It has taken a few years, delayed by the pandemic, but formal Maxi yacht racing is coming to the Caribbean, considerably increasing the competitive opportunities sailors have to race their sleek monohull behemoths that can reach 100 feet long.
Les Voiles de St. Barth Richard Mille, which begins on Sunday, will join the inaugural I.M.A. Caribbean Maxi Challenge, a four-stop event created to increase the participation of Maxis in those regattas and draw more Maxis to the Caribbean sailing circuit.
“Maxi sailors are really excited because this increases the standards and quality, and the number of regattas they can sail,” said Benoît de Froidmont, president of the International Maxi Association. “Now we will have proper starts and courses.”
And more opportunities to sail their boats, which are expensive to maintain and cost as much as $10 million — owners want to get as much out of their boats as possible. “The biggest sin is to let these boats just sit,” said Ken Keefe, a former America’s Cup sailor who manages and sails on Vesper, a Maxi 72.
After a two-year pause for many regattas around the world because of the pandemic, sailors are excited about the new series, Keefe said. But many are also practicing a degree of restraint because of Covid and the war in Ukraine.
“Everyone is still a little shellshocked coming out of Covid,” he said. “We are all counting our blessings, but are more reserved this year — we won’t be dancing on tables. But the overall feeling is: Let’s get back to sailing, let’s get the band back together.”
Modeled after the races in the Mediterranean Maxi circuits, the Caribbean challenge invites Maxis over 60 feet long to compete February through May at the Caribbean 600 in Antigua, the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, Les Voiles de St. Barth, and at Antigua Sailing Week.
To qualify for the series, sailors must compete in a minimum of two of the events, though this may eventually be increased to three once the circuit is better established, said James Boyd, an I.M.A. spokesman. Teams that compete in more than two events get to discard their worst result.
Technically, the addition of the Caribbean Maxi Challenge adds to I.M.A.-sanctioned Maxi events, but not all Maxi sailors were planning on sailing all four of the Caribbean events. Many will sail in just two or three and win on cumulative performance points, de Froidmont said.
Keefe, who manages logistics for Vesper, which includes transporting the boat around the world, said it would be possible to do all four of the Caribbean regattas and still take part in the Mediterranean sailing seasons.
“It can work out to move these boats around and boat in nice places and do it in a safe manner,” Keefe said. “The trick is to get the boat out of the Caribbean as soon as the series ends to avoid the hurricane season.”
The first stop of the series was the Caribbean 600 in Antigua. Comanche, a 100-foot Verdier design, won the regatta, followed by the VO65 Sailing Poland and the VO70 I Love Poland.
Conditions were challenging. One sailor told the I.M.A website that the race was one of the hardest in the world.
“It is like a heavyweight boxing match — the lefts and the rights just keep coming at you and you wait for that knockout punch,” said Richard Clarke, a tactician for Warrior Won. “No lead is safe until the very end.”
The Russian-owned Comanche, a recent trans-Atlantic ocean race winner and a dominating presence in regattas, withdrew from the Caribbean Maxi Challenge after World Sailing, the sports’ governing body, banned Russian participation because of the war in Ukraine. Skorpios, a ClubSwan 125 Maxi yacht, also withdrew under similar circumstances.
“There’s an awareness of what’s going on in Ukraine,” Keefe said. “The Russians have touched our sport in a strange way.”
The second stop, the St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, held in early March, was four days of racing. Sailing Poland took first, Janssen de Jong-DutchSail second and I Love Poland third.
The third stop is the Les Voiles de St. Barth, and the fourth and final is Antigua Sailing Week, which starts April 30.
The winners of Maxi racing receive only a trophy and bragging rights. “It remains an ancient sport,” de Froidmont said. “There is no prize money, just very passionate people who enjoy the challenge.”
The number of Maxis competing has increased over the past several years, he said, and should continue to rise.
Boyd, the I.M.A. spokesman, said it might take a few years to build a deep fleet for the Caribbean Maxi Challenge.
“This is the first year,’’ he said, “so we imagine it will take a few years for this to gain traction fully. Nonetheless, we are pleased with the Maxi turnout.
“The Maxi participation in Les Voiles de St. Barth is also looking strong with I.M.A. members participating from both sides of the Atlantic,” Boyd added. Twelve Maxis are scheduled to race.
Currently leading the series is the VO70 I Love Poland ahead of the Farr 100 Leopard 3.
“But neither is competing in St. Barth, so it could be that we will see some new teams move into the lead after St Barth and Antigua,” Boyd said.
“We have some incredible competition this year,” said Keefe, who has won the Voiles de St. Barth four times. “I can’t wait.”