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Wednesday 20th October 2010

When one thinks of Caribbean Regattas, Antigua Classics and Sailing Week immediately spring to mind, but each New Year in Antigua, for as long as anyone can remember, there has also been the less well known but very well attended Nelson’s Pursuit Race.

Originally conceived as a fun event to add to the festive season, and still organized by Stan Pearson of Antigua Rigging and Tommy Paterson, former manager of Antigua Yacht Club, the race commemorates Lord Nelson’s famous pursuit of the French fleet under the command of Admiral Pierre Villeneuve across the Atlantic in 1805, culminating in the blockade of Cadiz and the subsequent battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s greatest victory, during which he was tragically shot and mortally wounded by a French sniper.

The race takes place on New Year’s Eve with a timed start below historic Fort Charlotte, sited above the Pillars of Hercules at the entrance to English Harbour.  The lowest-rated yacht sails over the start line somewhere around 1100 hours carrying the French flag, with the rest of the fleet pursuing it at timed intervals.  The winner is the first yacht over the finish line.  Registration and a Skippers’ Briefing are held on the 29th of December to allow time to allocate ratings to all entrants and a pre-race social evening is held at Antigua Yacht Club on the evening before the race.

The course is approx 18 miles long, comprising a reach out toward Guadeloupe, a run back inshore to Curtain Bluff, and a beat back to the finish line.  Only working sails are permitted - no spinnakers or other special light wind sails are allowed - so there can be no excuses for not having crew, and if entrants have not been measured, no problem, an appropriate handicap will be calculated.

Beautiful Rebecca at anchor.

Some years there have been as many as 40 entries with some famous names amongst them:  Peter Harrison’s 115 foot ketch Sojana and the 140 foot classic yacht Rebecca, which holds the course record from a year when the wind was further south than usual, so the beat back to English Harbour became a fetch.  Last year the 100-foot performance yacht Liara went around in 89 minutes and won, despite starting an hour and a half after the lead yacht carrying the French flag, an elderly wooden schooner named Alexander Hamilton, built on the neighbouring island of Nevis, which took more than four hours to complete the course and was passed by everyone else along the way. This event really is champagne sailing at its best.  Caribbean trade winds and crystal clear turquoise water.

There are several different classes, with beautifully crafted scrimshaw plaques for the winners.  Everyone gets a bottle of English Harbour rum and the prizes are handed out by the organizers in best period dress on the steps of the former officers’ quarters in Nelson’s Dockyard, as everyone congregates around the lawn, sampling copious quantities of Chippy’s famous rum punch.  Later the restaurants and bars of English Harbour stay open into the early hours with live music and a fireworks display at midnight, courtesy of Antigua National Parks and local businesses.

This very gentlemanly event is as informal an occasion as anyone could wish for, and a fabulous introduction to some of the other fun Caribbean events.  If you are anywhere near Antigua this New Year, come and join us.

Article by Richard Watson of the yacht Sobriyah.

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