Story and Photos by David H. Lyman
I was in English Harbour covering last year’s Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and Antigua Sailing Week, the last two events on the Caribbean sailing calendar. It was here in this historic harbor town I had a glimpse into the future. A fleet of Optimist dinghies were tacking, jibing, running, sailing in and around the anchored yachts. Each small boat, no larger than a bathtub, holding a single kid, PFD on, one hand on the tiller, the other on the mainsheet. I couldn’t keep my eyes off them. I was concerned, watching those boats come close to swamping each time a kid snap-tacked or jibed, anticipating that at any moment one was going to T-bone a million-dollar anchored yacht. I needn’t have worried. No one came to grief in the water that day, and if they had, a Boston Whaler with a couple of older kids was handy-by for the rescue.
As I watched, it was clear that the future was not the innovative go-fast hulls or black carbon sails; it was the kids running up and down the docks. Never walking, always running. Their smiling faces, I was glad to see, came in many colors. The future of sailing on oceans is these kids, and Antigua is doing its part to get them involved, trained and out there. Not only knowledgeable of race rules and tactics, but skilled at sail trim, boat handling, seamanship, crew positions and the adventure that awaits those who go to sea on a sailboat.
It was the beginning of Sailing Week, and the place was buzzing. On my first morning walk along the docks, I paused to watched three teenagers, in matching red T-shirts, rig a Melges 24 racing sled named Whiplash. The kids appeared to know what they were doing, preparing for the day’s race. I learned their names and ages later: Emily (Emma) Gaillard 15, Ozani Lafond 17, and Luca Deleau 17. (Editor’s note: Gaillard made sailing history in February 2023 as the youngest person on record to compete in the Caribbean RORC 600 as crew aboard Spirit of Juno, a Farr 65.)
Three older crew men, in the same red shirts, were sitting on an adjacent yacht, watching, chatting. I’ve been on these islands for 20 sailing seasons, and still can’t understand a word of what they were talking about, so as I drew closer, I asked them, “What language is that? Creole? Patois? Greek?”
“We speak English. We just speak it fast,” came the reply, the three laughing at my bewilderment. Now, I have no problem carrying on a conversation with the teens and young kids on the docks. They all speak perfect, understandable English, but when they turn 20, all that school-taught English goes out the window, replaced by the local dialect, spoken in various forms, on all the former English islands. It’s not unpleasant to listen to. It’s actually quite musical and seems to always to be accompanied by laughter. But it’s unintelligible to me.
I can carry on a normal conversation with any West Indian if they switch back to their delightfully lilting, up and down, English. It’s just when they are conversing among themselves that I’m at a loss. Is it code they speak between themselves, so to confuse us off-islanders?
That afternoon, when the boats arrived back at the docks, crews exhausted, excited, the adrenaline was still pumping, I got to chatting with Ashley Rhodes, owner/skipper of Whiplash. He usually converses in that West Indian dialect I can’t understand, but in perfect Antigua English, he told me he’d been like Emma and her friends when he was a kid—a product of English Harbour.
Ashley learned to sail and handle boats many years ago from Karl James and his staff, Karen and Jack, at the Antigua Yacht Club. Along with those lessons came a desire to see the world, from the deck of those larger yachts he saw sailing into his harbor each year. He went sailing and in the 1990s landed in, of all places, Camden, Maine. This small town, on the edge of Penobscot Bay on the coast, is one of yachting’s major centers. There, at the Wayfarer Boat Yard, Ashley learned the rigger’s trade during summers, working his way up to head rigger. He’s back home in Antigua now, and for the past 18 years, has been running his own rigging shop, A&A Rigging and Yacht Services, in English Harbour.
Later in the week I spoke with Emma, the only girl on Whiplash’s crew. I asked what she was planning to do after high school, college or sailing.
“Sailing!” she replied. I got the same answer when I ask her two teenage male mates.
Other Antiguans who have learned to sail in this harbor are now professional sailors, racers, riggers, sail makers and yacht captains, in ports all around the world. As for Antigua’s economy, this small island has little to export, except its sailors. They sail the world, sending home money. When they return to raise a family, they bring with them knowledge of the wider world. They build and invest in businesses to service the international marine trade that arrives each fall. They buy their own racing sailboat and join in when the world of sailboat racing comes to their own harbor. Ashley has owned and raced Whiplash for six years. It’s just a way of life here in this harbor town.
With Whiplash put to bed for the night, Ashley and his crew joined the 600 other sailors on the yacht club lawn for the prize giving, honors and a party. Ashley’s three teen crew joined other island kids off other boats to share the excitement of their respective race.
How do kids like these get into this rich man’s sport? I went to find out.
First stop next morning was the yacht club. There’s been a sail training program here for kids ages six to 25 for three decades. Turns out that Karl James has managed the dinghy sailing program here for most of those 30 years.
“I grew up in this harbor,” he tells me. “I whittled small boats from scrap lumber. When I was just 12, I began hanging around the docks. Someone asked if I want to go sailing. I did, and I worked up there. In my teens, I was working at a hotel here on the island. Dennis O’Connor, a guest, heard I was a passionate sailor and gave me a Laser.”
James began winning races all throughout the West Indies. He’s a two-time Olympian in the Laser Class and has competed internationally in over 75 countries. He’s been a professional helmsman and a racing crew member on famous racing yachts. In 2019, James was honored by the Queen of England with the OBE, Order of the British Empire, for “services to sailing and national development.”
“We have 20 Optimist dinghies here,” James told me. “We use these to get the younger kids started. They learn nomenclature, how to rig and care for their boats. They learn how the wind moves their boat and how to control it.” James has a team of young instructors under him, and the support of the community. The club also has a fleet of Lasers for serious team race training, and Sport 16 and 26es for serious fun.
The Club plays host to four of the Caribbean major sailing events, the RORC Caribbean 600, The Super Yacht Challenge (not an AYC event), Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and Antigua Sailing Week (and in 2023 the return of the Antigua to Bermuda Race). In season, the docks in front of the yacht club are packed with mega yachts, ocean racers, world famous classic, wooden gold platers. The kids are just accepted as part of the scene. James has managed to get many of them crewing on the boats that come to race.
I was still curious about all these kids running about the docks, so sat down one afternoon for a chat with Alison Sly-Adams, president of Antigua Sailing Week. Got something you want done? Give it to a busy person. They’ll get it done, so goes the saying. Sly-Adams is just that person. She’s a bundle of energy. She runs Mainstay Caribbean, a marketing and management company specializing in yachting businesses. She has her hand in most anything sailing here in Antigua. She’s the general manager at the National Sailing Academy. An expat Brit, she’s past president of the Caribbean Sailing Association, and handled secretariat matters for the Antigua and Barbuda Marine Association. I was fortunate she had time for a chat.
“The National Sailing Academy was Elizabeth Jordan’s idea,” she told me. “Elizabeth was the commodore of Antigua Yacht Club and saw the need for all the island’s youth to learn to sail, not just the youth of yacht club members. She found the money — she’s good at that — and The National Sailing Academy opened to all Antiguan youth in 2010.”
As Sly-Adams told me, for the first four years, the academy operated out of the Antigua Yacht Club. In February 2014, they moved the program to its own site just down from the Falmouth Marina on Dockyard Drive. For the eight years that Jordan was commodore of the yacht club, she was also president of the academy, and still is. Sly-Adams now runs the show as the general manager. “Elizabeth is a dynamic woman,” Sly-Adams told me. “She raised the funds to get the program started and keep it going. She got the large yachts that spend the winter here to contribute to building what is now a watersports and marine compound over there.” She pointed toward the inner harbor. The academy has over 250 sailors, or soon-to-be sailors, involved in numerous programs to get Antiguans out in the water.
Later, I went to explore the academy campus. On a couple of acres, Jordan and Sly-Adams have put together a modest yacht club, with two floating docks, a great West Indian restaurant, a dive shop, launching ramp, an Airbnb, offices, parking lot and work sheds. Hauled out on the ground were a few dozen sailing dinghies of various sizes, just waiting for the afternoon deluge of young sailors to arrive.
“The academy’s mission,” Sly-Adams told me, “is to change the lives of the island’s youth and adults by introducing them to sailing, not just as a sport or leisure option but also as a career. The after-school program is now open free to all Antigua school kids, but,” she added, “at this point we get a small utility subsidy but no financial support from the school system.”
I found that strange. Antigua schools support cricket, football, other athletic sports. Why not sailing? Sailing is the one sport on this sailing island that gives Antigua’s kids an open door to the world. Antigua has already sent off its sailors to the Olympics, to crew on and drive yachts around the world.
“The schools do not even provide bus service for the afternoon classes,” said Sly-Adams. “We do that. We have our own busses.” But it was the “Sailability Programme” she was most proud of. It’s a sailing program for the differently-abled children and adults of Antigua, designed to “get them out on the water, in a small boat, feeling the motion, some for a joy ride, others developing the skills they have within their abilities.” With people like Sly-Adams, Jordan, James and others, and the support from financial benefactors far and wide, the kids of Antigua have a chance of going to sea to see the world
With the excitement of Sailing Week stuffed in my notebook, I walked over to Pigeon Beach for a swim one afternoon. At the top of the hill there’s a splendid view of Falmouth Bay and the yacht club dock lined with the mega-yachts. I stopped to watch the kids in their fleet of toy boats navigate back to the yacht club wharf. As they tacked back and forth, within inches of the gleaming hulls of those 200-foot mega-yachts, I was more nervous than any of those kids. I also thought those kids were having a helluva lot more fun than the owners in their floating hotels. At ten years old, they were out there, on the water. They had freedom, their hand on the tiller of their future. They were coming to understand the value of working with nature, not fighting it, of acquiring skills and knowledge and setting your own course in life. Give kids a few skills, introduce them at an early age to a world of sailboats (not power boats, sailboats!) and they will be sailors for life. My kids, now in their twenties, are both out there now working on the water in professional careers, one in the Merchant Marine, the other as a yacht designer.
David H. Lyman is an author, writer, and maritime journalist. He’s been sailing to and though in the Caribbean for 20 seasons from his home in Maine. Find more of his writing and photography at DHLyman.com.
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