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hiho2000 - racing in the british virgin islands

Intro

The HIHO goes back many years, probably originating around 1982 as a low -key, Island-to-Island race through the British Virgin Islands. It has gone through a number of iterations, but for the last few years, has been back in a big way with a number of big name sponsors, and run as a business.

Essentially, I understood the HIHO to be all about lifestyle, with some laid-back racing between the islands thrown-in for good measure. Whilst the lifestyle element is definitely there, the racing is taken pretty seriously (damn!) and there are some very good sailors taking part. It has to be said that the HIHO is ridiculously expensive. The accommodation is provided on large (~47 foot), chartered catamarans which - although they are quite spacious on deck - are pretty cramped & fairly basic down below. There is an experienced skipper provided (Hans - a Dutchman - in our case), and the paying HIHO guests are the crew. As far as Hans was concerned, this meant occasionally raising & lowering the main & jib sails, lowering & recovering the anchor/mooring clamp, and not using the precious water on board. We had to wash in the sea off the back of the cat, using fresh water only for the final rinse!

The racing this year was to be all one-design boards, these being BiC Techno 283's. All the equipment could be rented as part of the deal from the organisers. On offer were BiC Techno 283's for racing class, BiC Veloce 328's & 310's for cruising class or those simply wanting to rent a board without entering any racing. Boards were US$155 for the week. There was a choice of Neil Pryde sails - Supersonics and V8 Street Racers. Any two sails + sufficient equipment needed to rig them (masts, extension, boom) were $175 for the week. I ordered Techno + V8's in 8.5m & 7.0m sizes for myself. For Joy, I ordered a Veloce 310, with 5.4m Supersonic and a 4.0m school sail. All this gear was brand new (bring your own screwdriver to fit the footstraps!). Better still, the hired gear was available 5 days before the HIHO. Just turn up & collect!

Joy & I decided that it was stupid to travel all the way to the Caribbean just for a week, so we decided that we'd go a week early and just take it easy. Unfortunately, I was unable to book the flight back right after the HIHO which meant we had to wind down with a couple of days on Antigua (shame). The most direct route we found was Gatwick to Antigua with (allegedly) the world's favourite airline (hmm), then Antigua to Tortola, BVI with LIAT flying flea cans (LIAT = Late In at All Times). Almost all other routes seemed to go via the US & Puerto Rico. It's about 7 1/2 - 8 hour flight to Antigua, and then 50 mins Antigua to BVI.

For the first 4 days, I'd booked us into a guest house in Trellis Bay, Beef Island, Tortola - about 5 mins from the airport. It would have been longer but they couldn't fit us in on the Saturday. I'm really glad we arrived early - the heat & humidity took some getting used to. I never saw a thermometer the whole time we were there, but my guess would be around 32 degrees with 95% humidity during the day, rising to 100% during and after the showers, although these mostly seemed to occur at night.

The good news was that the rented windsurfing gear was available for collection the day after we arrived, from the container "parked" by Village Cay, Road Town - about a 20 min. taxi ride from Beef Island - allowing a good 5 days to get used to it.

Beef Island Guest House - where we were staying - was literally right on the beach - ideal for launching from. Although we were on the ground (and only) floor, there were no curtains (anything that impeded air flow through the windows is discouraged), no lock for the door (totally unnecessary - no crime of any sort) and frequently, no electricity. What we did have was really friendly hosts, and the run of the place, free use of telephones and email. There are a mere 12 strides from the door to the water's edge, coconut palms for shade & hammocks, and a large, sheltered garden for storing windsurfing gear.

Sailing around Trellis Bay was brilliant; the gusty wind, moored boats, and small island (housing The Last Resort restaurant) providing a challenge. At first, I was slightly intimidated by the wind - it seemed a lot stronger than I'd been expecting, with whitecaps all over the sea. The first itme I went out, I rigged the 7.0 V8 thinking I was going to get my arms stretched. In fact, I was totally underpowered. There seems to be a strange phenomenon with hot places - despite the apparent effect of the wind on the sea, trees, etc, the effect on a sail is less than it is back home when observing a similar sea state. I've noticed this in the Canaries, in Egypt, and now in the Caribbean. If anyone has an explanation for this apparent soft wind, please let me know. This was to be the only time I was to use the 7.0m.

Rigging the 8.5m, I was able to get out and get planing with no trouble at all. Much sailing around Trellis Bay, over to Marina Cay, down to Long Bay, was done over the next several days, occasionally meeting other people out on identical gear - also early arrivals for the HIHO. This 5 days or so was great for getting used to the board, sails, wind (always very gusty) and sea states. The 46cm skeg only lost a couple of mm during this time!

The sea is absolutley crystal clear, and varies in colour from turquoise, through green to deeper blue. It's a perfect snorkler's paradise. We'd taken our masks & snorkels with us & saw fish in colours we'd never imagined. We also face to face with a number of barracuda on many occasions - not a comforting sight. Usually, they backed off when you approached. Just one time, Joy came close to one that didn't - it bared it's teeth at her and stood its ground (or water). However, because the water is so clear, it's almost impossible to judge depth - everything looks so close. When winsdsurfing, I found I started to get used to judging the depth pretty well, but did make a couple of spectacular errors, resulting in rapid deceleration and dismounts!

I'd heard stories of "needle" fish a number of times on the rec.windsurfing newsgroup. These are several species of needle-nosed fish like the garfish. They have a kind of pointed beak and are around 10-15cm long. These fish live their lives quite peacfully, but do have a tendency to shoot straight out of the water when startled. I guess a 283 Techno crashing along at some 15 knots is grounds for being startled. I've heard stories about these things embedding themselves deep into the calves & thighs of passing windsurfers. Bad news for the fish, and very bad news for the impaled sailor. One day, one of these things shot out of the sea beside me, flew about 4 metres alongside before disappearing with scarcely a ripple. An encounter too close for my likings. Other marine encounters included flying fish and sea turtles.

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The HIHO

Itinerary:

click for large image

July 2, Sun - Board cats in Village Cay Marina, Road Town. Sail to Bitter End Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda for evening meal & party.

Jul 3, Mon - Races 1 & 2 in Eustatia Sound - between Virgin Gorda, Eustatia Is, Prickly Pear Is & Necker Is. Evening meal & party & Bitter End Yacht Club

Jul 4, Tue - Race 3 from Eustatia Sound to Anegada - 14 nautical miles in 45mins! Sail back on cats to Prickly Pear Is. Evening meal & party at Vixen Point.

Jul 5, Wed - Race from Vixen Point to The Baths (cancelled through lack of wind). Cats sailed round to The Baths for lunch & afternoon snorkelling/relaxation. Sailed cats to Marina Cay, Tortola for dinner/party.

Jul 6, Thur - Proposed race - Marina Cay to Peter Is (cancelled due to light wind). Windsurfed or sailed down to Long Bay for lunch. Afternoon Yacht/Cat race from Long Bay to Norman Island. Dinner & pirate fancy dress party at Billy Bones.

Jul 7, Fri - Race 4 - Norman Is to Little Thatch Is. Then board cats for White Bay, Jost van Dyke Is. for lunch. Sail round to Great Harbour for dinner/party at Foxy's.

Jul 8, Sat - Sail round to Sandy Cay for races 5 & 6 - both (large) circumnavigations of Sandy Cay. Return on cats to Village Cay, Road Town for dinner & prizegiving.

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Day 1:

On Sun 2nd July, bumped into Jeremy Diamond who'd arrived the previous day. This was the day we boarded the cats in Road Town, met the others who formed our "crew", lashed all the gear (inventory list - 5 * 283 Techno's, 1 * 310 Vivace, 6 booms, 12 sails....) down to the netting for'ard - between the two hulls, & set sail for The Bitter End Yacht club, Virgin Gorda. This was 2 1/2 hours upwind in 8 - 10 foot swells, and boy - do those cats pitch and roll! Slightly sea-sick, we moored up in North Sound, ate & partied at the Bitter End YC, and spent our first night on board.

For those of you who think this was a holiday, breakfast was at 07:30, and skippers meeting at 08:30 with first race starting at 10:30 or 11:00!! This was the pattern for the whole week.

First race was held in Eustatia Sound - a farily gruelling course with the gybe mark about 1 1/2 miles out by Necker Island (Richard Branson's private property). This entailed crossing a reef with only 2 narrow crossing points; each about 10 feet wide. The upwind gap was for going out, the downwind one on the return leg. They had marked the upwind end of these gaps for guidance. The locals, of course, knew better & were thus able to shave a few more feet off the course! This race was a simple 2 lap elongated traingle with a short (3/4 mile) upwind beat and the two long reaches in mostly steady planing conditions & 6 - 10 foot swell outside the reef. I came in 40 out of 76. About where I expected to be. Afternoon race was the same course as the morning's, but in slightly more wind - now almost maxed out with the 8.5m V8. This time I managed to drop my rig at the gybe mark and spend a good 5 mins trying to recover. 8.5m sails with wide luff tubes, force 4-5 winds and large swells make waterstarting impossible, & uphauling immensly difficult & energy sapping. I finished 49th in the 2'nd race giving me 45th place after 2 races.

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Day 2:

Next day was the day of the Anegada crossing: Anegada is a coral island, about 14 nautical miles NNW of Virgin Gorda. Being a coral island (unlike the rest of the BVI which is volcanic in origin), it's highest point is 28 feet above sea level. What this means is that Anegada can't be seen from sea level until you're within about 5 miles when the palm trees just about become visible if you know where to look and what to look for. At the skippers briefing, the organisers were really negative about the conditions, saying the wind was pretty light, visibility hazy and swells large. This was an attempt to dissuade the less competent from taking part ('cos there's not really much in the way of safety cover). I was very nearly put off myself, but in the end decided I had to push myself to it. Anegada is also completely surrounded by reefs and consequently has the greatest density of shipwrecks in the Caribbean. There's only one way in, & that's over towards the W of the island.

This turned out to be the best (easiest!) race for me: A broad reach - around 100-110 degrees off the wind, maxed-out most of the way. Just imagine surfing down 10 foot swell faces on a Techno with 8.5m sail. Concentration was absolute: Taking your eye off the sea or your mind off the overall conditions for one second could lead to disaster. A couple of times I felt the board's rail catch on a wave and came very close to being doomed. As it was, I managed to hold on, passing a number of other sailors on the way after my standard (poor) start. It's really exciting sailing over that sort of distance, because you get into a number of "personal battles" with other sailors. There was one particular Aussie sailor who I'd been creeping up on for about 10 mins and could get past him. Eventually, I managed to slide 100m upwind and crept in front - Yeahhh!.

After about 20 mins, both my wrists and my back foot were completely numb, but taking them off the boom/board to shake them was inviting disaster. Occasionally, I managed to give my back hand a quick shake, but mostly, I just had to grimace & bear it. After about 35 mins, I noticed palm trees through the haze on the horizon. I also noticed the line of sailors in front of me had borne away further downwind now there was a landmark. Dammit! Despite sailing what felt a very broad course, I now had to bear away further - probably 140 degrees off the wind. The last mile, the water flattened once over the reef, the wind picked up to what felt like a good force 5, & the poor Techno was at terminal velocity. All that extra wind was doing was making it harder for me, & making the sail twist off (even) more. Just landing isn't enough - you have to run up the beach & touch "the flag" to get your finish. Easier said that done when one foot & ankle are totally lifeless! What a blast. Managed 30th place, giving me 34th overall and 2nd Grand Master (old git - over 45!)

Lunch was on the beach of this amazing, flat, barren, bleached island - the only shade being the two makeshift tents put up to cover the drinks dispensary. 200 people didn't quite fit under these, but it was a brave attempt. Make no mistake - the sun is searingly hot. I used waterproof factor 25 sun cream the whole 2 weeks I was out there. Whilst I avoided any serious sunburn, I was decidedly red on a couple of occasions, and managed to burn the tip of an ear where I must have missed with the cream one afternoon.

The cats sailed us back to Prickly Pear Island, Virgin Gorda. "The crew" had a good happy hour or two on board the cat, consigning large amounts of beer, rum & assorted mixers to the afterlife. Evening dinner & partying on the beach at Vixen Point. In bed by 22:00!

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Days 3 & 4:

The next two days saw frustratingly light winds - enough for starts to be organised, but the races were inevitably cancelled, often - in my case - after spending a good 35 mins beating up to the alleged start line. The races missed were on day 3 - from The Bitter End to The Baths, down on VG's SW point, and on day 4 - Marina Cay to Peter Island.

I tried sailing part of the way down to The Baths but gave up in disgust when I noticed our cat (Victoria) at the jetty half way along the course filling up with water. We motored the rest of the way there.

The Baths is one of a series of small bays where the landscape is littered by enormous boulders, anything up to 50 feet across. These litter both the land & the waters edge & provide tremendous snorkelling. I've really never seen such an amazing variety of tropical fish - from 2cm tiddlers up to 1m big ba*^$%ds, and live corals. The main problem with The Baths is the heat: Being on the lee shore, it suffers from a total absence of cooling breeze. The only place to keep cool is in the sea. & that's not very cool at all! In the afternoon, we sailed over to Marina Cay, back by Tortola, spent the usual hour or two happy hour on board before food & partying at Pusser's.

The day 4 race was shortened to Marina Cay to Long Bay & then cancelled. Trouble was, I didn't realise the race had been cancelled & thought I'd missed the start again. Certainly the commitee boat wasn't flying the abandonment flag when it left postion & headed off downwind. So there I was racing in utterly light winds, utterly horrible swell, dead downwind & depressed because I couldn't see the other racers- I presumed they were so far ahead of me. Eventually struggling ashore, I gave the organisers a hard time - first of all for having such a badly organised start and then, on learning it hadn't actually been a race, for not giving clear notice of cancellation! Dinner was provided on the beach again at Long Bay, having made the switch from having it sent to Peter Island.

A word must be said about the catering - generally it was excellent, especially considering it was always brought in by boat to a remote beach.

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On day 4...

...in the afternoon was the grand yacht race! If the boards couldn't do it, the cats were going to. The race was from Marina Cay to Norman Island (alledgedly the setting for Treasure Island). The boats were allowed to motor up to the start gun & sail from then on. Needless to say there were some skippers who didn't fully enter into the spirit of this & kept motoring for a good couple of minutes after the start. It was this race that really set Hans - our skipper - apart from the rest. His start tactics were impeccable - seeing a gap on the start line, he made a bee-line for on port, hit the line, tacked onto starboard & killed the engine right on the gun, giving us prime postion at the committee boat end of the start line. Most impressive. Even more impressive were his race tactics & sailing skills, whilst remaining totally calm throughout. Needless to say, we won, despite the Mexicans' cheating by using their windsurfing rigs as well as their cat's sails! Dinner & partying this time were at Billy Bones, with a slight change - a pirate fancy dress party.

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Day 5...

...and the prospect of some wind! Alas, it was not to be. This time from a mile or so offshore from Norman Island to Little Thatch Island, with a one mark just off the S coast of Tortola, another just off the N coast of St Johns (USVI), and finish in the channel between Little Thatch & Frenchman's Cay - another marathon.

With unerring precision, the wind dropped to sub-planing strength right on the start signal. What followed was over 2 hours of dead downwind sailing in large swells, with the course so spread out, I had no-one to follow & no clear idea where the marks were. Again, I had a strong feeling I was very near the back of the fleet (I always do exceptionally badly in light winds) and, had there been adequate safety cover, would probably have given up. However, with no-one to pick me up, I had to keep going.

At one point, just off a small rocky bay on St John's, I spied a HIHO sailor sitting on his board. I sailed over to him to see if he was ok. In a word, he was just really tired, had dropped his rig, & was struggling to get going again saying he'd not really sorted uphauling these big sails yet. As it happened his board had just turned into a perfect uphauling position - of which I advised him. He promptly uphauled & sailed off, shouting his thanks, leaving me to jump back on my board and do the same. Needless to say, he finished some way ahead of myself!

About 20 mins after this, coming into the narrowing channel between Little Thatch & St John's, the wind began at last to pick up & turned the last couple of miles into a series of blasting broad reaches to the finish. Of the finish itself; all I could see was the committee boat, so I guessed I'd take the easy route & go downwind of it towards where I could see our cat was anchored. As I passed, there were various yells to the effect that I had to pass the other (upwind) side of the committee boat to get a finish. Oh bugger! This now meant turning round, sailing a good 400 yards upwind, tacking, and then beating back upwind of the boat. Only now was I able to see the tiny orange marker about 100 yards upwind of the boat marking the other end of the finish line. The interesting thing was, I didn't lose a single place in re-crossing the line! .. and no, I wasn't last!

After packing the gear onto the cat, we motored on to White Bay, on Jost van Dyke Island - another paradise beach - where a late lunch was waiting for us. Then back on the boats, & motored round to Great Harbour, Jost van Dyke, for dinner and partying at Foxy's. Apparently, for the New Year 2000 party, some 10000 people crowded into Great Harbour in general and Foxy's in particular. I felt we filled the place with just 200 people! As the yacht was running low on vital stocks like beer, it was a good opportunity to stock up at the local store.

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Day 6

The last day's sailing. Jeremy Diamond had to leave early to get back for work, missing a windy day!

After breakfast, we sailed a couple of miles from Great Harbour, round to Sandy Cay. Sandy Cay is a 300m diameter desert island, complete with palm trees in the middle and a coral reef. The diagram drawn for the skipper's meeting seemed to suggest a fairly small course with Sandy Cay at the centre. It was actually a 1 mile beat, followed by a 2 mile dead downwind stretch, then round the leeward side of the island back to the start (another 1 1/2 miles) on a course that started broad & became a beat. Two laps. Whilst there was wind, there was either far too much, or not enough. By my reckoning, it was going between force 2 & force 5. I was doing ok up the beat until I dropped the rig at the upwind mark & that was the beginning of the end. Thereafter, I seemed to drop the rig on every transition, and by the time I got down to the downwind mark, it had blown away from it's anchor point, and had drifted behind a small coral point off Green Cay where it was practically impossible to round. In a foul temper by this time, I decided I'd had enough. In retrospect, I should have carried on, but we're all wise with hindsight. However, I wasn't alone - according to the results sheet, around 26 other sailors either didn't start or didn't finish either, so I was in good company.

A brilliant buffet lunch was again brought to the island, followed by the last race. Same course as the morning's, but with the downwind mark re-secured and only one lap. The wind had, if anything become gustier, peaking at around force 6 in some of the stronger gusts which would last 30 seconds or so. It has to be a testament to the wind range and stability of the V8's that I didn't get flung off continually - Some people were still on 9.5m sails! I'd also have to say that the Techno was well behaved considering the extreme conditions for it. It didn't seem to tail walk in the gusts, despite the 46cm fin. I was doing ok in this race until I was 1/2 way up the last beat when the wind switched off - & I mean completely. Just over half of the fleet were already back - just my luck to be one of the tail-enders again! What should have been 5 minutes back to the finish became almost 1 hour of pumping & slogging against a current that was pushing me (& the other) backwards. Oh, sheer joy! I eventually finished 40th out of 48 - could do better!

And that was it! With the racing done, Hans was panicking about getting packed up & back to Road Town to ensure we got a berth. He was upping anchor & motoring off before any of the gear was securely stashed. Trying to tie down 6 boards & all the rest of the gear on the netting of a cat that's pitching 8-10 feet is great fun!

All that remained was the final dinner and the awards ceremony back at Village Cay. Yours truly ended up 43rd out of 85 overall, and 5th Grand Master out of 17 which was enough to win a framed plaque.

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What we enjoyed:

  • The people. Both the locals - who were mostly happy, smiling people who could share a joke - and the sailors - who were a mix of nationalities; predominantly US & Caribbean Islanders with a couple of French (including Baron Antoine BiC & his wife), Germans, UK, S Africans, Japanese & Australians. The range of abilities was also very wide with professional racers like Eli Fuller from Antigua (who didn't win overall due to breaking his boom in one race & not having a replacement available until the 3rd race), Andy Brandt from US, Rusty Henderson from the BVI and Mariel Devesa from the US.

  • The sailing on the cats

  • The food (although it did get a bit samey after a while - I guess there are only so many variations on what you can do with a buffet!)

  • Being in such a beautiful location - in particular White Beach, Jost van Dyke; The Baths, Virgin Gorda; Long Bay and Trellis Bay, Beef Island

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What I/we didn't enjoy so much:

  • Always rushing around - the itinerary was too full for my mind. You never really got a chance to see a place before you had to pack up & head off somewhere else.

  • The partying every night - perhaps churlish of me since I'm sure most folk really enjoyed it. But both Joy & I would have preferred a couple of "quiet" nights.

  • The racing - reminded me of all the reasons I stopped racing some 3 or 4 years ago: The light, shifty winds, downwind courses in fairly big seas, ridiculously long courses. Again, perhaps this is a measure of my lack of expertise and competitive spirit. I'd incorrectly assumed that the racing would all be pretty laid back & easy.

  • The cruising class racing was misrepresented and mis-sold to Joy: She was led to believe that if she could sail a couple of hundred yards, round a mark & sail back, that was all that was needed. In fact, some of the cruising class races were almost as gruelling as the race class. You needed to be a pretty proficient sailor just to do cruising class.

  • The humidity. Very hot (30 - 35 degrees) and very humid (90 - 95%). I'm glad we arrived early to give us time to acclimatise. You do eventually get used to it, but you have to do everything more slowly (in a sort of Caribbean, laid-back way).

  • The cost! Ok, fact of life. The Caribbean is EXPENSIVE - particularly with only $1.45 to the UK pound!

Will we do the HIHO again? Probably not, although I'm sure all the negatives will wane over time leaving just good memories. I'll probably be hankering to go there again next year!

Link to photos and results of the event

martin farrimond

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