Racing "the House," Cruising the World

CW editor at large Herb McCormick checks in with Robert and Darlene Hill, a cruising couple who just happened to win the Multihull Cruising division at Antigua Sailing Week. "Herb's Watch" from our June 27, 2007, CW Reckonings

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Robert and Darlene Hill brought their 51-foot "home" to Antigua Sailing Week, then surprised everyone-- including themselves-- by dominating their racing class with five straight victories.Herb Mccormick

Neil Harvey isn't an excitable man. Well, actually he is, but that's beside the point. It was midway through spring's annual festival of waterborne Caribbean mayhem-also known as Stanford Antigua Sailing Week-and "Harvs" was in an especially animated mood. The Southeast and Caribbean sales manager for Harken yacht equipment, the Australian-born Harvey is a salty veteran of many an ocean-racing campaign, and there's not much in the world of competitive sailing that's passed him by.

So when he backed me into a corner-I was there racing and covering the event for Sailing World, sister publication to Cruising World-and told me in no uncertain terms that he was having an amazing week crewing for an American couple on their 51-foot cruising catamaran, Following Tides, he certainly piqued my interest.

"Look, we've won the first three races (in the Multihull Cruising division), and if you compare the corrected times, you wouldn't believe the monohulls we're beating," he said, while uttering the names of many a well-known, well-sailed, flat-out racing boat. "And the thing is, the freezer's full of food, the boat is loaded with spare parts, we couldn't be any heavier. Two days after the regatta, the owners are crossing the Atlantic bound for Valencia and the America's Cup!"

With that, he had my undivided attention.

****| |The Switch 51 Following Tides| Two days later, the Switch 51, Following Tides, wrapped up a dominating, class-winning week with a perfect 5-0 record, and Harvs introduced me to Robert and Darlene Hill, whose smiles couldn't have been broader. The Hills, I learned, had owned the boat less than a year, this was their first regatta, and it was also the outset of an open-ended cruise.

"I'm competitive, so I wanted us to do well, but it would've been okay if we hadn't," said Darlene. "The important thing is that our friends were onboard sailing with us, we were all together and having a good time."

But, I wondered aloud, this sure had to be a great way in which to launch their onboard, outbound adventure, right?

"It's fabulous," said Darlene.

"Awesome," said Robert.

As it turned out, the tale behind what had brought them to Antigua in the first place was also rather amazing.

Robert and Darlene met in Florida some 20 years ago, and only weeks after meeting, Robert popped the question. No, not The Question, this question: "Want to sail around the world with me?"

Then life, as it's wont to do, got in the way. Darlene, from Colorado, started a career in accounting, while Robert eventually became a sailmaker and opened a loft in Tampa, Florida, called NuClear Sails. Sailing was still a big part of their lives; Robert owned and campaigned an Ericson 29 and, later, an S2 9.1, but those were boats for inshore racing, not long-range ocean voyaging.

It took the events of 9/11 to force the initial radical change to their Tampa lives. "That was the first wake-up call," said Darlene. The Hills decided to head for the mountains, to simplify things, and they eventually found a place in British Columbia in the Canadian wilderness. "There are just so many wonderful people up there."

Then, not long after the move, one of those newfound friends died in a tragic accident. "And that," said Darlene, talking about wake-up calls, "was the second."

The Hills decided it was time to head to sea, to put a real answer to that question posed so many years before, and Darlene's charge was to find the right boat. She knew she wanted a catamaran, and in her research-which included a raving review in Cruising World-she kept coming back to the Switch 51. They found one for sale in Maryland, and the rest is history.

Not surprisingly, the Hills love their boat. For a less biased opinion, I asked Neil Harvey what he thought. "I was most impressed," he said. "It's nice and light and airy, tacked easily and was never in irons. And she went upwind like a banshee. We were lined up against some of the really good monohulls and we were four or five degrees lower, but faster. For a lot of the regatta we were beating close inside along Antigua's south shore and that's where we really made some gains. And off the breeze, the boat was a rocket: We hit 16 knots with the screecher and 17.4 with the asymmetric."

That, of course, was good enough to bring home some souvenir silverware. "We were racing our house," said Darlene. "I tell everyone this is our 'house boat.' "

As Harvs predicted, two days later, the Hills were bound across the Atlantic for Valencia and the America's Cup, and they arrived in town after some coastal cruising in Spain earlier this week. They have friends sailing aboard both Cup contenders, Alinghi and Team New Zealand, but are pulling for the latter for one very pragmatic reason. They'd love to sail to the island nation for the next Cup.

In the meantime, however, their immediate plan is to avoid making any detailed ones. "We're of the opinion that, doing what we're doing, if you make too many plans you're defeating the purpose of it," Darlene had told me just before we parted ways. "We're out here to enjoy life. If you plan too far ahead, you're back in the same rut."

Make no mistake, Robert and Darlene Hill are way out of the rut. Their formula, as it turns out, was simple: First Antigua, and then the world.