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By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

The mood on the harbour veranda of Capn' Jack's Restaurant in Hope Town was bright as the late afternoon sun setting behind the lighthouse. A dozen men - and one woman - gathered around hastily drawn together tables, but despite the serious strategic nature of this business meeting, the talk was animated, cheerful and optimistic.

It was the same sort of giddy ebullience that had swept this crew of the Abaco Rage as the freshly painted and refitted sloop crossed the finish line of the 45th annual National Family Island Regatta in Exuma only a month earlier. For despite finishing the race in last place, it had been a great comeback; a revival worthy of enormous pride and enthusiasm for the future. It was the return of a champion, a resurrection - and definitely the beginning of a new era.

For seven years, the Abaco Rage, a Class A sloop built in 1980 on Man-O-War Cay, had languished unattended and unraced. In her earlier days she had been the boat to beat, having won the Out Island Regatta in Exuma two years in a row in 1983 and 1984. But after placing second overall in 1990, her owners had parked her in retirement at Man-O-War, a victim of rising costs and falling enthusiasm for the rigors and demands of the distant regatta in far off George Town.

In October, 1997, a consortium of new owners emerged from Hope Town. Fund raisers were held. Repairs were made. Materials were scrounged. It was time to re-enter this time-honored sailing contest and regain rightful recognition for this island community, once the bastion of wreck salvagers, blockade runners and boat builders extraordinaire.

"Three quarters of the deck and all of the cockpit was rotten," said Ron Engle, supervisor of the reconstruction. "Bulkheads and ribs were replaced as well as all running and standing rigging. The boat was stripped to the wood and repainted from the keel up."

One new pry bar had to be replaced. Decks were framed, fiber-glassed and sealed. Initial work cost more than $7,000 and was finished in only 18 days so the Rage could compete in the newly established All Abaco regatta in November. It was a giant, around-the-clock effort, and she did moderately well, placing seventh and fifth in two races. For the looming Exuma contest, new canvas sails were ordered from Nassau. But, despite promises of delivery in four days, it took almost four months to get them. By then it was April, and the Rage was under tow to Exuma. The untried sails were picked up only a week before the big event, but there was more troubled water ahead. Nature's rage at sea swept the party, breaking the rudder on the man-made Rage. Fifteen people worked in shifts around the clock making repairs as the crew camped on a small cay in the Exumas. The boat finally arrived in George Town one day before the first race, but what they found was heartening - a welcoming reception that translated into much pre-race help from competitors.

Once the starting cannon fired, however, they were on their own - with more problems. It was discovered the new sails were incorrectly cut. And by the final Class A event on the last day of racing, the inexperienced crew and troubled craft had accumulated only four total points, putting them dead last. Learning curve corrections helped garner another five points in the last big race, putting them in a tie for seventh out of eight starters.

Now, in this early evening meeting at Capn' Jack's, the crew of the 28-foot native sloop pondered the problems, heads together in the last strategy session on the eve of another major journey and contest, this time almost 300 miles away in Long Island. It would be no picnic this time either. Crew members were assigned, travel plans made, costs considered. Some would fly while others would endure a three-day transit by mailboat. The crew would number as many as 15 people, including Rhiannon Gottleib of Hope Town, the first woman crew member ever to race in the Exuma and Long Island Regattas.

The boat itself, left behind in George Town after the April event, was towed by Long Islanders to Salt Pond for her first appearance ever in that colourful series.

"They were delighted to have us," said co-captain Jeff Gale. "They even loaned us sails, which made a big difference."

Again, friendly comraderie and assistance ended at the starting line as the cannon sounded the one-minute warning, then the start. Anyone who has seen this knows the dramatic drill. From dead in the water with anchors down, competing sloops simultaneously hoist hooks and raise sails. It appears to be a mad scramble as the crew pulls frantically on lines, but the effort is timed so that anchors and sails are raised in coordination. Each boat hopes to catch the first breath of wind, perhaps to break from the line and steal the breeze from a competitor.

Strict rules govern the races. Competing boats must be designed, built, owned, skippered and primarily crewed by Bahamians. Overall length must be 28 feet, three inches or less. Sails must be canvas with a single mast. Hull and mast must be wood. No vertical transoms. No bowsprits. No spreaders or aluminum spars. No winches. No wind or speed instruments or tell-tales. No bending masts.

The boats sail three times around orange buoys placed at each corner of a triangular course. Running with the wind, they list at incredible angles. To balance and maximize speed, depending on wind direction and strength, as many as nine crew members climb precariously onto three "prys," wooden planks that can be extended out about four feet to either starboard or port. A boat that does not stop for someone falling overboard is disqualified. It rarely happens, but when it does, the unlucky lout is fished from the sea in the bat of an eye. The captain usually mans the helm, but just as important is the bowman who yells commands. Everyone knows his - and her - job, and human coordination with nature is the key. In the end, experience here is everything.

When Scott Weatherford of Man-O-War captained the Abaco Rage to two straight victories in the mid 1980s, he had a seasoned crew. Many had raced in previous contests in the 1970s aboard two other sloops, Man-O-War and Rough Waters. By then, Scott and others were hooked on racing and were determined to win. Volunteers at Edwin's Boat Yard on Man-O-War worked Saturdays and nights for six months building Abaco Rage, each man hoping for a chance to sail on her in George Town. In 1984, Abaco Rage won first place hands down with Man-O-War close behind in third. Abaco sloops, which had not even participated in the Exuma event during its first 21 years, now dominated it.

After some controversy and two second-place wins in 1987 and 1990, however, the Man-O-War team decided to call it quits. And although the languishing champ sat rotting from lack of use and maintainance, it was not without some reluctance that she was sold to Hope Towners. Trial and error has resulted in improvements ever since, and the crew now has three races under its collective belt.

"More lessons were learned in Long Island," remarked skipper Jeff Gale. "We need to deepen the keel by a foot, smooth out the bottom and make it super slick - and get new sails."

The next race - the All Abaco Regatta, scheduled for October 29-31 between the Treasure Cay Ferry Dock and Green Turtle Cay - is not far off, and George Town is a scant six months after that. By all indications, Abaco Rage and her spirited crew will be ready.

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