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hiho2000 - a further perspective

Seeing Martin's report in last months news letter has stirred me into action - having previously promised a paragraph or two to complement Martin's more prosaic stuff.

Like Martin, I too have been aware of HiHo as the worlds premier long-distance regatta - something we could all aspire to but probably never attend.  It all changed for me in 1993, after seeing the race on Sky sports. At that time the event was temporarily a part of the PBA World Tour with big name professionals competing for money. Less than half the fleet was armature and the whole event went under the banner of the Blue Marlin (the Johnny Walker HiHo having officially folded when Johnny Walker pulled their sponsorship.

My first event was a weird and wonderful experience. I was teamed up on a boat with a bunch of US based middle rank pros plus Eli Fuller from Antigua, who has since come to dominate HiHo. That year I "raced" against Dunkerbeck, Josh Angulo, Robert Teritehau, Pascal Maka, Finian Maynard, Natalie Simon... The list goes on.  For a young sailor used to Division I racing at Axbridge it all was rather surreal.

However, I got the HiHo bug and spent a number of years trying to find a reason to go again.  That reason eventually came after Andy Morrell took over the race and re-instituted the HiHo logo.  I managed to get included as nominal HiHo doctor (not withstanding the fact that there are usually half-a-dozen doctors on any yacht in the British Virgin Islands).  It was enough for me though - a ticket to compete each year.

So HiHo 2000 was my fourth event.  Each year is different for a range of reasons.  This year was the first race on Bics (Antoine Bic plus Channel wife were there to keep an eye on their kit).  A strict one-class rule meant that the pros too had to leave their 5 kg customs at home and use the standard kit (albeit with near-10 meter sails).  Now we could no longer blame our boards for being left for dead....  The fleet was bigger than ever this year with nearly 30 boats and about 250 people (only half of whom race - the rest having a great cruising vacation).  The size of this year"s race made for slow catering, with the first race of each day being to get into the bacon queue.  The course varies a little each year too.  Andy is a naturalised Virgin Islander who knows the islands intimately, often gaining access to islands and beaches out-of-bounds to regular yachties.  Having more venues than day"s means he can shift the route, giving HiHo regulars (the number of returnees goes up each year - I would guess that about half the fleet has been before - as good a recommendation as you can get) plenty of variety.

2000 was no vintage year for wind - an honour going to 1999.  Each year competitors have had a choice of ever-larger rental sails.  This year most punters used up to 8.5 meter Supersonics but could probably have handled more on one or two days.  I had 8.5 and 7.5, using the smaller sail for the longest races (my excuse being total lack of race training).  Winds in the BVI are more regular than any European venue.  The blow from the same direction plus/minus 5-10 degrees, day and night.  Wind strengths tend to be between 10-15 knots, though last year we were told of a 29 knot gust during the Anegada Crossing.  In general, the combination of warm water and air plus steady winds makes for perfect cruising conditions.

This year's racing offered the usual mix of front-of-fleet pros, mid-fleet keen amateurs (mostly competent but inexperienced at racing) and back-of-fleet folk, ambitious to have a go.  With the exception of Anegada, the whole race is run between islands in waters which are generally entirely enclosed by islands.  It"s rare to be more than a couple of miles from land.  Moreover, there are so many yachts around that getting picked-up (gear breakage, hangover etc) is never a problem.  This meant that it is never intimidating, even if the day"s race is 20 miles or more.

The only exception is the race to Anegada.  This race is a 14-mile broad reach from Virgin Gorda to Anegada, leaving the Caribbean and heading out into the Atlantic.  Miss Anegada and the next land is Gran Canaria.  Anegada is such a low lying island that it lies below the horizon for the first 7 miles or so.  This makes for the most exhilarating (read frightening.) reach you will ever do.  This year I got a great start and got out into the channel in the top half of the fleet.  The conditions were a little hazy this year, so not only did Anegada remain resolutely invisible, but Virgin Gorda eventually disappeared as well.  In mid channel we had a good 15 knots and we hopped off wave crests in a kind-of mass drag race.  Martin screamed past on his 8.5 in deep concentration to a cry of ".....so this is what I call an away-day..."  After 20 minutes or so the water turns aquamarine as the depth drops, giving the only clue that there is any land ahead.  Soon afterwards the first palm trees become visible on the horizon and the fleet begins to relax.  Racers eventually scream up to the beach for a sprint finish to complete what must be the ultimate single days windsurfing to be had....  Anyone who"s seen the adrenalin-soaked gushing of those who"ve just hit the beach on Sky Sports will get a hint at the natural high achieved by this race. I"m now wondering how many I can clock-up before retiring.

On that subject, the age-range of HiHo racers runs from early teens to 60"s, with an average somewhere late 30"s. The reasons for the bias towards experience will be seen when the cost of competing is considered. On that note - Martin"s already commented on outlay. All I would say is that the HiHo includes a week on a 40-plus foot catamaran with captain, full board (often including meals served-up on deserted beaches miles from the nearest kitchen) plus all the parties any mortal can hope to cope with in one week.

As the week unfolds, the competitors get into groups based upon yacht crews more than nationality, making for new friendships.  My own crew was made up with a bunch of blokes who make their crust on Wall Street and for whom all was "awesome". Great fun....

Most of the races happen in the morning, leaving afternoons free for moving the yachts to the venue for the evening party (which is also the start of the next days race).  There is usually time for other activity (sleep/beer for most). A few people brought kites along, giving exhibitions most days. I guess someone will try to get to Anegada on one next year....

So, as long as I can go on getting an excuse to call HiHo "work" (and am able to get to Anegada without a keel), I hope to make the annual pilgrimage to the BVI.

Jeremy Diamond

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