The National Family Island Regatta: The World’s Greatest Sailing Event
Author: Fred Coolridge
Each year, for four days only, the best sailors from every major island in the Bahamas converge at Elizabeth Harbour on Exuma Island for the National Family Island Regatta. During these four days, Bahamian sailors arrive prepared to sail their locally-built sloops for the much coveted "Best in the Bahamas" title. The competition is fierce and the atmosphere is alive with excitement as boating enthusiasts the world over descend on this picturesque island in the sun. Since the first race held in April 1954, the National Family Island Regatta has grown in size and popularity. Today, although the race remains the main attraction, visitors are invited to participate in countless onshore activities including fashion shows, beauty pageants, weightlifting competitions, volleyball tournaments, and endless parties. This festival certainly differs from its early days when the boats were smaller and the participants fewer.
It was in April 1954, when about 70 Bahamian schooners, dinghies and sloops assembled in Elizabeth Harbour for a three-day racing event. The first participants in the event were excited to compete and certainly enticed by the reward offered for winning the competition. Unlike the boats you see today competing in the event, the first sailors in 1954 raced in the same boats they used to earn their livelihood. These working vessels were fast, but sailors realized they would stand a better chance of winning the prize money if they had even faster boats. This competitive spirit led many sailors to enter the race with boats crafted for speed in the second year of competition. One of the early aims of the regatta was to help preserve the boat-building skills of the Bahamians, and with the prize money as an allure, Bahamian sailors were motivated to keep up this tradition. Today, the regatta draws top-notch racing boats from virtually every island in the Bahamas, all of which are categorized under one of five classes, A through E. Although the race has changed, the goal remains the same: prove yourself to be the best sailor in the Bahamas.
The Out Island Squadron Committee
The early organizers were thrilled that the event was such a success, but they soon realized that if the event was to continue to grow, they would need to form a proper committee that would oversee it each year. Hence, the Out Island Squadron was created. The committee was comprised of avid boaters from the Bahamas as well as from the United States, and these members took on the responsibility of sponsoring and planning the regatta. From 1954 to 1967, this same committee organized what came to be a famous regatta annual event in Elizabeth Harbour, in beautiful and historic George Town, on exotic Exuma Island.
Family Island Regatta Rules
The success of the event always depended on the skills and enthusiasm of the sailors and as years went by, the quality of both the boats and their drivers improved. The National Family Island Regatta is about competition and excellence. World-class sailors are pitted against one another in extreme competition that tests skill and endurance. The racing rules dictate that the sailing vessels must be designed, built and sailed by a Bahamian. There are also strict restrictions on the building materials used in order to keep these boats as closely related to their traditional origins as possible.
Although the world of sailing has changed in many ways, the National Island Family Regatta in Elizabeth Harbour, George Town is one of the last places to see sailing vessels crafted in the unique Bahamian tradition. Standing on the shores of Elizabeth Harbour and witnessing the arrival of a traditional Bahamian schooner is a wondrous event not to be forgotten. Not only is the National Island Family Regatta a fun-filled week bursting with excitement, but it is also a unique opportunity to partake in Bahamian history - a history that every islander is proud of.
About the author
Fred Coolridge is the content manager and author for the website Great Exuma Island, Bahamas (www.exumabahamas.org).
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