Sailing off the coast of St. Maarten on Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes '87 last spring, I was struck repeatedly by one fact: I was sailing off the coast of St. Maarten on Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes '87.
I would like to tell you that Dennis and I are tight, and that I was in the Caribbean helping to wring a few extra knots from his multimillion-dollar vessel. The truth is that Conner is a stranger to me, he was nowhere in sight that day, and I know nothing about sailing. Anyone with the means to get to St. Maarten can do what I did—serve as a race-crew member aboard the boat that won the America's Cup in 1987.
For $60 to $70, a traveler can sign up for the 12 Metre Challenge, voted the "top shore excursion" by Caribbean cruise ships. Cutting across the bluer-than-blue waters of Great Bay, off the coast of Philipsburg, it's easy to understand the vote. Out on the water on a perfect afternoon, I'm tempted to kick back, prop up my feet and enjoy the ride. But that's no way to win a sailboat race.
Make no mistake, the 12 Metre Challenge is a race. The idea is for the novice sailors on Stars & Stripes '87 to beat the novices on Canada II, another former America's Cup entry. Twenty minutes into the race, my group is well behind. I know Conner would not like this, so I snap out of my reverie and focus on the task at hand.
The voice of the first mate cuts through the small talk on board: "Primary grinders, stand by." Gripping the handles of one of the winchlike grinders, I wait for my order.
"First gear, go!"
"Second gear, go!"
"Third gear, go!"
At each command, I and three other grinders crank for all we're worth. Sailing line whizzes by our bodies at 80 mph, and when it catches we feel the pull in our shoulders. Without awaiting the next order, we crank the other way.
We are tacking, turning across the wind, and there's all kinds of commotion. The genoa sail thunders as it fills with wind. A boom swings from side to side. Noisy sailing gear does whatever noisy sailing gear is supposed to do. The boat responds like a sports car. It squats on the water and banks at what seems like a 45-degree angle. Spray flies as Stars & Stripes '87 rights herself.