The St. Maarten 12 Metre Challenge, offered year round, gives visitors the chance to experience first-hand the thrill of America's Cup racing. Aspiring sailors serve as crew aboard the U.S. Stars and Stripes, which raced in 1987, or the Canadian contenders Canada II, True North, and True North IV, as these high-performance boats are put through their paces on a shortened America's Cup course. Previous sailing experience is not necessary, only a sense of adventure.
The shore excursion is limited to 18 people, so you might want to sign up early. The captain of one of the ships met us on the cruise ship pier and queried us as to our sailing skills. Most of us had zero experience. The captain named two of us with no sailing experience as honorary captains, and we selected our crew much like choosing sides for a baseball team. I was one of the honorary captains, so of course I selected my spouse as my first choice. For the rest of my crew, I used important criteria such as how much I liked someone's hat. It seemed as good as anything else! The nine of us were assigned to the True North IV, a Canadian sailboat. The Stars and Stripes, one of Dennis Connor's sailing yachts, was our competition with the other nine cruisers from our ship.
A pontoon boat was used to ferry us out into the harbor to meet our boat. We were delighted to see the smiling faces of those who had just preceded us. Ronnie and I had watched the two sailboats racing earlier in the morning. It looked like a lot of fun from the security of our cruise ship balcony. Little did we know about the work ahead of us. The captain assigned each of us a task. I was one of the primary grinders and Ronnie was a main grinder. Others were assigned to winding the ropes or other tasks. All nine of us had an important role on the sailboat. The captain had three professional crew members who did the most difficult tasks, but we were all made to feel that our job was very important to the success of the team. It was a great feeling, and we all bonded quickly. As honorary captain, I gave the team a pep talk. We practiced our new skills for about 10-15 minutes prior to the race. I quickly found out that grinding had absolutely nothing to do with bumping and grinding! Not that I have ever done that myself!
The 12-meter yachts used for the simulated America's Cup are sleek and beautiful. They slice through the water like a knife, and watching the skipper direct the crew gave all of us a sense of the true meaning of teamwork. When the captain had us store all of our gear and cameras below deck, I realized the race would be exciting and possibly wet. When the race started, we all worked feverishly on our assigned tasks. We had some downtime, but had to be prepared to work quickly. Several times we came very close to our competition. It was really great fun! The time passed very quickly, and soon the race was over. Our yacht lost by a nose, and we weren't even sure we had lost until the referee boat gave the signal. I couldn't help but wonder if the race was always that close. Winning was really not the objective, although we would have liked to win. We peacefully sailed for a while after the race, and each of us took a turn at the wheel. I was amazed how responsive the boat was.
The three hours was over all too quickly. I think each of us came away from the exciting race with a new appreciation of the skill and teamwork involved in sailboat racing. If you are in relatively good condition, this is a great shore excursion!