Biscayne Bay, Shangri-La for sailors, welcomed the world’s best skippers and crew to its warm waters with a postcard day, and they blew kisses of homage into the irresistible breeze.
The bay is a foe, a temptress whose ever-shifting conditions can never be truly conquered. During Bacardi Miami Sailing Week, hundreds of sailors from a dozen countries competing in five classes can only hope to outwit the bay for a few miles and get to the finish line fastest.
On Tuesday, the stout Stars took their best shot at deciphering light but steady winds on the second day of their regatta. Current leader Lars Grael of Brazil read it right and led the entire way in the second race of the afternoon. But in the first, he dropped like a stone on the initial downwind leg.
“We made a mistake and suddenly we jibed and got stuck in a big hole of wind,” he said. “We lost more than 20 positions. That was painful.”
Miami’s Augie Diaz got snookered in his own backyard, settling for 10th in the second race when he got pushed off the prevailing side of the course after a dominating win in the first race.
“I love the tactics of Star racing, even when it’s not blowing hard,” he said. “The sails are so big the Stars can make their own wind.”
Said Miami’s Magnus Liljedahl: “There’s no such thing as ideal out here, so you better like it no matter what.”
It was a majestic winter day on the bay. The sky was a palette of blues, ascending from Periwinkle to Cornflower. The green waves’ furrows appeared to be sprouting diamonds, sparkling in the sun. Cloud connoisseurs could pick out furry creatures, bearded wise men or snow-capped mountains.
The giant Star sails looked like icebergs on the horizon.
To see Miami from the sea is to know why pioneer Commodore Ralph Munroe said, “Damn the humidity and the mosquitoes. I can walk out my back door and launch my sailboat on Biscayne Bay!”
And if you think sailing is best accompanied by a la-di-da Christopher Cross song, think again.
Racing requires strength, agility and a Michael Jordan mentality in close quarters. The ideal Star crewman has the ballast of a defensive lineman plus the flexibility of a gymnast when extreme hiking over the edge is required.
At the start, it was a miracle the fleet didn’t crash into a 56-boat pileup, as bows sliced within inches of sterns. Mind the boom, or off with your head. Cross the line before the horn and a black flag signaled instant disqualification.
When they rounded marks in thick traffic, you could hear sailors yelling at each other in that universal language which translates to “Get out of my way!” But according to the rulebook, cursing is forbidden. Lots of trash talking, expletives deleted.
The Star, a keelboat originally raced on Long Island Sound, is 102 years old.
“Stars are the prima donnas,” said regatta chairman Mark Pincus of the Coral Reef Yacht Club, an experienced competitor. “Powerful, technical boats. Rich tradition. It’s like an international fraternity.”
The Bacardi Cup dates back to 1927 when it was part of the Copa de Cuba series. After each day of racing, the Havana Yacht Club staff washed and ironed the cotton sails. Today, sails are made of high-tech materials like Mylar and carbon fiber.
Bacardi, founded in 1862 by a Spanish wine merchant immigrant who bought a Santiago de Cuba distillery occupied by fruit bats, sponsored its last race in Havana in 1957. Then, with the help of Miami sailor James “Ding” Schoonmaker, the Bacardi Cup was moved to the Coral Reef Yacht Club in 1962.
Pincus has sailed in primo places, from Newport to Annapolis to San Francisco Bay. He lived for a time in breathtaking Aspen, Colo., where neighbor Hunter Thompson kept him up nights by taking target practice in his yard. But he swears nowhere is as enchanting as Biscayne Bay.
“We are spoiled in Miami,” he said.
Former Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Diaz says there’s no place like home. Olympic and world champ Liljedahl, who coaches Paralympians and disabled veterans, calls his operation Team Paradise for good reason. Grael, who is lobbying to get the venerable Star class returned to the Olympic menu in time for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, says his home Guanabara Bay, blemished by pollution, ought to emulate Biscayne Bay.
Bacardi Race Week continues through Saturday, with the Audi Melges 20 and Melges 24, Viper 640 and J/70 classes starting on Thursday.
Every year, you know the regatta is taking place in Coconut Grove because of the ruddy-faced people scurrying around in booties, leggings, life vests and sun-block makeup.
After a long day on the water, they swab decks and rinse salt out of their hair quickly.
Their reward awaits. Bacardi cocktails. And if they win on Saturday, they get to swig rum from the silver cup.