A Race to Meet Friends, Old and New

At the B.V.I. Spring Regatta, the dodgers come off, the racing gloves go on, and the adrenaline kicks in-for a while, anyway. "Passage Notes" from our March 2010 issue

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Second Nature¿s stalwart crew is well versed at celebrating victories with a wee glass of bubbly.Elaine Lembo

Frank Mavronicolas and his wife, Linda, had spent the winter of 2009 cruising the islands of the Caribbean aboard Boonatsa, their Swan 57. When they got to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, they decided to take a slip at Nanny Cay Marina, where they grew fond of breathtaking sunrise views over Sir Francis Drake Channel, not to mention the nearby beach, pool, and Peg Leg Landing bar and restaurant.

Then they learned one day that the annual B.V.I. Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival was moving in. "Miles, the manager, told me that if I wasn't racing, I had to give up the slip," recalls Frank. "I didn't want to give up the slip so I told him I'd race."

Frank and Linda's easygoing attitude-combined with a healthy appetite for competition on the racecourse-are integral to the success story of this signature B.V.I. event. Nearly four decades old, the regatta is one of the most popular and enduring of Caribbean racing events for everything from its daily short courses, which attract sailors of both Olympic and Corinthian stature, to its ever-expanding showcase of parties, parades of fashion models, and lay-day amusements ashore.

In 2009, lingering cold fronts and northers miraculously shoved off on cue, and the Mavronicolases were joined by more than 120 other cruising and racing entries, all of them eager to mix it up under mostly flawless skies on the emerald courses that loop in and out of the channel.

From locals to annual regulars on break from the rigors of lousy winter weather someplace else, and including such well-known retirees as former Oyster Marine executive Richard Matthews, sailors in several classes boarded their own vessels or chartered bareboats, tore down dodgers, and pulled on racing gloves while they hunted wind and tweaked sails to propel them onward.

Lucky to be in their midst and in my old stomping grounds, I accepted invitations to crew with a few of them, making new friends and enjoying many reunions with old.

I'd barely arrived for duty aboard Boonatsa when I saw the smiling face of Val Doan pop up out of the companionway with a warm hello. An accomplished sailor and racer with hundreds of thousands of miles to her credit, Val and I met when I worked as charter-boat crew here in the 1990s.

Val made it into the record books after the 2006 Newport-Bermuda Race, when her role as navigator helped earn her the Carlton Mitchell/Finisterre Trophy for the yacht with the best-corrected time in the cruising division. Unbeknown to me, Val had delivered Boonatsa for the Mavronicolases in previous years, and they'd become friends, forging yet another link within the cruising network.

Frank, who's previously owned an Ericson 39, a Baltic 42, and a C&C 40, is no stranger to the circuit, with countless regatta seasons in his Long Island home waters as well as a few Newport-Bermuda races under his belt. This was his first B.V.I. regatta, he told me, and he was enjoying every bit of it, including alternating helming duties with Val. "This is sailing in paradise. It's a great race, and there's great competition," he says. "It's better than Newport-Bermuda in that you can see your competition. Plus, I have my favorite female helmsman aboard." Boonatsa carried us smoothly over the finish line, and though we weren't about to set any records, Frank beamed. "I love it when everything goes right," he sighed. Once off Boonatsa, I left Nanny Cay and began another round of dock visits at the Sunsail Sailing Vacation base, located on the waterfront at Road Town, the territory's capital. There I literally stumbled upon sailing friends and colleagues from Newport, Rhode Island.

Leave it to my neighbors Dick and Jane Tracy, veteran cruisers and racers, to ensure that I met even more sailors who swell the ranks of the bareboat fleet, thus delighting regatta organizers and charter companies. They're both longtime professionals in the marine industry: Dick's a yacht-insurance broker with Pantaenius America, and Jane's the editor of an in-house newsletter for a U.S. Navy R&D facility.

The Tracys weren't just in the B.V.I. to race, they explained. Of course, they'd accepted an offer from sailing buddies Pam and Brendan Kelley from-wouldn't you know?-Newport to join them as race crew aboard Clover III, a Swan 56 owned by Neal Finnegan of Dedham, Massachusetts. But before and after the regatta, the Kelleys had something else in mind: leisurely gliding from one anchorage to another with no other goal than relaxation aboard City Lights, the Beneteau 43 they keep with the Sunsail charter fleet. Like any worthy marine fixture, City Lights was doing double duty and also served as mother ship to some of Clover III's race crew. "They pile on a lot of people," Pam says.

The Kelleys had already put City Lights to good use. By the time we met, they'd been cruising aboard the boat some seven weeks and had called at Antigua and St. Martin. "Look at the temperature in Newport in March," Pam tells me, her eyes as large as saucers.

Brendan pointed upward and added, "And look at this sky!" He's raced and cruised his whole life, recently splitting his time aboard between Caribbean jaunts and Exile, the J/133 he campaigns during the summer back home. "I've got 55 years of racing in me, and I haven't gotten any better!" he says. But all that seems to matter is that he has a great time trying.

The favorite crew-my crew-I saved for last. It's my crew, if for no other reason than because the gang from Second Nature, a Hughes 38, included dear friends with whom I raced in this same regatta a decade ago, when I lived here and they'd just bought the sailboat.

The day the B.V.I. Tourism Board invited me to attend the 2009 regatta and festival, the first thing I did was send a "Thank you, yes, of course I'd love to come" reply. The second thing I did was contact Susan Demers and Bill Bailey, the owners of Second Nature.

When Sue, a lawyer, and Bill, a marine surveyor, aren't working their tails off or volunteering in the community or making further adjustments to the architect's designs of the home they're building near the top of Tortola's Mount Sage, they're catching their collective breath on cruises aboard Second Nature-that is, when they're not racing.

The boat's name hints at Bill's talents; all you have to do is review Second Nature's performance over the last decade to figure that one out.

A lightning strike didn't stop him some years ago. Nor would a small matter of the engine being out of the boat stop him in 2009. It was, after all, a sailboat race, and Bill, in the low-key, understated way of a stoic Brit, simply arranged for a tow as needed to get us back and forth from the marina slip.

Our crew of nine, a few of us reprising roles of a decade ago, took to it all over again, throwing ourselves from low side to high side and back on every tack and jibe. I had to pinch myself that I was really there, with my old friends and mates, on this same boat, sailing in my favorite regatta. We came in second in our class that day, our competition having bested us by a mere 22 seconds.

Then it all got official again: I remembered that I was in the islands on assignment and still had stories to write and photos to take. We had to bid each other a teary farewell, but not before Susan pulled the ultimate gift out of her purse. Now, when I wear my Second Nature regatta T-shirt, I well up with pride, fond affection, and a drop of melancholy for the way life brings us together, splits us apart, then teases us with magical, albeit brief, reunions. And to think that it happened while racing, not cruising!

Elaine Lembo is CW's deputy editor.