The Salt Behind St. Maarten’s 12 Metre Challenge; Colin Percy
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Telling stories about sailing and the sea is a tradition as old as exploration. When you find a salty soul who has been sailing the seas for decades and doing so on some of the best boats ever made, it’s time to grab a glass of rum and settle in for an escape.
That’s the feeling I got when I first heard about a sailor named Colin Percy.
Adventure and sailing runs through the veins of Colin. And if you would like to experience some of that you can read my interview with him below or jump on one of his historic 12Metre America’s Cup yachts in St. Maarten and go racing!
An Interview with Colin Percy, owner of 12Metre Challenge of St. Maarten
1. I know that sailing and being on the water gets in your blood, it’s like an addiction with no cure. How old were you when you when you knew that you wanted to sail and explore the seas and what was that defining moment?
Ryan, you are so right about sailing getting into the blood. With me it happened a long long time ago when I was very young. The family had moved to Montreal, and in due course were introduced to the yacht club, where a friend had a thirty something foot keel boat.
I was nine years old..and was totally captivated by how this wonderful craft came alive and glided through the water, climbing the wind seemingly, effortlessly. It was a whole new thrill and I was hooked.
One day, while I was waiting for the grown ups to return from racing, scouting around the boatyard, I spied an apparently abandoned dinghy. It was a scaled down version of a Y Flyer, a very quick scow of the day. It didn’t take much persuasion; the yacht club was delighted to have some one do something with it. My father was pleased that I had a project about which I was highly enthused. My mother saw it as a control mechanism to keep me in line; and I was totally thrilled.
Later, when we returned to England, Minneyy was donated and left behind. And that, Ryan, is how it all began!
2. Tell me a little about 12Metre and the beautiful boats you have.
Here, I think you are asking me about our little venture and not what is a 12. But just in case, I will answer both.
Back in the 80s, I was living just outside Toronto, two minutes from the Oakville Yacht Squadron on Lake Ontario; well into sailing; part of a racing crew and a keen sailor of my own cruising boat. But I was running four growing companies and they were taking their toll on my health and I was just not getting any quality time on my boat. When my doctor very effectively persuaded me I had to have a complete change: not wanting to become a statistic and leaving a wealthy widow ! , I extricated myself from my Canadian business ventures and moved to St. Maarten to run the other business venture, a small charter boat fleet of Nonsuch’s.
May 1989.. Antigua Race week, a bunch of us with four of the Nonsuch’s…..one of the gang suggested that as I had always had a love for America’s Cup 12s, why didn’t I buy one and take guests for a ride down the coast and back. You won’t make any money, but you’ll live longer ! My response; that if you bought two, you could race them….one yacht Club against another. And so the seed was planted. On my return to Canada at the end of the week I was interested to learn that the Canadian 12s were to be sold, as the caretaker had just had a stroke. It didn’t hurt that the chairman of the Canadian Americas cup challenge was one of the original Nonsuch owners! By late October of that year we had successfully negotiated the purchase of the combined syndicates of Canada ll and True North, along with 5 containers of spares, workshops, tooling and sails. We had formed a company in St. Maarten, created the necessary infrastructure and set up a base of operations. That week, the boats and containers were loaded onto a ship and set sail to St. Maarten, to begin a life that they were designed for… to race.
Our primary program offers guests visiting St. Maarten the opportunity to experience the thrill of actually racing on a genuine America’s Cup race boat. Not just sitting there like a bunch of puddings, but being involved in working the boat.
As we say in our introduction. “This is no sit down air-conditioned cruise. This is a get up and go for it race and you are all going to be involved. Each one of you will have a job on the boat today and the way you perform that task can very well determine the outcome of the race.”
Typically we will have a group of approximately 30 guests whom we will divide into two teams and brief them about what is going to happen. Then, we load the guests on to a tender and take them out to the race boats. On the way, we offer each guest a task, bearing in mind the wind conditions and their apparent fitness level.
Once loaded onto the race boats, our guests are then coached in the singular task they are to perform and the commands they will hear. Then we raise the sails, slip the moorings….and head out of the bay. It is practice time on the way down to the start of a shortened America’s Cup course.
We gybe and we tack. We power up the boat as it heads to wind and yes the adrenaline is flowing! And here comes the paparazzi! Our photo boat is there to record for posterity that very special moment when “Bill and Sue” competed in their own “America’s Cup Challenge”.
Just as in the America’s Cup, our race begins with pre- start maneuvers. At the horn, for the next six minutes, the boats dance their pas de deux, spinning around, ducking and weaving, trying to out- smart the other to gain a fractional advantage at the start. And all this time, the time keepers (guests) are calling out the minutes and the seconds to the start.
At the red flag, they are off. Two magnificent pedigree “greyhounds of the sea”, nearly seventy feet long with masts the height of an eight story building, in a boat on boat match race, slicing through the water at speeds the guests will never have sailed before. As they round the first mark, and head downwind, things change….this is no longer a holiday excursion boat ride……No…..now everyone “needs” to win…and the guests rise to the occasion.
There is a long way to go and tactics play a large part. Each skipper explains to his ‘crew’ his plan to stay ahead or get ahead. The racing is tight, with the boats tacking and crossings each other, up and down the racecourse. Eventually, only one boat can blast across the finish line first, to loud cheers. But after such a thrilling adventure, there can be no losers…so for all…a rum punch ‘Victory Celebration’ back at the base, where the guests can compare stories and browse through our America’s Cup boutique to pick up that special bit of memorabilia to re-live that moment when they won their America’s Cup!!
Besides our 12 Metre ‘America’s Cup’ Challenge, we also offer different group programs; incentive groups for the top performers of a sales team; familiarization programs for acquisitions, mergers and takeovers, where management teams need to get to know one another and bond as a team; intra corporate team building to improve cohesion in the workplace; weddings, where we frequently pit the bride’s friends against those of the groom! And on island, the Resort Challenge, between guests of local resorts racing for a trophy.
The Boats. We have a total of five 12s, three in St.Maarten and two in Cozumel. All our boats are from the 1987 America’s Cup; the last America’s Cup regatta to use this type of yacht and arguably the greatest America’s Cup of all time. In the knowledge that the winds were likely to be stronger in Fremantle than in Newport, the 1987 12s were built larger, stronger and faster than ever before. They are the ultimate 12s and really do represent the pinnacle, the zenith of the marque. . Our first two boats were Canada ll and True North, two Canadian yachts. In that first package, we had also acquired the unfinished hull of the sister ship to True North, which we made the decision to leave in Canada to complete at a later date.
By 1992, we saw the need for at least one more boat, probably two. Our unfinished hull of True North IV, affectionately known as IVY, was shipped to St. Maarten, where we completed her build, threw a huge party and ‘splashed’ her. Ivy is an interesting boat with the longest waterline length of any modern 12…..and very fast in heavy air.
The following year we were invited to the sesquicentennial (150th) birthday of the New York Yacht Club. It was cost prohibitive to take the boats there, but I attended, and met Dennis Conner at a cocktail party. He knew of our venture, was very complimentary and invited me to go racing with him the following day. Imagine….racing with Dennis Conner….recognized as THE best American sailor ….in the most famous of all modern American yachts… winner of the greatest America’s Cup of all time, Stars & Stripes ’87. Quite heady stuff!
Later, that afternoon, after the racing, we pulled together a ‘win win’ agreement for Stars & Stripes to join our fleet in St. Maarten. Was that a coup?! I had been courting another couple of 12s, and late the same year negotiated the purchase of Dennis Conner’s alternate boat for Fremantle, Stars & Stripes ’86.
As one famous American sailor commented, ” 12s are a thing of beauty …..and a joy to behold “. And he is so right.
What is a 12? At the beginning of the 20th century, handicapping boats, to allow a variety of styles to race on a level playing field was very subjective (read biased) and a better system was needed. In 1907, the “International” or “Metre” rule was introduced. This takes into consideration a variety of measurements, which are entered into an equation, the result of which (in the case of a 12 Metre) must not exceed 12. This same formula is used to measure other Metre boats, such as 5.5s, 6s, 8s and in rare cases, 7s and 10s. The rule allows the designer to express his ideas about the shape of the hull, but at the same time keeps all boats on a fairly level playing field.
So our fleet of 12s comprises, Canada ll, accepted as the fastest light air 12; True North, a larger, heavy air 12 that was slightly off the pace in 1986; True North IV, her sister ship, with the long waterline, which is the fastest boat in our fleet; Stars & Stripes 86, the alternate boat in Dennis Conner’s program, should the long range forecast indicate heavier air; and the undoubted star of our venture, Stars & Stripes 87, the boat that won the whole thing, won the greatest America’s Cup Regatta in its 132 year history; and brought the trophy back to the U.S.A., with a ticker tape parade down Wall Street.
3. America’s Cup Racing goes back over a hundred years. Can you tell me a little bit about that history and why people get to sample some of that history when they spend a day sailing with 12 Metre?
Ryan, you are right about it going back over a hundred years ; and is, in itself, one of the most fascinating sporting stories of all time. It actually dates back to 1851, when Britain was holding the great Exhibition of 1851. As part of the celebration, a yacht race was to be held around the Isle of Wight, an island in the English Channel : and ‘foreign’ yachts were invited! Two well heeled yachtsmen from the then fledgling New York yacht club took up the invitation and commissioned a yacht for the occasion.
The new yacht ‘America’ sailed across the Atlantic and took on the cream of the British and French fleets just off Southampton water; and after a poor start, caught up and passed the entire fleet to romp home the winner. At the time, there were some mutterings about whether America had sailed the proper course; but these trivialities were cast aside and the prize, the Mayors Trophy, with 100 guineas added was awarded to America.
The owners, John Cox Stevens and George Schuyler, promptly sold the boat to a Frenchman (it is said it never won another race!); they brought the trophy home, very appropriately renamed it ‘The America’s Cup; and donated it to the New York Yacht Club as a perpetual challenge trophy; along with a ‘Deed of Gift’ that laid out the parameters by which one would challenge and defend the new trophy. Since then, it has become the undisputed supreme trophy in the world of yachting. Wealthy men have spent size-able fortunes trying to win and defend the trophy. Yet from 1851 to 1983, nobody was able to beat the New York Yacht Club. It established the longest winning streak in all sport, anywhere in the world, anytime……….132 years. (Imagine…..the Miami Dolphins winning their trophy for 132 years..).
Then in 1983, it was Australia ll with its innovative winged keel that finally wrestled the Cup away from New York and took it ‘down under’. This set up, four years later in 1987, the largest and greatest Cup of all time. Now that the trophy was away from the New York Yacht Club, everybody saw it as an opportunity to win the highly coveted America’s Cup and everyone came to Fremantle in 1987. Normally, in an America’s Cup, there would be two or three contestants; but in 1987, there were no less than 27 boats built for this amazing competition. There were 327 individual yacht races to determine the winner; and it was Dennis Conner with Stars and Stripes 87, the star of our show, who emerged victorious.
It’s a great story, and when we do our introductory briefing, telling the guests what is going to happen to them today, we go over this history; and of course, we dwell on the 1987 regatta. And why not, it was the greatest America’s Cup ever; and we have the winning boat!
Most of our guests know very little of this history and it always provokes a bunch of good questions! But now we need two teams, not just thirty guests, so we select two spirited looking team captains, who in turn pick their teams….and toss a coin to determine who has which boat. This is when we tender our “crews” out to the race boats and offer each guest a ‘crew’ position. As the tender approaches their yacht, we pause to emphasize the history and provenance of the boat that they will racing on today. Ryan, I have described all this earlier, but the emphasis here is the re-creating of one of the greater moments in US sporting history. We lead our guests into a blend of fantasy land and super active reality.
Frequently we have the pleasure of entertaining more mature sailors who have sailed and raced most of their lives. They know the legend of 12s, and have watched them….some lusted after them, but hardly any have ever set foot on a 12. This is not unusual as very few people in the world have ever match raced a 12 around an America’s Cup course.
A side story…when I first sailed with Dennis Conner on Stars & Stripes, I asked him how many people had ever raced on the boat. He conferred with his right hand man, Billy Trenkle for a few moments and they came up with a number……31 ! It is that exclusive. We claim there are more people who have landed a jet fighter on an aircraft carrier than have raced a 12 in an America’s Cup competition; more who have driven a Grand Prix race car; more who have climbed mount Everest!
So when we discover we have one of these ‘salty dogs’ on board, recognizing that this will be a very special ‘bucket list’ experience for them, we give them one of the crew positions in the after guard. Here they can concentrate better on the total experience. And after the race, we invite them to take the helm and drive the boat. This makes their day……and makes ours too. Something to tell their crew back home…great bragging rights !
4. I wouldn’t be a good pirate if I didn’t ask you what your favorite rum is. I know it’s a difficult question, but what is your firewater of choice?
Ryan, it is a difficult choice. I like rum in different ways. Many years ago, in the mid 80s, a bunch of us were enjoying Antigua Race Week. Mount Gay, bless their cotton socks, gave us a bottle of Eclipse. I found ginger beer in the store and wow!
Coming from England, this was good. I mixed generous helpings together, a couple of dashes of Angostura Bitters; a well bashed quarter of a lime and we called it a Jolly Roger …same name as the ginger beer. Very more-ish. But after a few, the name was too difficult; and out came ‘Rolly Jodger’…and it stuck. But a Rolly Jodger only tastes the same made with Mount Gay, so that makes Mount Gay one of my favorites.
For sipping on the rocks with a splash of water, Angostura 1919 is a big favorite. Talking of Angostura, a while ago, I was contemplating selling our own 12 Metre Rum in our boutique. As you know, Angostura are a very large rum producer, does private labels. I paid them a visit, met with a great guy by the name of Ho. They asked me what rums I liked and to critique them. Ho noted my answers and after a fascinating tour, we went to the lab, where there were about 20 glasses with different rums in them; and a cover on top. I was to sniff each one and grade them according to my preference….and then to make a comment as to how it might be improved. What a great morning! Thank goodness they gave me some lunch. I was half pissed from inhaling all that nectar! After lunch it was back to the lab where they had blended their interpretation of my perfect rum!! And Ryan, they were right on.!! I even got to choose the color. So there you have it.
5. America’s Cup boats are made for speed and when people go sailing with you, they actually get to race another group correct? Can you tell me about what that experience is like and what people can expect when on a boat?
Certainly, 12s are built for speed. Pure uncompromising design for one thing only…to go fast. And the 1987 12s built for the Fremantle America’s Cup were stronger, more powerful and faster than ever before; so much so that when they race within the 12 Metre Association, they have their own class. And yes, our guests do race against another group of their peers…. And they are very active. Out of the 18 jobs on a 12 Metre, there are only the two genoa trimmers and the helmsman who are our crew. All the rest is done by our guests.
Obviously Mr. and Mrs. Jo Public are generally not as fit as your average 20 something year old America’s Cup crew, so we spread the load carefully, making sure nobody over-exerts themselves.
And what is the experience like? Judging by the fact that Princess Cruises has voted us the number one excursion for seventeen consecutive years, it should be pretty fantastic!
What can guests expect? They can expect it to be one of the highlights of their holiday, can expect to be transported back in time to participate in one of the greater moments in American sporting history…..and to have their picture and certificate to prove it !
6. If people are coming in on a cruise ship and only on St. Maarten for 8 hours or so, do they have enough time to go sailing with you while on island?
Certainly they do. In fact, all the cruise lines that visit St. Maarten and Cozumel recommend our program. It takes approximately two and a half hours, so there is plenty of time
7. Do people need to have any sailing experience to go racing with you?
This is one of the neat things about the 12 Metre Challenge. There is absolutely no previous sailing experience necessary…. We have enough of that…..Just bring some soft soled shoes and the urge to have fun !
8. Any last words of wisdom, or anything else you’d like my Castaway audience to know?
Ryan, just book early ! Leave the rest to us. We can guarantee you a great time.
Ahhhh, I can almost smell the salt in the air and hear the luff of the sail after reading that. If you’ve had the pleasure of heading out on the water with Colin and his team, I’d love to hear about your experience.
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