Sails reefed in the Family Island Regatta.
Family Island Regatta – Bahamas By Betsy Morris
he National Family Island Regatta is to the Bahamas as the World Series is to the United States. It is held in George Town, Exumas, in April each year, but the planning, scheming, second-guessing, and boat tuning begin much earlier. Some would say it begins in Mangrove Bush, Long Island, at the innovative Knowles boatyard. Others would claim that the boys at Man-O-War Cay in Abaco have the touch, or that the folks at Barraterre, Great Exuma, bring their special attention to detail, or that the focus of Staniel Cay’s Brooks Miller, captain of Tidal Wave, is the spark. The old timers, many of whom were the founding fathers of the regatta in 1954, look to the oldest boats for inspiration, Lady Muriel, Tidal Wave, Good News, Running Tide, and others. All these sloops are built in the Bahamas, framed and planked in wood (faired with fiberglass and fillers). The dinghy classes (no jibs) are up to 17 feet in length, the B Class is 21 feet, and the A Class is 28 feet. All are either remodeled fishing boats or descendents thereof, with their cuddies removed, designed with the traditional grace and beauty of the hull and rig foremost in mind; raked bows and sterns, strong sweep of sheer, “wineglass” curvature to the transom, with tillers passing through an aperture, and no winches or “modern” instruments. Their booms are always longer than the length of the boat itself, and many of the 28-footers have 60-foot masts, laminated of Sitka spruce—no spreaders allowed. Depending on wind conditions, they often carry a ton or more of lead ballast, as well as up to 14 sailors, whose weight, hiked out on pries, attempts to balance the gargantuan spread of canvas aloft. The regatta is three days long, preceded by one day of special races for the Commodore Emeritus, Governor General, and Prime Minister cups. Before those races come the National Junior Championships, sailed in the dinghy classes. This year, seventeen-year old Nioshe Rolle from Staniel Cay won—the first girl to take the championship. Prior to those events is a frantic week of readiness. George Town is spruced up; dozens of food and drink shacks are built of plywood, painted, electrified, with full bars and kitchens installed; and the racers begin to arrive.
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The Exuma and Long Island racers come on or are towed behind the local fishing boats. Most other boats are wedged onto the mailboat. The scheming and second-guessing begin as these racers are off-loaded by a crane. Everyone on the dock yells instructions, and gestures fly from those whose boats are already launched. In the midst of all this preparation and racing activity, fans arrive from Nassau, Eleuthera, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Island, Rum Cay, Bimini, Cat Island, Abacos, all the Exuma Cays, and even the Turks and Caicos in support of their favorite boats. Life in George Town is altered for a week: The library closes and AA meetings are suspended, although the reluctant kids still trudge to school; and cruisers from all over the world dot enormous Elizabeth Harbour, loathe to leave until the last boat rounds the last mark on the last day of the regatta. My husband and I planned our spring of 2006 to be in George Town aboard our 39-foot Gulfstar, Salsa, for the