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America's Cup 12-Metre Challenge turns swabbies to sailors

Stars & Stripes, the yacht Dennis Conner used to regain the America's Cup in 1987, cuts through a wave during one of the 12-meter races in St. Maarten.
Stars & Stripes, the yacht Dennis Conner used to regain the America's Cup in 1987, cuts through a wave during one of the 12-meter races in St. Maarten.
Published May 16, 2013

PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten

An hour into the race, there we were, 15 people crammed into a space not much bigger than a pair of office cubicles.

"Preparing to tack," the captain called out.

"Primary grinders ready," a crew member yelled.

"Tacking."

"Primary grinders, first gear," came the order.

The four of us started cranking as fast as we could.

"Primary grinders, second gear."

We started cranking in the reverse direction.

The boom swung over our heads and the mainsail snapped hard as it caught a gust of wind. The glimmering white yacht heeled hard to port, the edge of the deck cutting into the blue Caribbean waters a foot away.

Canada II was flying, leading two other boats halfway through an America's Cup-style 12-meter yacht race.

• • •

Most Caribbean cruise ship excursions involve bus tours of an island, leisurely snorkeling or lolling on a beach, frozen drinks in hand.

But for those craving adventure, the 12-Metre Challenge in St. Maarten allows novice sailors and committed swabbies to experience the thrill of racing 12-meter yachts built for the America's Cup.

Having watched the boats race in 1987 on television, I wanted to hop on one during a cruise stop in 1997. I knew nothing of sailing except port, starboard, mainsail, booms and dinghies. But I wanted to be part of what looks like chaos but is actually precise choreography. I wanted to watch the ocean rush by and experience a tacking duel. But my wife killed that idea.

In January, about a dozen cruises later, we realized we would be stopping in St. Maarten again. My wife asked if I had heard of "this America's Cup thing" that she wanted to try. So 16 years later, 40 pounds heavier and much more out of shape, I booked our spots.

You see, there is one catch with the Challenge.

The passengers do the work.

•••

The idea for the 12-Metre Challenge was born in 1987 when, according to manager Chris Tilling, a friend of Colin Percy's suggested he buy a 12-meter yacht and give people rides. Percy recalled his response in an email. "Now if you had two of them you could race them, and that really would be something."

Not long after, he bought two 1987 America's Cup boats and set up shop in St. Maarten. Since then the fleet has grown to five and a second location has opened, in Cozumel.

In St. Maarten, guests can sail on one of three boats:

Stars & Stripes, the yacht Dennis Conner used to win back the trophy from Australia in 1987, four years after an embarrassing loss.

True North, a boat built by a Canadian group that ran out of funding before reaching the 1987 America's Cup series.

And Canada II, the smallest and oldest of the three. It sailed as Canada I in the 1983 America's Cup series before being refitted and renamed for the 1987 event.

• • •

After a short walk from the cruise terminal, we were divided into three crews and given a quick history of how Conner lost to Australia in 1983, the first time the United States had failed to win the "Auld Mug" in 132 years. The loss was so devastating that the New York Yacht Club revoked Conner's membership. But he won the cup back with Stars & Stripes in 1987, the last year 12-meter boats were used.

"Certainly for our guests from the USA, the opportunity to sail on US-55 Stars & Stripes is something quite special,'' Tilling said. "To be honest, all of the boats have different strengths and weaknesses. Stars & Stripes is by far the most famous, but all three represent the zenith of the 12-meter class.

"They were the biggest and most powerful ever built. I guess it is true to say that Stars & Stripes certainly wins its fair share of the races, though."

For that reason, all three crews wanted the U.S. boat, and a game of "rock, paper, scissors" determined assignments. We cringed when another group won the U.S. boat and shook our heads as we stepped aboard a tender headed for Canada II.

On the way, the captain gave each member of our crew a job. Some positions, such as primary grinder — four crew members who control the tension on the front sail — are physical. Others, like timekeeper and bartender, are much less demanding. If the crew is large enough, some people can just relax and enjoy the ride.

The captain came to me first and named me a primary grinder.

Oh, great.

We boarded our 12-meter and sailed toward the course in Great Bay, where the race would consist of five legs, three upwind and two downwind.

As we neared the course, our captain told us that even though Canada II was the oldest of the boats, she was the fastest 12-meter ever in light winds.

We perked up, waiting for his assessment of the winds.

"Not today," he said with a grin.

• • •

The race begins with a 6-minute countdown as the boats maneuver behind the starting line. The timekeeper keeps updating the captain, counting down the final 30 seconds. The goal is to cross the starting line when the clock hits 0:00. If a boat crosses early, it must turn back and start over, a mistake that will likely mean defeat.

Stars & Stripes crossed a boat length ahead of us (early, we thought), with True North just behind. The American boat stretched its lead throughout the first upwind leg, as tacking kept the grinders and winchers busy. Our captain opted not to follow Stars & Stripes on two tacks near the end of the first leg, going wide on the course before angling Canada II straight toward the buoy marking the turn.

The strategy worked perfectly as we rounded the marker with our bow nearly touching the big blue yacht's stern.

With the wind at our backs there was little for most of the crew to do. But our bartender got busy as the captain announced it was time for water, soda or beer.

As the winds eased, we slowly pulled even with Stars & Stripes — so close it seemed we could shake hands with its crew. Canada II slid past the favorite and built a full boat-length lead before turning again into the wind, forcing the grinders back to work.

The two boats stayed close, with True North not far behind, in a serious tacking duel that kept us cranking — and gasping for air. Near the end of the third leg, Stars & Stripes tacked across our bow and stole the wind from our sails.

It felt as if our captain had hit the brakes.

On the final leg, our fate was sealed. Stars & Stripes crossed the finish line first, with True North making a late surge to finish second. Canada II was third, about 25 seconds behind the winner, leaving us defeated but not depressed. It had been a blast.

• • •

About two hours after climbing aboard Canada II, the tender dropped us off near the 12-Metre Challenge office. I could tell my shoulders and arms were plotting a reminder of just how old and out of shape I have become in 16 years. But that didn't matter while we guzzled rum punch, gritted our teeth as the winners bragged and headed inside to check out the souvenirs.

We barely glanced at the red, white and blue Stars & Stripes stuff, walked right past the dark blue memorabilia from True North and headed straight to the area filled with red and white.

Because, after all, on this day, we were from Canada II.

Kyle Kreiger can be reached at kkreiger@tampabay.com.

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