The Bahamian Island Regatta is the best event of the year in the islands! Held each year during the last week of April, the race originated in 1954 when Bahamian and American yachtsmen organized the regatta for the Bahamian working craft. Ever since then, the racing tradition has continued.
Today it is one of the oldest regattas in the Bahamas. Bahamian sailors from every major island in the Bahamas compete for the honor of being named the best sailing sloop, navigated by the best captain in the islands.
Captains of the traditional sloops are sons and grandsons of former captains. Pictured below is Captain Keith Thompson, grandson of an infamous sloop captain, owner of Whitty’s K.
Tactical methods of overtaking a competitor are passed down through generations. Former captains of these magnificent sloops sailed to Nassau to initially ply their trade of natural sponges, queen conch, and dried fish.
Imagine standing on the Nassau waterfront in earlier days, witnessing the arrival of a Bahamian sailing smack. It would be an honor to see such a creation–a sloop crafted by bare hands from natural materials and powered by the wind.
In order to compete for the winning title, boats must be designed, built, and owned by Bahamians. Traditional materials are used, further preserving the traditions of early boat-builders. Sailing fans from all over the world gather in George Town’s beautiful Elizabeth Harbour to enjoy the five days of sloop sailing.
Several ferries carry the island sloops and crowd of cheering fans to participate in the well-attended event. The cruising yachtsmen in residence are drawn in to witness one of the last working sailing fleets in action. Afterward, the cruising yachtsmen remain to cruise the southern Bahamas, returning each year.
There are three classes of racing sloops increasing in size from Dinghies, Class B sloops, and Class A sloops. The hulls and masts are made of wood and the boats cannot have bowsprits, spreaders, winches, or instruments. Sails must be cotton, with no wire luff ropes. Small overlapping jibs are tacked to the stem-head, and large rounded mainsail headboards, much like single-halyard gaffs, propel the craft forward.
I love the pry boards! Pry boards are planks held to the deck by large staples. The planks run out to the windward side of the boat to seat human ballast. This is where the hapless sailor might take a dunk in the drink inadvertently! This is followed by much hilarity amongst the bystanders.
In the above photo of TIDA WAVE, deck staples are visible on the deck where the inboard ends of the pry boards are inserted. When tacking, the boards are rapidly shifted across the deck to the windward side. The ‘rail meat’ crew clamber into place as the wind fills on the new tack.
The boats are lined up at anchor before the start of each race and start by rapidly weighing anchor hand-over-hand. Buoys mark the race course as various points of sail.
The race is a blast to watch! Much shouting ensues between crews as near collision is imminent at the lineup and buoy marks. When rounding a buoy, a crewmember may be washed overboard from his perch on the pry board. If the crewmember manages to hang on for dear life, he’s the lucky one! Not to worry though, bystanders are near at hand to rescue the laughing crewmember. Later at the harborside shacks, much back slapping and shouting ensues as crewmembers pontificate their tale of hilarity of the day’s mishaps
Because of the great fanfare associated with the Regatta, plywood shacks pop up like mushrooms on the waterfront, complete with compact kitchens, bars, tables, and chairs. Bahamian food is served up hot and inexpensive: cracked conch, spiny crayfish, conch fritters, baked macaroni & cheese, roast pig, fried or grilled mahi-mahi, grouper, peas and rice, and conch salad. A live band plays soca, calypso, and Junkanoo tunes. The police band parades. Children play games in the park nearby.
As a DJ announces the race results, Caribbean dark rum and Kalik beer flow in vast quantities. Dancing goes on until late in the tropical night. Hangovers are brutal.
Despite what elsewhere would be a ripe environment for trouble, anger or confrontation are rare. Crime is virtually nonexistent. Good fellowship and happiness abound for days! It’s a scene I’ve enjoyed for forty years. I never miss the Bahamian Island Regatta!
Over the years, a handful of Class A sloops has dominated the winning position: LADY MURIEL, TIDA WAVE, RUPERTS LEGEND, RUNNING TIDE, and RED STRIPE.
TIDA WAVE, from Staniel Cay, won the trophy for the 2017 Bahamian Island Regatta! CONGRATULATIONS!