The news from our captain, a South African professional racer named Grant, is good. "We're gaining on them," he says.
Let's face it, America's Cup sailing is not the most accessible sport in the world. Most people never get within two tax brackets of sailing an America's Cup yacht. That's part of the charm of the 12 Metre Challenge, the brainchild of British businessman and sailing enthusiast Colin Percy. The 59-year-old Percy was living in Oakville in Ontario when the stress of running three companies caught up with him in 1988. His doctor put it to him succinctly: "You're going to be another statistic, and your wife is going to be a rich widow."
So Percy chucked it all, and in 1989 he and his wife, Jill, moved to St. Maarten, the Dutch half of a 33-square-mile island that the Netherlands shares with France. (The French part is known as St. Martin.) Looking around for something to do, he came up with the idea of offering tourists the thrill of a ride on a 12-meter yacht, the type used in the America's Cup for three decades, until 1987. Then he decided to get a second boat and to stage races. He started in '89 with a pair of Canadian boats, Canada II and True North, which he bought from Canada's Challenge for the America's Cup. He also bought the unfinished True North IV, which he had finished in St. Maarten.
The Conner connection came in 1994, when Percy met the famed racer at a party for the New York Yacht Club in Newport. Conner, who had heard about Percy's St. Maarten business, said, "You're the guy with the Canadian 12s." The two men hit it off. Percy had intended to talk to Conner about acquiring Stars & Stripes '86, which was rumored to be for sale. But, emboldened, he asked about '87.
To Percy's surprise, Conner agreed to lease, and eventually sell, him the boat that had redeemed Conner in the eyes of the sailing establishment. The U.S. had ruled the America's Cup for 132 years, until 1983, when Conner lost the Cup to an Australian syndicate. Four years later, at the helm of Stars & Stripes '87, he got the trophy back.
That was the last America's Cup in which traditional 12-meter boats were used. Now Conner's old boat is the star of Percy's daily regattas. There are five boats in all, up to eight races per day during the peak winter season (late October to late April), with 22 professional sailors to help crew and maintain the boats. Percy's marina is located in downtown Philipsburg, the bustling capital of the Dutch side of the island.
"This is the only place in the world you can do this," Percy says. Sailing conditions in the eastern Caribbean are almost always good. More important, St. Maarten doesn't spoil the fun with too many regulations. Percy considered taking his 12s to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, or to Key West. But the U.S. Coast Guard would have required the boats to be equipped with diesel engines and to be modified extensively for passenger safety. In St. Maarten, Percy was obliged to make relatively few modifications to the boats. The sails are slightly reduced in size to keep the boat more upright on turns—and lifelines have been added around the deck. Otherwise the boats are as they were in America's Cup competition—except now they are open to the landlubbing masses. About 85% of the people who participate in the 12 Metre Challenge are nonsailors. That includes me.
The race, which takes about an hour over a straight "windward leeward" course, starts out much like a pickup basketball game. On a sunny morning 72 of us stand on a dock, listening to an affable staff member give a brief history of America's Cup racing. Four "captains" are selected from the group, and each is told to choose a crew of 12 to 18 members. (Each boat will also have a professional captain and two professional crew members to guide and monitor safety.) The primary need is for large, bulky types to operate the boat's grinders. After teams are chosen, a tender takes us into the bay, where we meet up with the boats.
On board we get a quick sailing lesson from the professional crew members. There are jobs requiring brains—trimming the mainsail, for example—and those requiring brawn. Some jobs, like the timekeeper's, require little more than enjoying the ride.
I want the full experience, so I volunteer to grind. It's not difficult at first, and maybe that's why we fall behind Canada II. Our professional captain tells us our problem is "bad air." Our opponents are staying between us and the wind, dumping slow, no-account air on our sails. We need good air. We need to out-maneuver Canada II. So on the fourth and final leg we zigzag. The idea is to steal the wind from our adversaries, who are smart enough to respond to our every move.