Boat races are a dime a dozen in the Caribbean with virtually every destination hosting a regatta at some point each year. Many of these races have their own special local charms and traditions that make them well worthwhile for culturally curious travelers. As for the others, well, let’s just say that if you want to rock a silly Capt. Stubing hat, you’ll fit right in.
So, where should you go for a uniquely Caribbean boat race experience? For me, the French Caribbean island of Martinique, home to the annual Tour des Yoles Rondes (Yole Boat Race), is the best choice.
The photo above gives you some idea of why. This is no ordinary sailing competition, all hands on deck manipulating a series of winches and wheels in an effort to tame the wind. Sailing a Yole Boat actually requires all hands to be overboard, balancing on long poles while riding astride the vessel in an effort to keep it upright… and tame the wind.
Yole boats featured in the race are constructed with painstaking detail in the grand tradition of Martinican fishing vessels initially developed by local craftsmen many years ago. Each vessel flies brightly colored rectangular sails over rounded canoe-like wooden hulls made from local pear trees. As distinctive in style as they are challenging to sail, quick and agile yole boats test the mettle of even the most experienced sailors; their rounded hulls ensuring an instant capsize if ever the vessels should come to a stop at sea.
This, of course, also makes them particularly difficult to steer, which often leads to collisions in some of the tighter sections along the course.
The Yole Race is an amazing spectacle of seamanship, bright colors, and island pride. While some entrants hail from other islands, the majority of teams represent various towns around Martinique. Thousands of residents turn out each day for a week, lining the shores to cheer on their neighbors.
The course runs in a counter-clockwise fashion around the island in seven stages, with each day’s race culminating in Carnival-style celebrations complete with live music, dancing, food, and fun. The largest spectacle is reserved for the race finale and the crowning of the overall winner, but the party remains hot all the way through the week, even on the high seas.
Hundreds of yachts, catamarans, speedboats, and other private vessels trail the racers, partying along the way. Charter boat operators offer affordable race packages, including meals, excursions to secluded beaches and more, enabling visitors to experience the race up-close and at sea.
This is how I experienced the race last year, watching the Yole racers dance atop the waves while enjoying some acras and a few Biere Lorraines. The large crowd of people on the shore combined with the vibrant colors of the Yoles, the music, the dancing, local beer and good local food to create a true Caribbean Carnival feel out on the water. Just a phenomenally good time.
Martinique’s Tour des Yoles Rondes is held each year in late-July (for 2010 the dates are July 26 to August 2).