Caribbean Multihull Challenge 2024 – Becalmed and Beguiled

By Elaine Lembo

Despite light airs, the sixth Caribbean Multihull Challenge delivers on its guarantee of herding cats into a froth of competition and fun

“Whattaya mean, no wind?”

Groans spread fast throughout the 35-member fleet of racers and cruisers, the largest to jump in on the Caribbean Multihull Challenge in St. Maarten since it launched six years before. While organizers at the Sint Maarten Yacht Club did their duty putting a cheery spin on the unusual weather conditions for the early February 2024 event, which included a division of ten speedy Diam 24 open trimarans, there was no denying what was obvious: It was hot, it was still, and the waters of the Anguilla Channel looked more like a brew of melting, bubbling cobalt glass than a white-capped Caribbean Sea.

Conditions also got the attention of CMC rally participants, a contingent that joined in for the soft competition and entertainment more than for hard-core racing. The fleet of 16 included some of top names in the world of cats. Catana, Balance, Lagoon, Fountaine Pajot, HH and Voyage models came to the party, and five had opted to try out the event’s new time trial, a staggered start that eliminates the risk of collision and, by association, insurance prohibitions and exorbitant penalties.

“Statistically, February is the perfect time to race,” noted an apologetic Stephen Burzon, CMC volunteer marketing and operations director. The experienced offshore cruising and racing sailor echoed a well-known fact of the eastern Caribbean in winter — that trade winds normally blow steadily east-northeast or east-southeast from 20 to 25 knots.

“Light air is harder to race in than 25 knots,” Burzon added. “It’s hard to tweak an extra inch per mile. It will be interesting.”

Billed as a unique experience drawing racers and visitors from all over the world to enjoy an “unforgettable journey and discover something new,” the CMC, which started with a fleet of 12 in 2019, had thus far delivered on its promises. It has increasingly drawn competitors and name sponsors over its relatively brief history, working toward its goal to become the second most popular regatta after the renowned St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, now in its 44th year. Amstel Bright Beer, the St. Maarten Tourism Bureau, FKG Rigging, Lifeline Batteries, The Moorings/Sunsail, the Multihull Company, TradeWinds Experience, Bainbridge International, Karver Roller Furling, Plastimo Compass and David Walters Yacht Brokerage pitched in with support so they could fly brand burgees and more.

Now the event was delivering on its promise to let the race and rally committees discover something new — specifically, new courses. Hastily scrapped were the 60-mile sprint around St. Barts and the 52-mile dash around Saba in favor of short buoy courses. Burzon, locked up in last-minute meetings, again apologized, this time, for bailing on his plans to retrieve members of the press at the airport upon our arrival.

Mid Sixty — and Counting

Fresh priorities and shifting winds also forced change in the rally courses; perhaps inadvertently, this let the CMC again do its magic and deliver a memorable journey with new experiences for the media aboard the apt-named Mid Sixty, a Sunsail Lagoon 424.

Little Wing crew, from left: Lawrence Henderson, Dennis Rowedder, Michelle Slade, Steve Sargent, Ron Boehm (COURTESY LITTLE WING)

We working crew were firmly divided into diverse age camps: skipper Hans Huele and this journalist are boomers; photographer Matthew Burzon and Cruising World magazine editor in chief Andrew Parkinson have a couple of decades to go before catching up to us. The beautiful Emilie Tetu, a newbie to sailing who was game to sign on as swab and cook, represented Mid Sixty’s millennial division. Lydia Mullen, Sail magazine managing editor, mostly crewed aboard Aurora, a TradeWinds Experience TW6e, the all-electric six-cabin Samana 59 cat built by Fountaine Pajot and making its debut during the CMC.

On the first race day, in 5-6-knot zephyrs, plans to sail from Simpson Bay to Île Tintamarre were ejected; instead, we floated by iron jib and mainsail into Green Cay at Orient Bay. After a quick splash in emerald waters, I swapped boats for the late-afternoon jaunt to Great Bay, off Philipsburg, and sailed aboard Little Wing, Ron Boehm’s Bob Perry-designed Antrim 52, built in 1996.

Stowed on the forward trampoline was a new Ullman spinnaker that came in handy when a southerly briefly piped up to 13 knots and Little Wing engaged in a racing duel with the Leopard 47 Seaduction. Properly exercised, the crew was now ready to relax.

“We were just mixing up some dark ‘n’ stormies, would you like us to make you one?” asked crewmate and Compass contributor Michelle Slade.

As I sipped, Boehm, of Santa Barbara, California, recounted his sailing resume, whose recurring thread is a 50-year-long addiction to one-design racing aboard the International 14. “Cruising was never on my radar,” he said. “My wife and I got into chartering in the BVI.” Now besides Little Wing, Boehm has two catamarans in charter in the BVI, a Saba 50 and a Helia 44.

“I had to learn everything about this boat, and I still make mistakes,” he said, adding that this was his second CMC rally. “I love to race — to be in the Caribbean and to race, and I want to do more and more. The rally is a way to get more people sailing.”

While Little WingMid SixtySeaduction and other rally goers did their thing on day one, the racers did theirs. The race committee sent the CSA 1 division boats on a round-the-island course while the Diams conducted a trio of races off St. Maarten’s south coast. After sunset, I dinghied ashore to Doc Maarten Marina in Great Bay with the Little Wing crew, then reunited with my pals on Mid Sixty and Compass publishers Dan and Kelly Merton and their boys Alex and Andrew. The Mertons, avid sailors, couldn’t resist the urge to fly in from the U.S. to connect with sailors and enjoy a long weekend on the island.

Start Your Engines!

A wet, squally day two raised hopes. Aboard Mid Sixty, we put ourselves through the appropriate paces in decent wind, sailing some 15 miles west around Sint Maarten north toward Anse Marcel, at French St. Martin. Tacking sent a watermelon in the galley bouncing onto the saloon sole, where it split. A good omen, I thought, for more wind.

But day three dawned like an oven door cracked open to inspect a Thanksgiving turkey. I got up early and watched a guy in a long-sleeved rash guard e-foil by our cat on his motorized board, holding a mug of coffee. Around and around the glass-still Anse Marcel anchorage the smart aleck zipped.

Andrew joined me for coffee in the saloon. “I think St. Barts is dead head-to-wind and we’ve got about 1 knot of it,” he said, scanning a weather app on his phone. “At 11 a.m., 1.2 knots. At 2 p.m., 2 knots. 5 p.m., 0.2 knots.”

Yet I sensed opportunity. The CMC was presenting me a once-in-a-lifetime moment on a silver platter and I wasn’t going to let it slip by. Long was my frustration that I’d never sailed my own boat through the Pacific Ocean. I wanted to experience the joyful abandon of jumping overboard in the doldrums for a swim. And for all my years as a Caribbean liveaboard and charter crew, I’d never made it to Île Fourchue or St. Barts.
This was about to change. And I had the rally committee to thank.

Before 10 a.m., the announcement came in loud and clear on VHF Ch. 71: “To all participants, there is no wind. It makes no sense to drift. We are cancelling the rally. Start your engines and do whatever you want.

Yippee! Next thing I knew, Lydia was spending the day with us aboard Mid Sixty. Andrew took off to learn about the sustainable innovations aboard Aurora, which, with 42 square meters of solar panels and wind generators, boasts the ability to run air conditioning, a favorite creature comfort of his, all night long on lithium-ion batteries, without tapping into a diesel-fed generator.

I swiftly proposed an itinerary to Captain Hans: a stop past Tintamarre to take a plunge and swim around Mid Sixty; then a glide southeast to lunch at Île Fourchue, then on to Gustavia, St. Barts, for the party at the St. Barths Yacht Club and dinner. Matt turned up the tunes, which combined Emilie’s favorite French standards with more contemporary selections, and off we went.

What followed was the ideal day aboard in the Caribbean: good music, good food, cold beer, a laid-back, competent captain, and clean, blue water that enveloped Lydia, Emilie and me as we leapt off the bow of Mid Sixty in a synchronized countdown. From the dinghy, Matt caught the moment, which made our hearts beat faster as we leapt into free fall. Then we giggled and did it again. Close to that high was swimming with turtles in the crystal waters of the Île Fourchue anchorage. I had to pinch myself that it all really happened.

CMC Fandom

By late afternoon, anchored off St. Barts and barefoot at the beach off the yacht club, I was eager to learn from rally goers their reasons for joining the CMC. I caught up with another Californian, Kevin Hutton, an emergency room physician who was participating for the second year. He liked it so much last year that this time he returned aboard Golden Hour, his Balance 482, whose credits include winner of Cruising World’s Best Performance Catamaran in the 2022 Boat of the Year contest.

As reflections of the colorful hues of the anchored Golden Hour’s hull were mirrored in the water, Hutton, who with his wife, Sandy, specializes in medical evacuations by air, explained that the term “golden hour” means the period of time immediately after a traumatic injury when medical and surgical treatment can prevent death.

Theirs is a meaningful profession that requires an equally hefty break from its demands. “I was a Hobie catter and I was looking for a responsive boat,” he said, “and though I flip-flop between cats and monohulls, and have experience fixing up old Catalinas, the Caribbean has amazing sailing 99 percent of the time. I do this event for the camaraderie and to be close to the other Balance boats in the fleet. This reminds me of a Hobie cat regatta in the ’70s.”

A few yards away, the giggling all-women crew of Team Island Water World was posing for photographs, and I walked over to say hi. They had good cause to celebrate: Not only did they have the youngest crew — little Ayla Bus, nine years old —but her sister, licensed skipper Berit Bus, an accomplished one-design racing sailor and the other daughter of St. Maarten Yacht Club commodore Frits Bus, had successfully pulled together the group, whose skill set ranged from novice to elite, to crew aboard Bayla, the Bus family 2007 Lagoon 38. The team was new and the boat was new to them, and they’d succeeded.

“I wanted to get more females involved in sailing, so I asked around,” Berit explained. “Four youths who are members of the SMYC youth sailing program joined us. Then I asked other girls I knew would be a good fit as they are gym goers, even though they had never held a line in their hands. Lastly I asked a few other friends who are on our Melges 24 Budget Marine sailing team and they were all enthusiastic to join the female team.”

Despite the lack of wind, the CMC energized the crew. “Numerous women have contributed to the marine industry by breaking the norms and just going for what their hearts desired,” Berit said. “I look forward to sailing with an all-girls team again next year, since sailing takes confidence, knowledge and skill. I think we girls all have it but don’t implement it enough. I hope to learn a lot during future CMCs and look forward to just having some fun sailing with some girlfriends.”

That endorsement was probably the best gift for the tireless Steve Burzon, who celebrated his birthday the Sunday of the event. The weather gods may not have given him the winds he sought, but the rally goers and racers of the CMC, who ended the event with a jubilant awards ceremony that night, gave every hint that like the trade winds, they will return.