admit to my brother that yes, it HAD been a blast! Would I go racing again?   Yes, in a heartbeat!  Will my wife and I go on another cruise with Princess Cruises? Absolutely!