Bahamian C Class Sloops
08 February 2016
“Hey, do you need crew” I patted my belly and said, “I have a lot of talent to bring.” They laughed and said, “Ya you can sail with us, you're our man.”
That's how you get a ride on a Bahamian C class sloop.
We were at the 5F. First Friday in February, Farmer's island Festival. Little Farmer's island is a tiny settlement in the northern Exumas. The houses are modest but the people some of the friendliest we have met in the Bahamas. That saying, we have not met anyone in the Bahamas who wasn't friendly!
Chris Parker, weather guru, predicted strong west winds from a coming cold front. This is something we have come to expect in the Bahamian winter months. Little Farmer's Island was not only the place we wanted to be for the 5F but a well protected anchorage for the coming blow.
Friday, we wound our way through a shallow channel to the anchorage. We saw about 40 boats anchored on the north end of the island for the festival. We shook our heads, “That's not a safe place to be after Saturday night. Sure enough, all cleared out on Saturday. We were safely in our “cold front” anchorage and dinghied to the northern beach. The Bahamian sloops were in their second race of the day. We hung around the weather mark and watched these amazing boats go through their paces.
The Bahamian Sloops are traditional boats with full keels, only the mainsail on a long mast and even longer boom that hangs well aft of the transom. The sails are huge! Hiking boards are slid from side to side and crews hang out well outside the boats for ballast. The C class boats are 17 feet long but feel like much larger boats. I would equate their performance to a J24 except that in a puff they respond much more quickly. Downwind the mains are let out and fly like a spinnaker. Loose footed mains are eased for a lot of draft.
The misguided boat that invited me aboard was “Pot Cake.” Tyrone, bowman said, “We are the underdog but have a lot of fun.” Lisa dropped me off and wished us luck. The crew was rounded out by Lennon in the middle (I later learned he was the owner and builder) and Ashley, skipper. I was the guy who went where he was told.
Starts are amazing. Boats anchor on the starting line. The committee boat motors up and down the line shouting the course directions. Marks are taken to port or starboard at the whim of the committee boat. There is much banter about who is too close to the line and whose anchor lines are crossed. At the whistle, anchors are pulled in rapidly, sails are hoisted and they are off! It is more controlled mayhem then the running starts we are familiar with.
I quickly learned what was going on with no pre-race instructions. “Put out the hikers!” That meant pull the two huge boards to weather so we could sit out. Unfortunately, Pot Cake had the smallest sail in the fleet and I would add, the worst shape. We didn't need to hang out on the hikers much. The rest of the fleet sailed right past us.
Tyrone asked me, “Do you know what is a pot cake?” I answered, “I sure do, Bahamian dog.” They laughed and said I was right. Most of the race, our crew was like a spectator boat speculating and arguing who was ahead and who was going to win some prize money. We weren't even close to the running but we were sailing in the beautiful Exuma sea on a beautiful day.
I had plenty of time to ask about the boat. Lennon was very hard to understand but he built the boat about a year ago. He borrowed the mast and sail. It was a heroic effort. The ribs of the boat were sawn from Buttonwood roots! Instead of steam bending ribs to the shape you want, he went through a pile of Buttonwood roots and branches, picked the ones with about the right shape and sawed them to the exact profile required. Tyrone said, “No blueprints for a Bahamian Sloop!” The boat was more workboat than yacht but the shape and workmanship were exacting. 1600 pounds of lead were in bars in the bilge. They moved them slightly to achieve better trim. Two electric bilge pumps ran almost constantly. The banter was constant. Nothing new to sailboat racing. The front of the boat kept telling the back of the boat how to go faster!
I learned some new lingo. Tyrone would say to Ashley, “Put some more weight on!” That meant he was pinching and should bear off. He did. At one point there was a rare argument between Tyrone and Ashley. Tyrone said, “Ashley, I'm a sailboat racer. Listen to me. I'm not just her to take pictures!” We howled with laughter. Ashley and Tyrone too!
Tyrone said to me midway in the second race, “Russ, you getting all of our dialect?” I said, “Some but not all.”
We dropped out of the second race, we were that far behind. We anchored and there was some confusion as to how we would get to shore. Lisa followed us in the dinghy for the first race. She was on shore for the second race. She said, “You guys are too painful to watch.” They thought she might come and get us. No way. They flagged down a passing boat. All went off but Lennon. I was instructed to bring back the dinghy and pick him up. We were dropped off at a cargo dock. I had to walk barefoot through sharp rock to a path through the dump, back to the beach. I launched our dinghy and putted out to Pot Cake.
Lennon and I talked about our families. I was waiting for instructions as to what he wanted. We sat for a bit and a large power boat came by to tow him back to his island, 8 miles away. I'm still unsure as to what my role in this was but I can tell you it was a role I wouldn't give up for anything. Lennon told me about the canvas he had bought for a sail. He said the next big regatta was in Georgetown in April. He said, “You are part of the crew, I want you to be there in April.” I regrettably told him we would be south by then. He said, When you come back up, stop by and see me. I had to explain that we are not heading back north but continuing to parts unknown. This was something he had a hard time understanding. With new friends like Lennon, Tyrone and Ashley it is hard to understand saying goodbye.