"Good Morning, George-Town!"
Rockin' Ron is ready. The tools for his job are close at hand. It's 0745 on a blustery morning in the otherworldly harbor of George-Town, the glorious centerpiece around which life revolves on the striking island of Great Exuma, in the Bahamas. Assembled near Ron in the comfy center-cockpit of his Morgan 45, Sea Dancer, are these crucial items: a large cup of coffee; a pen and legal pad; a boom box; and, finally, the device that will play the central role in the upcoming enterprise, a VHF radio switched to "high." Down below, the Rockin' one's better half, Karen, operates a second VHF.
At the stroke of 0800, Ron switches over to Channel 72, hits the boom box "on" switch, and presses the transmit button on his cockpit-mounted VHF. As music cascades across the vast anchorage via the dozens and dozens of boats tuned into the broadcast, Rockin' Ron, with the polished delivery of a seasoned radio DJ, lets her rip:
"Good morning George-Town and cruisers! And what a night it was! This is Rockin' Ron and Cool Karen aboard Sea Dancer, broadcasting to you live on WGTWN-VHF 72. Welcome to the 29th annual George-Town Cruising Regatta.
|Rockin' Ron with all his tools of the trade.|
"Today, it's tennis at February Point, and later this afternoon, it's the bridge tournament at St. Francis Resort. Let's see how our day's going to be weather-wise by switching to our weather guru, Electrifying Ernie, anchored somewhere north of Hamburger Beach. Ernie, come on and tell us what the weather's gonna do!"
And thus, another hectic day begins.
For the next half an hour, Rockin' Ron will choreograph a seamless, wide-ranging show packed with oodles of useful information and broken down into several dedicated segments: Business, Regatta, Community, and Boaters General. At sea and on land, listeners will be updated on topics ranging from today's special at Eddie's Edgewater (meatloaf) to tomorrow's big awards ceremony (and the Rockin' Ron Dance Party) at the beach bar (and unofficial regatta headquarters) called the Chat 'n' Chill. We'll learn that John on Buddy needs crew for his trip to Puerto Rico, that Doug on Bad Boy is flying to the mainland and is happy to take any "flat, stamped mail," and that Bob on Kavali House is offering "safe, secure, non-liveaboard boat storage" over in the anchorage known as Hole 3.
But my favorite bit comes from a fellow named Dan on Borrowed Horse. "Good morning. I'm your self-appointed spokesperson for A.R.G.," he growls. "The Alcohol Research Group. We're announcing an impromptu get-together today at 5 p.m. at Hamburger Beach. We'd like you to bring a dish to share, some research material, possibly a musical instrument, and your well-behaved pets and children. We look forward to seeing you there."
When all is said and done, Rockin' Ron wraps it up quickly: "I'm going to sign off here, switch to 6-8, and go back to low power. Have a great Exuma day. The net is clear."
Like everyone else in this (and almost every other) cruising community, Ron and Karen Sobon aren't known by their last names; they're "Ron and Karen on Sea Dancer." Having retired from their respective careers in New Jersey-he at Verizon, she in commercial real estate-they've been making an annual pilgrimage to George-Town for 10 years now. "That seems to be a good average for how long people last," said Ron. "We're there. We're the oldies now."
Though working the George-Town Cruisers Net, which is an ongoing, year-round affair, is supposed to be a week-long duty before it gets passed to another cruiser, Rockin' Ron, because he's so good at it, has been asked to take over for the duration of the Cruising Regatta. He's happy to do so, as it fits in naturally with the prevailing vibe, which has brought him back year after year.
"It's the camaraderie," he said. "Everybody helps everybody. If someone's dragging anchor or has some other issue, people are running over to help you out. There's just such a good attitude. What we always say is that George-Town is the way the whole world should be."
Rockin' Ron is a cool cat, and I have other questions for him, but he has to run. The other day, he was on the four-person team that made it to the finals of the ridiculously competitive Regulation Volleyball Tournament-there's also Fun Volleyball for mellower players-and today he's off to compete in the tennis tournament.
The following bears mention, because along with the general George-Town attitude, another recurring theme among the cruisers is afoot. Like many of the folks I'll meet at the event, Rockin' Ron is trim and fit, vital and energetic, and could easily be mistaken for a 50-year-old. In reality, he's 67.
It can't be a coincidence. Somewhere in George-Town, along with such popular local waypoints as the towering Monument on Stocking Island and Mimm's Market, there's got to be a Fountain of Youth.
Once upon a time-before the variety shows, athletic competitions, ham-radio seminars, arts and crafts, sand-sculpture contests, pet parades, scavenger hunts, bridge and Trivial Pursuit tournaments, poker nights, and so forth-the George-Town Cruising Regatta was, well, a sailboat race. Given what transpires today, the whole extravaganza is almost impossible to fathom.
Mickey Walsh was there at the beginning. These days, he lives aboard in George-Town harbor with his wife, Joyce, on their Hardin 45, High Hopes. But for many years, he'd set out from Long Island, New York, each fall with his three daughters aboard the family's 29-foot Garden-designed double-ender, Valkyrie, and wander through the Bahamas until it was time to sail home and get back to his seasonal occupation, grooming the beach at the Fire Island National Seashore.
Walsh says it was a wild group of Texas cruisers that used to sail in company who launched the inaugural edition of the event during the winter of 1979-1980. "We used to call them the Texas Navy," he said. "They'd cruise down from the Abacos like a bunch of locusts. They were all kooks, but they were active and did a lot of things. They said, 'Let's have a race,' and that's basically what the first year was. Later on, a lot of other people got interested in it and said, 'Oh, let's do this and that.'
"I personally never got too involved," he added, voicing a sentiment that many other visiting sailors have subscribed to over the years. "I kind of resented it a little bit. They organized everything! I came down here to get away from all that."
An ex-pat American dentist known as Dr. Joel took the baton from the rambunctious Texans and, as Walsh recalled, "started making an enterprise out of it." It was the entrepreneurial doctor who came up with the tradition, which holds to this day, of selling distinctive regatta T-shirts each year, the proceeds from which largely covered the costs of the event. Anything left over, then and now, is donated to the National Family Island Regatta-the colorful races conducted in local Bahamian sloops and dinghies each April-as well as to other local causes and charities. Over the years, tens of thousands of dollars have been so funneled into the local economy.
The one thing, Walsh said, that George-Town always had going for it was the incredible natural harbor: "I call it a Captains Resort. Think about it. It's got the most beautiful anchorage you could ever imagine. If you cruise in the Bahamas at all, you know you have to anchor in the wind and current on a Bahamian moor, which is a pain in the ass. You don't have that here. Any place in this harbor, you've got a beautiful anchorage and great holding. We've made a lot of friends here over the years. It's like home. I see a lot of boats come through here on the way to Puerto Rico or the Caribbean, and the crews get in here and just say, 'Why? Why leave?'"
Ultimately, Dr. Joel and the event parted ways in what's been described as "difficult" financial circumstances. Today, the management of the regatta is in the hands of the cruisers themselves, with oversight provided by a local George-Town merchant, Mike Mimms, the proprietor of the busy downtown supermarket. A dedicated regatta chairman is responsible for the overall organization, while individual chairs oversee the respective seminars, contests, and shows. On average, each costs a mere US$2 to enter.
|Throngs of cruisers cheer the finishers of the Around Stocking Island Race. The In-Harbor Race (far right), run a few days later, is another spirited affair.|
In both 2008 and 2009, retired Canadian swim coaches Stuart and Marilyn on Union Jack, a Nauticat 33, shared the chief duties. "Two years ago, to our great surprise, the previous chairmen, from Tennessee, came by one day and asked if we'd like to take over for them," said Stuart. "I said, 'No.' Marilyn said, 'Yes.'
"So," he laughed. "We took over for them. OK."
The couple first ventured to George-Town in 1988, and Stuart, an avid bridge player, volunteered to teach the game for the simplest of reasons: He wanted partners so he could play on the beach. After retirement, in 2000, their visits became annual. Marilyn said that at the high point, a few years ago, as many as 500 boats visited the harbor for the regatta. In 2009, with the downturn in the economy, she fretted that they wouldn't be able to recoup their investment, in both time and money: The event takes a full year to organize, has an annual budget of around US$20,000, and they'd just pre-ordered 800 T-shirts and hats.
"But we still had 350 boats at the max this year," said Marilyn, "and every single item was sold."
Stuart said their management philosophy, as regatta chairmen, was very straightforward. "Our goal was to make it as much fun as possible, to be nice to everybody, and to be as inclusive as we could be to the people who live here. No controversy. No exclusivity. We just wanted everyone to participate."
In George-Town, as I'd soon discover, participation isn't a problem.
With photographer Bob Grieser, I arrived in George-Town some nine days into the two-week regatta, so among the many early events I missed was the opening variety show, which everyone agreed had been a doozy. But I was just in time for the finals of the Regulation Beach Volleyball Tournament, which turned out to be an ideal place to jump in.
The tourney chairmen were Wayne and Isabel on Cassiopeia, a good ol' 1966 Pearson Vanguard from Marquette, Michigan. Sweaty Wayne wasn't only helping organize the event; he was also on a team wending its way through the round-robin. But he stopped for a breather between games. Recently retired from the art department at Northern Michigan University, he'd taken the plunge as both a sculptor and a sailor.
"I'm going to try and be a real artist instead of an educator," he said. "Sailing will be a big part of it: The inspiration, the people you meet, it just gives you a different perspective. We're on one of the smaller boats out here, but it's the boat we had, and the boat we like. Plus, I've got a good woman. It's tough to find a good woman to stick with you, especially on a small boat."