FROM THE SUN TO THE SUN

Cruising World - - Contents -

The 50th run­ning of a clas­sic 450-mile sprint from St. Pete, Florida, to Is­las Mu­jeres, Mex­ico, is a per­fect sea trial and pre­lude for a round-the-world ad­ven­ture. By Herb Mc­cormick

Of course I was at the wheel when the spin­naker hal­yard broke. Why is it that I al­ways seem to be driv­ing when things get, um, in­ter­est­ing? It’s an unan­swer­able ques­tion. Any­way, here’s what hap­pened.

Aboard the sweet-sail­ing 57-footer Sky, un­der the com­mand of one Jo­hannes “Jopie” Helsen, the sun had risen after our sec­ond night at sea en route from Tampa Bay, Florida, to Isla Mu­jeres, Mex­ico, in the 50th run­ning of the Re­gata del Sol al Sol, an in­ter­na­tional yacht race span­ning the Gulf of Mex­ico. I’d been at the helm for about 40 min­utes when, sud­denly, in a rather fit­ful breeze at 0940, the kite’s hal­yard parted and the sail flut­tered into the sea, as soft and gen­tly as if I were ap­ply­ing a crisp new sheet to a freshly made bed.

The very first thing that popped into my mind was, “This is great!”

I wasn’t kid­ding. I’ve watched a few spin­nakers blow in my day, in­vari­ably on a black night in a ris­ing wind in a rough sea­way. Here, the waters were calm, the wind lightly astern, and our eight-per­son crew was wide awake, on deck and ready. If you had to drop a kite, it would be hard to imag­ine bet­ter con­di­tions.

One of the hand­i­est things to have on any sail­boat, at any time — but es­pe­cially in an emer­gency, large or small — is a skilled sail­maker. Luck­ily, we hap­pened to have one handy: Dan “DJ” Driscoll, the Doyle Sails rep who’d built Sky’s hand­some set of brand-new sails. In a tone that was at the same time laid-back and ur­gent, he said, “Bear off.” I was headed in that di­rec­tion any­way, but his ad­vice was re­as­sur­ing.

It was a bit of a chore for the crew to gather the soaked sail back aboard — the spin­naker sock’s hoop, stream­ing astern, was a pretty ef­fec­tive sea an­chor, and I had to luff head to wind to help them cor­ral the sail — but the job was ac­com­plished fairly quickly. And al­most im­me­di­ately, Jopie, Dan and the gang had a new chute on deck. Sheets and a fresh hal­yard were af­fixed, and it was hoisted aloft in no time flat.

“Nice job, bro,” I said to Dan, who had calmly or­ches­trated the whole ma­neu­ver. His shrug sug­gested next time we should give him some­thing more dif­fi­cult to do.

I’d glanced at my watch the

On the 50th an­niver­sary of the Re­gata del Sol al Sol from Tampa Bay to Isla Mu­jeres, a merry crew joins a sea­soned skip­per — who raced in the very first event! — as he shakes down his pow­er­ful 57-footer for a very spe­cial world cruise. by Herb Mc­cormick pho­to­graphs by Chris Gour­ley, Caro­line South­well and Herb Mc­cormick

mo­ment the old kite hit the drink and did so again when the new one was up and draw­ing. Twenty-three min­utes. Ex­actly. Hold that num­ber.

Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1969, a pair of strap­ping, sail­ing-crazed lads from the St. Peters­burg Yacht Club, Jopie Helsen and Char­lie Ball, were crewmem­bers aboard an Ohlson 38 called Mare­spell, one of 15 en­trants for the in­au­gu­ral edi­tion of the Re­gata del Sol al Sol. The event was ini­ti­ated by the Mex­i­can govern­ment as a means to pro­mote tourism and the lit­tle is­land off Can­cun called Isla Mu­jeres, at the time a sleepy fish­ing vil­lage with about a thou­sand res­i­dents and not a sin­gle paved road. “From the sun to the sun” was an ap­pro­pri­ate name — after all, the sun rises over the start­ing line near St. Pete and sets over the fin­ish near Can­cun. Over the course of the race, the boys had quite an ad­ven­ture, sail­ing through a fleet of Cuban fish­ing dories guarded by a loom­ing gun­boat; catch­ing a glimpse of their first leop­ard ray; wash­ing down beers that cost 18 cents apiece at the fin­ish. Great me­mories all.

A half cen­tury later, on April 27 of this year, Jopie and Char­lie were at it again, once more on the start­ing line for the race to Mex­ico. This time, nat­u­rally, things had changed. In­stead of be­ing mere deck­hands, the old friends were the skip­per/owner and nav­i­ga­tor, re­spec­tively. The nav­i­ga­tion it­self was no longer by sex­tant and lo­ran, but by so­phis­ti­cated satel­lite-based in­stru­men­ta­tion. And then there was the ride. Sky, to put it mildly, is no Ohlson 38.

No, the strap­ping 57-foot yacht, built in New Zealand at the vaunted Vau­drey Miller boat­yard with a car­bon rig and a lift­ing keel that drops down from 5 feet 6 inches to 11 feet 6 inches, among other fea­tures, is some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. And ul­ti­mately, above and be­yond Mex­i­can races, so is its long-range mis­sion.

That’s be­cause Jopie, with his girl­friend, Heidi Trilsch, is plan­ning to sail it around the world (see “Sky’s Next Ad­ven­ture,” page 60).

Jopie says that, un­til very re­cently, the no­tion of cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing never oc­curred to him. But it al­most seems like his life’s jour­ney led down such an in­evitable road. Born in Hol­land to a boat­build­ing fa­ther who moved the clan to Florida when Jopie was around 10, he started sail­ing at 5 or 6 and has fond rec­ol­lec­tions of put­ter­ing around his dad’s shop, fid­dling with wood and model yachts he fash­ioned him­self. By 13, after the fam­ily had set­tled in St. Peters­burg, he de­cided to be­come a yacht de­signer and builder, and never changed his mind. In high school, he ba­si­cally ap­pren­ticed with the leg­endary Char­lie Mor­gan. He stud­ied naval ar­chi­tec­ture at the West­lawn In­sti­tute, and by 25, ran his own boat­build­ing com­pany. Even­tu­ally, he tired of man­u­fac­tur­ing and shifted his at­ten­tion to yacht bro­ker­age and his own high-end ser­vice and re­pair yard, Sailor’s Wharf in St. Pete, which has now been in op­er­a­tion for 40 years.

His in­ter­est in cir­cling the globe was piqued when Sailor’s Wharf did the re­fit for a client sail­ing in the World ARC Rally. After the cus­tomer re­turned, he re­galed Jopie with sto­ries and pho­tos of his ad­ven­tures in French Poly­ne­sia and be­yond. Jopie was trans­fixed. A life­long sailor, Heidi was also fas­ci­nated. One thing led to an­other, and a search for the right boat com­menced. At first, Jopie had lit­tle in­ter­est in

Sky, but he sailed it, then had a sec­ond look, then an­other. Some­thing clicked. He saw the po­ten­tial. It could def­i­nitely be the right tool for the job.

When Sky set out for Isla Mu­jeres after its own ma­jor re­fit, it was the first time its new sails were raised. The Re­gata del Sol al Sol was more than a boat race. It was the shake­down voy­age.

Just two hours be­fore the start­ing gun was fired to be­gin that shake­down sail (and two days be­fore our drama with the spin­naker), it seemed to me that our par­tic­i­pa­tion in the race was far from a fore­gone con­clu­sion. An army of work­ers still scur­ried about the decks, screw­ing things down. The in­te­rior was in sham­bles, with brand-new cush­ions scat­tered ev­ery­where, still in their plas­tic wrap. Aft, a worker had just af­fixed the name Sky to the tran­som in em­bossed let­ters, and an­other broke some bad news to Jopie, stand­ing nearby.

“The S is up­side down,” he said, gaz­ing at the name­plate. Be­fore stalk­ing off, Jopie replied loudly, and in un­print­able fash­ion.

The poor guy looked to me for so­lace. “Well, it is,” he said, sheep­ishly. For mul­ti­ple rea­sons, I re­mained speech­less.

But some­how, we made it to the start, over an hour’s mo­tor from Sailor’s Wharf, with min­utes to spare. I con­sid­ered it noth­ing shy of a mir­a­cle. The trou­ble with own­ing a ship­yard, Jopie later ex­plained, is that all the cus­tomers’ boats come first. In any event, we were off.

To say that the roughly 450-nau­ti­cal-mile Re­gata del Sol race­course is in­ter­est­ing and chal­leng­ing is an un­der­state­ment. There are not one but three sig­nif­i­cant cur­rents that must be ad­dressed and com­pen­sated for, and do­ing so cor­rectly (or not) holds the key to one’s suc­cess (or not) in the race. The cir­cu­lar, clock­wise Loop Cur­rent in the mid­dle of the Gulf is the first ob­sta­cle, but those who latch on to the southerly flow­ing east wall can en­joy a sig­nif­i­cant boost in

With less than two hours to go be­fore the start, Sky was in dis­ar­ray, as an army of work­ers scur­ried about the decks screw­ing things down. It seemed to me our par­tic­i­pa­tion in the race was far from a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

the early go­ing. Far­ther south, near­ing Cuba, you must avoid, as best you can, the east­erly flow­ing Gulf Stream, which can set you in the op­po­site di­rec­tion from which you need to sail. Lastly, on the fi­nal ap­proach, the northerly flow­ing Yu­catan Cur­rent off the coast of Mex­ico can be das­tardly if you find your­self too far north of Isla while cross­ing it. Hap­pily, nav­i­ga­tor Char­lie had seen all this be­fore, and he was ably as­sisted by yacht bro­ker Josh Mclean, of David Wal­ters Yachts, an ex-air Force man who knows his vec­tors.

In fact, the whole crew — which in­cluded an­other set of St. Pete sailors, Lin­wood Gil­bert and Karen Park, as well as videog­ra­pher Chris Gour­ley — was top notch. We’d never sailed to­gether be­fore, but I have to say we meshed quickly. It was a fun bunch.

We en­joyed a good, clean start, and were soon ac­com­pa­nied by a big crew of work­ers from Sailor’s Wharf on a spec­ta­tor boat, who were no doubt ec­static and re­lieved to bid us farewell. Un­der Tampa Bay’s iconic Sun­shine Sky­way Bridge we went, beat­ing to the one and only mark on the course, a chan­nel buoy where a fleet of small-boat fish­er­men cursed and stamped as we slid past. Lit­tle did they know, there were an­other 29 yachts — the rest of the race fleet — still to come. Sorry, gents. See ya!

Be­fore long, the wind freed and we were able to set the spin­naker, reach­ing be­fore a sweet 10- to 12-knot breeze un­der bril­liantly sunny skies. Dol­phins frol­icked in the bow wave as we clicked along at a tidy 8.5 to 9 knots. It was Cham­pagne sail­ing at its ab­so­lute very best. And it con­tin­ued on through the night, with steady pres­sure and a nearly full moon il­lu­mi­nat­ing the sparkling seas. The speedo was locked on 10 knots and even nudged up­ward in the puffs, with DJ notch­ing the top num­ber of 13.4 knots. The next day, 24 hours into it, we’d reeled off 209 nau­ti­cal miles. Sweet.

It light­ened up as the day wore on, but we never doused the spin­naker. The sec­ond overnight sail was a lit­tle less sporty than the first. Lighter air meant we needed to sail deeper an­gles, and the breeze was up and down with small but per­sis­tent shifts. The level of con­cen­tra­tion re­quired at the wheel wasn’t com­mis­er­ate with the re­sults achieved; our speed hov­ered be­tween 5 and 8 knots. But it wasn’t bad. The moon re­mained gleam­ing, and we were on our way to Mex­ico. It would’ve been rather churl­ish to com­plain.

Hours later, the hal­yard broke (we should’ve been ad­just­ing it pe­ri­od­i­cally to pre­vent chafe — oh well) and we had our brief but ul­ti­mately sat­is­fac­tory fire drill. And lo and be­hold, there were only an­other 100 miles to go.

They were not easy ones. Ac­tu­ally, our last night at sea was pretty darn wild.

Char­lie and Josh had done a spec­tac­u­lar job nav­i­gat­ing, hit­ting the cur­rents pre­cisely at ev­ery way­point for max­i­mum ad­van­tage. Just be­fore sun­set, they called for a jibe to head south early so we’d have a fa­vor­able slant on the Yu­catan Cur­rent — we had to cross it sooner or later; there was no avoid­ing it. With a north­east wind op­pos­ing that north­bound cur­rent, which at times trucked along at up to 4.7 knots, as ver­i­fied by our B&G in­stru­ments, the go­ing was down­right nasty. Fast. But crazy.

At the wheel, I soon re­al­ized it was best not to look over your shoul­der, but some­times I couldn’t help my­self. The scene was might­ily im­pres­sive, with stand­ing waves mea­sur­ing 4 or 5 feet tall. But Sky han­dled them like an ab­so­lute champ, plow­ing ahead with pur­pose and dis­patch, never round­ing up, just track­ing along un­der com­plete con­trol with its twin rud­ders as if it were on rails. At one point, the tack line for the spin­naker stripped and the sail went flail­ing, but nat­u­rally, DJ was all over it, and it pre­sented but a mi­nor hiccup. We crossed the fin­ish line, one end of which was the 90-foot Mex­i­can navy ship Tu­lum, right around 0400. Only a pair of boats had al­ready fin­ished, one of which was the fa­mous racer Mer­lin, the other a Tripp-de­signed 75-footer. Se­ri­ous com­pany. For a cruis­ing boat on its first ma­jor test, Sky had ac­quit­ted it­self nicely. The cold break­fast cervezas, fol­lowed by heap­ing plates of huevos rancheros, went down smoothly.

Isla Mu­jeres is no longer a quiet vil­lage with a sin­gle ho­tel but a bustling is­land with two towns, 20,000 res­i­dents and count­less day-trip­ping tourists from Can­cun avail­ing them­selves of the many beaches and wa­ter­ing holes. We hap­pily joined the fes­tiv­i­ties. We also wel­comed a boat­load of lo­cal kids and their fam­i­lies on board Sky for one of the event’s tra­di­tions, the Re­gata Amigos. It was a great day.

On the night of the awards cer­e­mony, Char­lie and Jopie were jus­ti­fi­ably rec­og­nized as com­peti­tors in both the first and 50th Re­gata del Sol, a happy and proud mo­ment for both the long­time friends and their crew­mates. And Jopie gladly ac­cepted the prize for Sky’s vic­tory in our class. The shake­down trip could not have gone bet­ter.

Well, ex­cept for one thing. When the hand­i­caps were ap­plied for the over­all fleet prize, Sky fin­ished sec­ond to a well-sailed Ir­win 38, After You.

Well done, guys.

But we couldn’t help chuck­ling at the ironic delta in cor­rected time be­tween After You and Sky. Re­mem­ber that bro­ken spin­naker hal­yard story that be­gins this lit­tle tale? You guessed it. Sky

fin­ished sec­ond by pre­cisely … 23 min­utes.

Herb Mc­cormick is CW’S ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor. For more on the Re­gata del Sol al Sol, visit the event’s web­site (re­gatadel­so­lal­sol.org).

With a north­east wind op­pos­ing a north­bound cur­rent, which at times trucked along at nearly 5 knots, the go­ing was down­right nasty. Fast. But crazy. At the wheel, I dis­cov­ered the best ap­proach was not to look over your shoul­der.

A lot has changed in both St. Peters­burg and Isla Mu­jeres since the in­au­gu­ral race in 1969. But one thing hasn’t, which is the race­course it­self.

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