Editor’s Note: The second race in this story, Regata al Sol, started today and will end up in Isla Mujeres in a week. So many of us who live in Yucatan have no idea that these races even happen. We thought a short story about the races by Troy Gilbert, and hopefully a first-person account of the race in a few weeks, might be of interest to our readers. Enjoy!
Two Sailing Regattas
Getting scoped out by high-speed Cuban Navy patrol boats in the middle of the night is a common occurrence for American sailors as they compete in two bluewater regattas that finish in the marinas of Isla Mujeres. Raced continuously since the 1960′s, these two separate regattas originate from St. Petersburg and Pensacola, Florida and both have a deep history and connection to Isla Mujeres in Mexico. These races are also legendary for their week-long post-regatta parties! Late spring is an ideal time to travel (or sail) to Isla Mujeres and if you plan it right, you can experience the Gulf Coast’s unique sailing culture mixed with the people and culture of this culturally-rich island off the Yucatan Peninsula… it is a fun mixture!
In the marinas of Florida, crews of eight to ten men and women on over 50 boats have been prepping for upwards of six months on everything from racing sleds to heavy cruising sailboats. Their preparations are leading to a race of over 500 miles from the shores of the Gulf Coast in Florida to a Caribbean island in Mexico. Depending on the wind, these regattas last for four or five days, with crews sailing the electric blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, far from the safety of any home port or immediate rescue.
A True Adventure
These crews are undertaking and participating in true adventure in austere conditions rarely found in this day and age. Battling the weather and a massive 4+ knot current that steams north through the Yucatan Straits, this is not a simple day out sailing on the water. Dismastings of sailboats in heavy weather are fairly common and in 2012, one sailor died in a capsizing event in a similar regatta that sailed from Galveston, Texas to Mexico. But the payoff is huge as the sailors log innumerable experiences. These wonderful days under sail include dolphins surfing their bows for days, giant Kemp-Ridley turtles and tuna popping up from the deep waters and the phosphorescence of their wakes sparking in the water at night while the Milky Way explodes above their masts.
Meanshile, On Shore…
Onshore events ramp up almost immediately for these events as wives, husbands, friends and “racer chasers” arrive on Isla Mujeres, where the sugar sand beaches and free-flowing rum drinks beckon. It does not hurt that the local government and island residents treat them as honored dignitaries while they await their racing crews. Boats continuously stream to the island for days. The sailors and their friends hold Mardi Gras-style parades with elaborately decorated golf carts, cruising along the cobblestone streets. There are also water-borne events where skippers and crews sail the local children out onto the pristine waters surrounding Isla Mujeres. The camaraderie and traditions are unequaled. All around the island, in the restaurants and beach bars, the sailors and their friends celebrate. It all culminates when the large trophies are presented as the sun sets at Buho’s on North Beach.
Two Races Organized by Mexico
These races were originally organized by local Mexican officials who saw the potential to grow tourism on the undeveloped Yucatan Peninsula. They were especially interested after the cancellation of a multitude of Gulf Coast regattas that no longer went to Havana, Cuba after the revolution in 1959. Today these Florida to Mexico events have been celebrated for over 50 years and any sailor worth their salt on the Gulf Coast participates, or plans to in the near future.
The Regata al Sol which runs from Pensacola, Florida to Isla Mujeres, is the oldest of the two and first ran in 1964. Originally launching from New Orleans, over the years the start eventually migrated to Pensacola Yacht Club in Florida and is now a biennial event. Because of geography, the Regata al Sol crews run directly into the Loop Current that pours due north between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula and because of this, the boats tend to skirt the eddies and currents that are thrown off the major northward current. This adds a significant amount of mileage to their course.
“The Gulf is different,” says Guy Brierre, who co-chaired the Regatta al Sol for many years. He was describing the race in 2012. “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. There were no clouds whatsoever and the wind was 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.”
The Regata del Sol al Sol which starts in St. Petersburg, Florida is 100 nautical miles shorter. In this race, the crews catch the downward leg of the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico, which gives them an extra kick south towards Cuba. Then they catch the winds towards the Mexican coast. The St. Petersburg version has the added history of virtually following the old St. Pete to Havana, Cuba route.
Hard to Resist
The guerilla marketing that pours out from the veteran sailors holed up at any Gulf Coast yacht club bar makes it virtually impossible to not get caught up in this race. 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 non-commercialized, 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. It all leads to a carnival like atmosphere, and it is great fun for everyone. And Isla Mujeres welcomes these sailors with open arms and has for nearly 50 years.
Regata del Sol al Sol: St. Petersburg, Florida to Isla Mujeres – April 25 – May 2, 2014. (regatadelsolalsol.org) -
Regata al Sol: Pensacola, Florida to Isla Mujeres – May 7 – May 15, 2014. (regataalsol.org)