Family Islands Sailing Races in The Bahamas
With as many disparate islands as there are spread over as wide a swath of sea as encompasses The Bahamas, it stands to reason that sailing has been as big a part of life here as anything else for as long as anyone’s been Bahamian. The importance of sailing in The Bahamas is readily apparent in Family Islands Sailing Races today. That, however, was not always the case. In fact, there was a time not so long ago when traditional Bahamian sloops almost disappeared forever.
Vanishing Bahamian Sails
The culprit (again) was progress. Beginning in the 1950s, advances in modern shipbuilding and air travel made old sailboats obsolete everywhere. The Bahamas were no exception, of course. Connecting the islands had never been easier. The romance of the old sail, though, was dying a slow death.
We’ve discussed similar such sins of progress before. Remember Vanishing Sail? Well, in the case of The Bahamas, the locals didn’t wait for a lifeline to save their cherished sailing tradition. Nope. Instead, they started partying.
Birth of Family Island Sailing Races
More to the point, they started racing. Eager to preserve their sailing heritage, Bahamians created a series of regattas. Races pitted old vessels against each other in a celebration of Bahamian pride and culture. The largest of these celebrations, The National Family Island Regatta, has been held in Exuma on the last full weekend in April since 1954. Local sailors come from all over The Bahamas to compete for cash prizes and bragging rights under a strict set of guidelines, many of which date back to the event’s earliest days. Among them:
- Boats must be constructed solely of wood.
- Sails must be made solely of cotton.
- No spreaders or winches are allowed.
- No advertising is allowed on sails.
I’ve read that some of the rules are sometimes relaxed a bit. For the most part, though, this event is Old School all the way.
Oh, and if you’re thinking of participating and you’re not Bahamian, forget it. All participating boats must be 100% designed, built, and owned by Bahamians. Additionally, they must be skippered exclusively by Bahamians.
So yeah, the races are solely a spectator event for the rest of us. This, however, isn’t such a bad thing considering the spectacle of watching these sloops in action.
Also, I’m some kind of sailing expert, but these things look incredibly difficult to handle.
Like the yoles in Martinique, traditional Bahamian sloops have huge sails and incredibly tall masts relative to their comparatively modest hulls. The combination makes sailing ’em quite the balancing act. You need an oversized crew for such a small vessel. Many sailors are effectively along for the ride, providing counterbalance while perched atop narrow hiking planks.
It’s an amazing sight, though you don’t necessarily need to visit Exuma during “Regatta” to experience it.
Traditional sailing races have, over the years, become central components of community reunion events throughout the Family Islands. (Everywhere in The Bahamas not named New Providence and Grand Bahama Island are known as Family Islands. They’re also known as the Out Islands.) There’s also The Long Island Regatta in June, which is second in size to Exuma’s.
Catching a Chance Sailing Race in Exuma
Then again, you might also just get lucky and stumble across a race like I did while visiting Exuma Point Beach Bar & Grill. No sooner had the sailors arrived at the jetty that the trash talking and wagering started up.
It was all friendly and in good fun, but you could feel the pride each man had for his vessel and the true desire they all had to win.
If it’s like that on a random Saturday, just imagine what it’s like for one of the bigger events!