On the outer edge of a shallow bay painted in vibrant blues, wooden boats lie at anchor with their bows in a row. This is the starting line of a Bahamian sloop regatta, and with the crack of the gun, crews rush to raise sails, haul anchor and beat to the windward mark.
Bahamian sloops were once solely workboats; today they’re racing machines with traditional bones. Regattas began in the 1950s in a bid to keep the wooden-planked vessels from fading into history. What started with a single event in George Town’s Elizabeth Harbour, on Great Exuma, has grown to a couple of dozen races per year. The sloops might no longer double as fishing boats, but they retain their roots. Sails must be Egyptian cotton. Hull and spars must be wood. There are no winches, so muscle and leverage matter. Their design includes enhanced sail area spread by impossibly long booms and countered by movable ballast — beefy humans! The “pry board” is a long plank extending out from the windward beam, bedecked with Bahamians bashing boisterously to windward.
The best known of Bahamian regattas remains in Elizabeth Harbour, overlapping with the tail end of cruising season. The National Family Island Regatta, usually held in late April, draws around 60 boats in four classes. Crews are overwhelmingly Bahamian, but cruisers have a chance to experience these boats firsthand and connect with island hosts.
Cruising plans are difficult to peg, and despite our best intentions, my family and I arrived at George Town on Totem, our Stevens 47, too late for the regatta. Then we noticed a sign tacked up on a bulletin board promoting a regatta the following month on nearby Long Island, which mollified our disappointment.
The venue in Thompson Bay, Long Island, was shallow, leaving one thin inch under our keel. We could watch racing from the cockpit, but the real fun was joining the spectator fleet by dinghy. Near the starting line was a mix of boats, from open launches to small cabin cruisers. Revelers played music and floated in inner tubes or swam in the turquoise bathwater while cheering a hometown crew or playfully heckling visiting sloops. Everyone was having fun, but know this: The competition was fierce, and pride was at stake. This didn’t stop the sailors from enjoying themselves, however! The crowd cheered on the pry-board crews, which was answered with fist pumps and smiles around the course.
Hurricane season loomed. Totem had miles yet to go, but we remained in Long Island long enough to soak up the energy on the racecourse and ashore. A covered pavilion hosted a rotation of talent, from youth dance troupes to the local rake-and-scrape bands, while dozens of vendors in plywood shacks offering a wide selection of food and beverages added to the carnival atmosphere. Leaning against sun-warmed clapboard, listening to music and watching the last few competitors press on to the finish was pure Bahamas magic.