Racing across the Gulf of Mexico to Isla Mujeres
Published – Sailing World
©2013 – Troy Gilbert
Getting scoped out by high-speed Cuban Navy patrol boats in the middle of the night was little more than a minor distraction for the crew of Greg Smith’s Olsen 40 White Trash II. They had more important things to worry about. With only 100 miles remaining in the 2008 Regatta al Sol, a 555-mile distance race from Pensacola, Fla., to the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, they were in the midst of a pitched 4-day, 10-hour battle for top honors in the racing division with Mad Max II, a J/120. They were exhausted, but with the competition in sight—as they were for most of the race—there was no time to rest, or bother with the Cuban Navy.
“We were constantly changing leads,” says Greg Smith, who sails White Trash II out of Fairhope, Ala. “It’s amazing how hard we sailed when they would almost get out of sight, even if we were beat. There’s no question we were really sailing hard for all five days.”
Gerald Carney, Jr., the son of the skipper of Mad Max II, has done four races across the Gulf, but had never spent this much time in sight of the competition. “It was bizarre to see them constantly on the horizon,” he says. “Usually after the first 24 hours you’re alone out there. It really kept us focused. It was almost like we had a 555-mile match race with White Trash. We didn’t really lose sight of them until we made the hard cut across the Gulf Stream on the last day and then we didn’t know where anybody was.”
The Regatta al Sol is one of only three major regattas that transect the Gulf of Mexico. The biennial regatta runs from Pensacola, Fla., to the unassuming island beach resort of Isla Mujeres, where the Havana Club rum pours freely and topless Europeans sun.
However, they had to get there first. The rhumb line for the race runs counter to the northward punching fist of the massive Gulf Stream loop that is the dominant navigational feature of the Gulf. The Loop Current jets out several hundred miles out of the Yucatán Channel northward from between Cuba and Mexico at up to 7 knots, and crews must play the lesser eddies and vortices that pockmark its edges, a process that usually makes the race significantly longer than its 555-mile stated length. Couple this with the historically schizophrenic wind patterns and this regatta is the full package for multi-dimensional and highly complex ocean racing. It’s a tacticians dream or nightmare.
“The Gulf is different,” says Guy Brierre who co-chaired the regatta and raced onboard Mad Max II. “On this race you can be 300 miles from nowhere. That’s over 350 miles with absolutely no land effects. Yet this race was one of the strangest ones I’ve seen in the Gulf with the wind shifting back and forth in the middle of nowhere; no clouds whatsoever and the wind’s going back and forth 30 degrees. And don’t forget that the Gulf’s Loop Current is a big deal. You have to play the rhumb line until you hit the current and then start your strategy. If you get a lot of leverage to one side early; when it’s wrong, it’s really wrong.”
With potentially heavy weather looming on the morning of the start, a professional meteorologist did little to calm the racers anxieties during a briefing, especially after he requested all of the skippers sign a waiver stating that he was not liable for his forecast and that he was in fact never even there. The weather didn’t disappoint.
Within a few short hours after the start, a nasty squall line spitting out waterspouts left and right walked over the fleet a few miles from the Pensacola Bay sea buoy. With estimated gusts approaching 50 knots, the Pyramid 45, Animal, was dismasted, sufficiently alerting the other crews to pay heed as the grey and wet storm consumed the fleet in its march east.
While most every boat was reefing sails, Benz Faget who has crewed on nine boats that have finished 1st in class in this Mexico race and who was now at the helm of Mad Max during the weather, kept up their blade and never reefed, “I really thought we should have put the chicken chute up. I believe that a big key to winning any race is to own the start and the first few hours; it’s disheartening to see your competition pull away early and that can really define crew morale for the rest of the race. It’s tough to know a guy is up there and you can’t see him.”
Smith who’s Olsen 40 was dismasted 200 miles out in the middle of the Gulf during this regatta two years before explains, “The Gulf of Mexico is very unpredictable and what looks like a very easy thing to sail is in fact very challenging especially when you add in racing and the Loop Current. I don’t think there has been more than four or five truly peaceful races over the years.”
After that first day, the weather started to cooperate and with the TP52, Decision, the favorite to pull down the bullet having sustained keel damage in its transfer to Pensacola, a classic battle of wits and boats was now wrought between the two lowest rated boats in the racing class with White Trash tracking Mad Max across the Gulf.
“We really saw the boats just geared for what they were made for.” According to Brian Harrison, who split helm duties as well as whatever else was needed on White Trash, “The Olsen was a quick boat in under 12 knots of breeze and Mad Max would just step on us when it would blow over 13. There were great sailors on both boats, and it was just the varying wind conditions and navigating the current at the end of the day. On the last day, we hit an eddy that was actually like a washing machine where the current and the wind were counteracting each other and we were really like a ship in a soupbowl. At one point we were doing 5.5 knots back towards Florida.”
Over its fifty year history, the Regatta al Sol has undergone large swings in participation, but it appears that the race is trending upwards post-Katrina and Ivan, as sailors seek out new challenges. The guerilla marketing that pours out from the veterans holed up at any Gulf Coast yacht club bar doesn’t hurt. It’s virtually impossible to not get caught up in this race as the crews rehash the stories of the austere and focused racing which are then rapidly followed by tales of the gonzo whirlwind of partying that erupts on the uncommercialized, six mile long Mexican island. The rustic beach bars and restaurants are quickly overrun when the boats divest their crews onto the pristine white sand beaches, and the racer chasers and return crews fly in to meet them, all leading to a carnival like atmosphere.
With most experiences best left to sharing over rum drinks on the coast, it is nevertheless obvious that these sailors are truly welcomed or at least understood by the locals on the island.
In fact, these most hospitable of people genuinely appreciate the regatta participants to such an extent that the local government formally makes them all Honorary Guests in a ceremony replete with Mexican military color guard units. And on an island whose primary mode of transportation are golf carts, it’s only fitting that the Gulf Coast racers slavishly adorn nearly 50 golf carts with palm fronds, yacht club burgees and long beads for a raucous Mardi Gras parade throughout the island.
Harrison adds, “The hospitality of the people and the parties they put on for us, the basketball game between the islanders and the North American Drunken Sailors (NADS) team to benefit the local school, everything was just spectacular and the fact that half of New Orleans was there holding down a corner bar for us all week was pretty cool too.”
At the award ceremony on the sugar sands of one of Isla’s beaches, skipper Greg Smith of White Trash II was hauled up in his chair by his crew to the small beach stage where he accepted his trophy having beaten Mad Max II by 5 minutes and 20 seconds corrected time and physically finishing just over 23 minutes behind them after 106 hours of racing. He explained his thoughts afterwards, “We were the most surprised eight people in the world when we finished and docked up at the island, at first they told us we had lost by one minute. It was neck and neck. All I can think is that by holding low, possibly through luck, we got out of the current faster. Between these two boats, nobody deserved not to win this race.”
After reminiscing about his dismasting two years before, Smith then cracked a wry smile, cocktail in hand with the night breeze blowing in from the Gulf and through the palm trees, “I’m just thrilled though. I got to sail this race again, which is great. Finishing it is even better, winnings a little bit nicer.”