Sailor: Ian Walker - Top 7 International Races

The term ‘legend’ is much misused in the sporting world, but double Olympic medallist, Volvo Ocean Race winning skipper and new RYA Director of Racing, Ian Walker MBE, more than lives up to the tag. Here, he summons all of his vast yacht racing experience to give us his rundown on some of the world’s best yachting regattas. 

In 25 years of professional sailing I have been very fortunate to have raced on some incredible raceboats in so many fantastic regattas around the world. Over this time whilst Grand Prix regattas have often declined, there has been a rise in the slightly lower key regattas that have entertainment and fun firmly embedded in their DNA. It appears that many people like the idea of sailing in beautiful locations against similar boats as much as they like the idea of a cool cocktail, some dancing or family entertainment just as much. Racing around islands can be far more appealing than just windward/leeward courses – what better way to explore some of these amazing destinations.

Seizing on the local benefits of regatta tourism there has been a rise in numbers and popularity of Spring Caribbean regattas in particular. This is in small part fuelled by the increased flights and increased availability of good quality charter boats from companies like Sunsail. Race organisers generally do a good job with the calendar to avoid major clashes and you could probably sail 2 or 3 regattas a month between January and April in the Caribbean such is the choice now on offer. Each of these regattas have their own flavour so how do you decide which of these race weeks might best suit you? Here I will take a look at a few dotted all over the world that I have either personally been to or which I feel should be on any keen sailor's must do list!

 St Martin Heineken Regatta – March 1st – 4th 2018

The Heineken Regatta is one of the largest in the Caribbean and has attracted nearly 300 boats in the past, often with some of the bigger boats including maxis and superyachts. A local major International airport makes for easy access and with Simpson Bay offering a perfect, protected anchorage and lots of good local marine businesses, this is a popular Caribbean staging post for boats of all sizes. The St Maarten yacht club is very friendly and you can enjoy a beer and the scene of hundreds of yachts passing through the Simpson Bay Bridge each day.

There is a good variety of racing to suit different classes and boats of all shapes and sizes are very welcome. Its starts with the 1 day inshore Commodore’s Cup, followed by 3 further days of more coastal racing – including a Round the Island Race. There is normally a big Dutch contingent and with plenty of Heineken provided by the sponsors this can make for some excellent parties. Don’t head to this regatta for tranquillity as the local airport and large cruise ship trade make this one of the more ‘developed’ parts of the Caribbean. Nevertheless the racing is good and there is something for everyone. My top tip is to rent a moped and enjoy the rest of the island which gets considerably quieter and even prettier on the French side!

More on the Heineken Regatta

BVI Spring Regatta - 26th March – 1st April 2018

An increasingly popular event, the BVI Spring Regatta is now in its 47th year. One of my favourite places in the world to go cruising, and the organisers use of the all the nearby islands make for an idyllic race course. Trade winds are often in the 10-20 knot range but much of the racing is protected by islands, so the flatter water can be a delight. Nanny Cay is not only a major sponsor but is also an idyllic host venue with a nice beach, pool and lots of nearby accommodation for those who don’t wish to sleep aboard. 2018 will see the addition of the inaugural full moon race around all 64 islands that make up the BVIs, followed by 3 days of course racing. Racing takes place for cruiser racers, cruisers, non-spinnaker, bareboat and multihull. Racing is perhaps less serious than the bigger regattas and with the main Sunsail base at nearby Wickham Cay and parties every night, this is the perfect bareboat regatta. One negative is the longer flying time to get to Tortola with no direct International flights – but maybe that is one of the reasons it is so nice when you get there!

More on the BVI Spring Regatta

Antigua Sailing Week 28th April – 4th May 2018

This year marked the 50th Anniversary of Antigua Race Week and for many of those years this has been the staple regatta of the Caribbean. It has hosted many of the top race boats over the years and with 5 race days plus the Round the Island Race it historically has the strongest racing pedigree of the Caribbean regattas. This is evolving over time with an increase in the charter fleet and white sail racing. Racing can be tough as the waters are fairly unprotected and strong trade winds, whilst not guaranteed, can make for a bruising week at sea. With the exception of the Round Antigua Race I found the courses somewhat limited by the depth which makes mark laying tough. Despite this the race officials do a good job. Ashore there can be few complaints with lots of history, good regatta organisation, decent yachting infrastructure, good places to eat and drink, some great parties and an infamous lay day. The only frustration really is the fleet being somewhat divided by having 2 marinas a short walk apart (Falmouth and English Harbours)  – but sometimes stretching your legs is not such a bad idea! Top tip for non sailors is to watch the action from the panoramic Shirley Heights lookout.

More on the Antigua Race Week

Tahiti Pearl Regatta – 7th-12th May 2018

The next one on my list - I’ve never raced in the Tahiti Pearl, but the reports I hear and the photos I’ve seen have turned me green with envy a few times! Surely one of the most picturesque regattas on earth, the area benefits from tropical trade winds from the southeast, providing a consistent 10 to 15 knots, although winds have been known to reach 30 knots. The regatta is notable for following a winding inter-island route with evening stopovers, each sprinkled with a bit of festive Polynesian fun. I can’t wait to watch the fire dancers!

More on the Tahiti Pearl Regatta

Lendy Cowes Week  4th – 11th August 2018

Cowes Week has been held every year except the war years since 1826. There are up to 40 classes that compete with around 1000 boats and it makes for an amazing spectacle. I raced my first Cowes Week 30 years ago and have raced on boats of all sizes from Swallows to 70 fters. The standard of racing can be quite high and percolates all the way down to the smaller dayboats with the slowest of them all, the X boats, normally providing the biggest fleet and some of the closest racing. The racing is amazingly well organised, and the large number of competitors and challenging racing conditions make it one of the most rewarding and enjoyable regattas in the world.

Personally I like the coastal courses and strong current that often see you doing things that only happen at Cowes Week! Socially, there is something for everyone from yacht club balls to the beer tents and parties and I think this, and the public interaction is one of the events great attractions. It doesn’t matter if you are an Olympic sailor, club racer, charter boat sailor or first time participant, Cowes is great fun and will have something for you. All you need is the sun to shine!

More on Lendy Cowes Week

Dartmouth Royal Regatta – late August 2018

If I had to summarise the Dartmouth Royal Regatta it would be ‘good old fashioned English fun’. A wonderful family event in a beautiful location, there is something for everyone both ashore and afloat. Now in its 173rd year, the regatta has lots of tradition and the local area's strong links with the military ensure this continues. There is a passage race and close racing in a variety of classes from IRC, Byron cruiser handicap, non-spinnaker, sportsboat and one design over the next 4 race days but sailing is only part of the event. The Royal Regatta is the biggest event in the town’s calendar and goes well beyond sailing. There is lots of entertainment and with rowing races, swimming races, tug of war, crabbing and  ice cream eating competitions, a dog show, fancy dress and scavenger hunts the kids will be kept busy and happy. The Red Arrows round off what is always a very popular week designed to showcase the River Dart and the beauty of the local area. It is in England in summer, so pray for good weather, but the friendly welcome and beautiful surroundings will always be there. Definitely one for the bucket list!


More on the Dartmouth Regatta

King’s Cup Phuket: early December 2018

2016 saw the 30th anniversary of Asia’s premier sailing regatta, the Kings Cup in Phuket. Much like the Caribbean regattas the Kings Cup is a superb mix of high end racing fleets together with more family and friends orientated cruising division with a strong stock of charter boats for those looking for a pre Christmas bit of sunshine and warm weather sailing.  A strong multihull class of all shapes and sizes also adds to the flavour of the event.

The Kings Cup was originally organised to celebrate the late King of Thailand’s love of sailing and there are many images of his majesty sailing his Enterprise, Moth and Ok Dinghies from the same beach, all of which he had built himself.  The affection that the late monarch enjoyed from his people is felt throughout the event with the Navy and Kings representatives helping ensure that this event is seen a source of national pride.

Sailed off the beach at Kata in the south west of Phuket island, the fleet anchors in the bay with the unique ferry service using traditional Thai long tail boats each morning. The winds are generally light to medium with competitors enjoying a mix of inshore and round the islands courses in some of the most picturesque scenery that Thailand has to offer. Racing normally starts early ensuring that the fleet is back ashore in the early afternoon with time to unwind and explore. A Thai curry and some refreshments on the powder-white beach at Kata is a must, before heading to the amazing evening social events that are part and parcel of the event.

A new modern airport has been completed over the past few years, and with abundant accommodation and a family friendly feel and active social programme, the regatta is there for all to be enjoyed even if you have had a bad day on the water.

More on the Phuket Kings Cup Regatta

If you’re inspired to follow Ian’s lead, then why not check out our worldwide sailing regattas calendar here.

To find out more about these great regattas look below for their official websites:

Alternatively, head back to Waterlines for more great articles