In With the In Crowd on Antigua

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During Sailing Week, one of the world's most popular regattas, Antigua's bars and restaurants are awash with the party-hearty yeomen of the international yachting set. But with historic ambience, fine resorts and myriad beaches, there's much more to the island than sundowners and topsiders.

"I really like this game," said a lad of about 13 who'd pressed to the front of a rowdy crowd of spectators converging around a couple of tents on Pigeon Beach.

"Carry-On Camp-ing" was the name of the entertainment, and it went like this: Couples raced to see which team could dash into the little tents, switch clothes with one another, emerge to show they'd changed, return to the tent and switch back the fastest.As the male member of one team was shirtless, on the first switch so was his teammate -- and quite pleased to display her ample endowments she was, too, arms thrown overhead victoriously even though the race was only half run at that point. The gesture was met with general whooping and hollering in the gallery, and the pithy comment from our pubescent observer.

Depending on your point of view, Carry-On Camping was either the high or low point of the Lay Day antics (tug-of-war, sack racing, drinking games and so on) that came at the middle of Antigua Sailing Week, the regatta held every spring that claims to be "the world's largest race as measured by yacht tonnage." This year, a total of 183 boats from 27 countries entered. Lay Day was originally meant as a midweek break in the action, a day of rest, but it's evolved over the last 38 years of Sailing Weeks into a party day where locals get loose with crews from around the world.

The yachting scene is nothing if not cosmopolitan, and it is plainly right at home here in Antigua, with its rich nautical traditions, usually favorable winds and weather, and international cast of hoteliers and restaurateurs eager to host the festivities. Of course, these same conditions make the island attractive year-round -- and to landlubbers, as well. But while Antigua could hardly be called a secret getaway, neither is it anywhere near overrun. Most places I went were lively but not overheated, even during Sailing Week (Lay Day shenanigans aside). I kept finding myself in places suffused with that air of satisfaction that lingers over a cool party; people were grooving, pleased to be in the know about something good.

Ensconced at his home a quarter-mile uphill from Pigeon Beach -- quite literally above the fray -- stood Desmond Nicholson, a local historian who was one of the founders of Sailing Week and a member of Antigua's first family of yachting. Though now officially retired, if you want the long view of Antigua, he's your man. I explained to him the ribald nature of the goings-on down at the beach and suggested, "I bet you never thought it would come to this."

"It's all part of the fun!" the 79-year-old Nicholson said sunnily.

Surveying Falmouth Harbour -- chockers with sparkling big-dollar sailing craft of all descriptions -- from the bird's-eye vantage of Nicholson's terrace, it was hard to envision the scene in 1949 when his family landed here after sailing across the Atlantic on the Mollihawk, a 70-foot schooner built in 1903.

"When we arrived there was not a single yacht," he recalled, then guided me to his desk where he navigated the museum-quality photographic archive he keeps on his computer.

"There I am as a young blade on the Mollihawk," Nicholson said, calling up a set of pictures from a cruise that put in to ports of call down the Windward chain -- Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Lucia and the Grenadines. He says with pride that they were the first charter outfit in the Eastern Caribbean. The shots looked like stills from an old movie about a maritime adventure full of exotic, pre-modern locales and romance to spare; it comes as no surprise to learn that Desmond met his American wife Lisa when her parents chartered a Nicholson cruise.

Nelson's Dockyard, established as a naval yard in 1725 and headquarters of the British Fleet through Nelson's day and the Napoleonic Wars, was abandoned and dilapidated when the Mollihawk first pulled in. As Nicholson Yacht Charters grew and spawned other family enterprises -- a ship's chandlery, the Admiral's Inn, an annual boat show -- the dockyard was gradually restored, with architectural fidelity, to its historic place at the hub of the boating scene. During Sailing Week every slip was occupied, crews in matching shirts were busily performing maintenance and provisioning tasks, and the pubs and restaurants turned a handy trade.

Nicholson's own collection of artifacts became the foundation for the handsome museum there, and he was also instrumental in the development of the national museum in the capital, St. John's. "It's important to see what we've been through," he said, alluding not only to Antigua's 18th- and early 19th-century military and commercial heydays, but to their grim underpinning of slavery. Nelson's Dockyard was built by "the King's Negroes" under unspeakable conditions; the Admiral himself referred to English Harbour as "an infernal hole."

Published: 5 Sep 2007 | Last Updated: 1 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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