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Once in a Blue Moon and the Perils of Sloop Racing

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A blue moon occurs when there are two full moons in the same month. It doesn’t happen often so when one occurred on the last day in July—Friday 31—the day before the renowned August Festival Sloop Races, I didn’t pay much attention.

I will know better next time.

It was the 12th Annual Festival Sloop Shootout and Heritage Regatta featuring two days of traditional wooden sloop races; an event highlighted by the race between our Premier the Hon. D. Orlando Smith and our Royal Governor His Excellency John S. Duncan on ‘August Tuesday’ morning.

I have been organising these races for all 12 years since we at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College revived what had once been a central part of our annual Emancipation celebrations. It was meant to promote the Maritime Heritage of the Virgin Islands along with the development of a National Maritime Museum and new initiatives in traditional sloop construction. The past 11 years had seen many exciting moments that always included some sort of mishap and damage to hull and rig. This year, however, was exceptional.

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Two weeks before the races, everything was going according to plan. The boats were being readied and pre-race publicity had already commenced. The new poster had been designed and printed and things seemed routine. It would be our new Governor’s first sloop race and he was determined to make a good show of himself. He had already gained experience racing on our sloops in the Spring Regatta and Foxy’s Wooden Boat Regatta where he captured 3rd and 1st places. He was scheduled for two practice sessions on Intrepid, the 100 year-old sloop brought over from St. Croix two years ago.

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The practices took place outside Nanny Cay Marina where all of our traditional sloops are docked and the first one was held on July 23 at 3pm. I tagged along and it was a good two hours of tacking   instruction and getting a feel for the helm.

The next week saw press releases, radio interviews, and TV promotion which fuelled the fire as to who would win. Over the years, the Premier has held the lead in victories with 6 – 3 won against the preceding Governors; I don’t know of any other country where the two heads of state compete in a competition like this. I know for sure it’s unique to the British Overseas Territories of which we are one.

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The second and final practice for Governor Duncan was on Friday July 31, the day before the first competition and the night of the Full Moon, The Blue Moon. Practice began at 3pm as before and seemed routine. I didn’t go along this time but saw them off and then headed towards Road Town to continue preparation.

In this session, they were going to practice tactics including rounding a mark. I was almost to town when I received a frantic call from Martin the first mate and coach: “Intrepid was on the reef get help.” I rushed back to Nanny Cay to find her stuck on the reef just off the beach and being violently rocked back and forth. One of the dive boats from Blue Water Divers and two ribs from Nanny Cay had already responded and she was pulled free in about 20 minutes.

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Taking on water, she was towed to the lift and immediately hauled out.  Apparently the NBW connection had parted just as they were rounding the mark closest to shore. She temporarily lost steering and before they could restore it, she was on the rocks. The damage was severe, especially for a boat built circa 1915, but repairable; however, it looked like she would definitely be out of the competition this year.

The next morning, we gathered crews and sailed the three remaining sloops to Road Town in preparation for Tuesday’s races. This time, the Governor sailed on Youth Instructor, which would become his new ride for the sloop shootout. Also taking part were Sea Moon, the Premier’s sloop of choice and Esmie our newest member of the fleet donated to the College by Local businessman Leando Nibbs.

The sail was uneventful and the boats were secured at Penn’s Marina behind The Pub in Road Town.  It was after tying them off that Martin Van Houten and Dale Durant—who had sailed Sea Moon up—announced that they were going to attempt to repair Intrepid in time for Tuesday’s race. It was a very daunting task and greeted with scepticism from the other sailors.

The next morning they began at 6am and worked until 10pm under lights. Intrepid had one good sized hole at the water line, two gouges out of the stem in front, and numerous perforations all around.  Through their herculean efforts, she was launched on Monday afternoon and sailed up to Road Town early Tuesday morning in time for the start.

As I reached the Penn’s Dock early Tuesday morning, I felt relieved that the crisis of Friday had been overcome with such an outstanding effort by Martin and Dale; nevertheless, I had forgotten to factor in the full effects of a Blue Moon. The conditions at the docks at this part of Road Town can be very violent. You have to tie boats off very carefully because wind, current, and the residual wake from ferry boats causes a rocking and bobbing motion which strains lines and cleats alike. Because the full moon had created a higher tide and a stronger pull than normal, I met the Premier’s sloop Sea Moon with her transom pulled off and hanging over her side still attached to the dock line. There was no fixing this one – not now any way. We were back to three sloops for the race.

I moved the Governor back to Intrepid and the Premier sailed on Youth Instructor. We held a captain’s meeting, read out the rules and course, said a prayer, and the sloops were manned, rigged and sailed off the dock for the 12th Annual Festival Sloop Shootout.

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The Premier won the first race by only 1 min 53 secs. It was one of the closest competitions we’ve ever had and he gets to retain the trophy. The second race was won by the Governor so they are tied overall. I wish I could say that was the end of our mishaps, but it wasn’t…

Our third sloop Esmie felt left out and she decided to take her turn at the start of the second race by breaking her main sheet traveller and slamming into the Premier’s boat Youth Instructor causing minor damage to both boats.

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As we towed Sea Moon back to Nanny Cay after the race, I contemplated the repairs to be done to all four boats and swore I would never take a Blue Moon for granted again. Thank heavens there are two years before the next one.

Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

Geoffrey is the curator of the Virgin Islands Maritime Museum. He pioneers and takes part in many of the initiatives related to the traditional art of sloop building.
Geoff Brooks, Curator - Virgin Islands Maritime Museum

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