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P.R. Sailors Formidable In Caribbean Regattas

By Gabrielle Paese

April 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Sailing is a totally underrated sport. Man (or woman) must maneuver boat to catch maximum wind. In competition, the fastest boat wins.

Competitive sailors are perhaps Puerto Rico‚s best-kept secret. They know how to take advantage of the water all around us. Forget fast cars and asphalt, there‚s no bigger thrill than sailing fast on the ocean.

This Caribbean island boasts world-class sailors. Over Easter weekend each year, Fajardo is ground zero for top-notch sailors and the Puerto Rico International Regatta. Due to some technicalities, Puerto Rico‚s regatta is not part of the CORT (Caribbean Ocean Racing Triangle) series as it usually is, although regatta director Enrique Gonzalez said he hopes to see CORT back in action by next year.

Even without the CORT connection, the Fajardo regatta April 9-12 is still expected to draw the Caribbean‚s best smaller boats.

One of them in the Beach Cats category will be Enrique Figueroa‚s Hobie Tiger. Figueroa is using the Caribbean regattas this spring as part of his preparation for a third Olympic bid in Tornado this summer in Athens. Figueroa won his second Pan Am Games gold medal in 2003 on a 16-foot Hobie catamaran, but sails the bigger, sleeker 20-foot Tornado at the Olympics, the Formula 1 of catamarans, because that is the boat of choice at the Games.

Figueroa is halfway through humiliating all the competition at these Caribbean regattas and should complete the cycle in Fajardo. Last weekend, he finished first in the Beach Cats (that‚s the catamaran/multi-hull category for small boats) category to win the Rolex International Regatta. I‚ve told you Figueroa‚s story in past columns, so I won‚t include his complete resume again here. The big picture: As a Hobie cat sailor, Figueroa is untouchable, two back-to-back Pan Am golds, four Central American-Caribbean Games golds, Hobie world championship titles that span three decades.

Figueroa‚s not the only sailor who makes waves in the Caribbean, just the only one who gets Olympic Committee help this year. Since there‚s no J-24 class at the Olympics, you‚re not likely to hear about Efrain „Fraito‰ Lugo.

Yet Lugo is to J-24s what Figueroa is to Hobie cats. Lugo won last weekend‚s Rolex regatta with four first-place finishes, blowing the rest of the competition out of the water.

The 2002 CAC Games silver medallist is aiming for the J-24 World championships this summer in Connecticut. This time he has a plan to go along with his dream: He‚s got sponsorship from Coors Light and the local sailing federation.

„You saw it at the Pan Am Games, it was the U.S. that won the J-24s,‰ said Lugo, who saw his third-place finish in Santo Domingo drop to fifth after a protest lodged against his boat progressed.

„The J-24 is the hot boat right now in the U.S. The Olympic class boat competition has moved to Europe and that‚s why Quique [Figueroa] has to do his training over there, so he can have that level of competition,‰ said Lugo, 30, of Ponce. „In my case, the United States is my best option. All of my efforts this year are concentrated on winning the J-24 Worlds.‰

His crew is the same one he‚s used for the past 10 years: trimmer Melvin Gonzalez, tactician Robby Ramos, pit Yin Luna and Alejandro Berrios on the foredeck. While his boat, Orion, will remain in Ponce for the summer, Lugo has a second one-design J-24 up in Annapolis, which will be home port for summer racing. Already, Lugo has tested the boat in Tampa, finishing eighth in a regatta there.

Like Figueroa, Lugo is also untouchable in the Caribbean.

„It‚s still good practice for us for this summer,‰ said Lugo, who learned to sail at age 7 on a chalana, or wooden boat.

The really, really big boats, like Tom Hill‚s Titan XII, a 75-foot all carbon fiber Reichel/Pugh, will skip Fajardo in favor of Antigua racing week. Titan XII will get another test this weekend at the BVI Spring Regatta.

„A boat like Tom‚s needs a really big course and our regatta courses are too small,‰ said regatta field director Nayda Gutierrez. „There‚s talk of in the future making a race around Puerto Rico like they do in Antigua. That would be the only way to do justice to boats the size of Tom‚s.‰

Puerto Rico‚s Tom Hill, of Hill Construction, won the Over-50 feet Spinnaker racing class this past weekend at the Rolex in Titan XII‚s first big Caribbean run.

„On one leg we did we were going 30 knots in huge waves. We finished the leeward leg in six minutes,‰ said Hill, who admitted he‚s still in awe of the boat‚s tremendous speed. „We did [the final] leg in less than one hour. We‚re just having a lot of fun.‰

Hill said he hopes to see soon a class of ultra-light boats at the Caribbean regattas. He said the boats are so sophisticated that he is one of the few owners who can actually steer his own boat.

Yet even with all of his sailing prowess, Hill hired the services of Americas Cup veteran and St. Thomas Yacht Club commodore and Americas Cup veteran Peter Holmberg, of the Virgin Islands.

„I‚ve always sailed against him, never with him,‰ said Hill of his new tactician.

Holmberg is the only pro, Hill says of the rest of his crew, which includes Puerto Ricans Carlos Hernandez, Jose Santiago, Peter Kingsbury and Rolando Mayulet.

„Most of the [boat owners] just pay a crew to race it for them,‰ said Hill, who has been sailing all his life. „We‚re one of the only [ultralight] boats that doesn‚t.‰

Antigua will be Hill‚s big test with the new boat, which he put in the water last summer in the northeast United States but is only now testing for the first time in the faster Caribbean waters.

„This is the first year that we have it to race. When we finally got it last summer, we took it to Block Island, Marblehead, [Martha‚s] Vineyard and Long Island,‰ said Hill. „Up there it was all light wind and waves and we sailed in five-knot breezes, which isn‚t good for a boat like ours.‰

Antigua will be a test against the big boys. Robert Miller‚s Mari Cha IV, a 137-foot, 50 ton super maxi, will line up with Titan XII.

Mari Cha IV crossed the Atlantic in six days last October and smashing the previous record by more than two days.

Back in Puerto Rico, the international regatta is expected to draw about 80 boats. Veteran sailor Eric Tulla is the chief judge of a group that includes Pat Bailey, of the Virgin Islands, Lynn Beal, of Canada, Andres Roche, of Venezuela and Luis E. Matos, of Puerto Rico. Competition is in Spinnaker Racing, Racing Cruising, Non-Spinnaker Racing, Jib & Main, J-24, Beach Cats, Laser and Optimist. For regatta information, go to

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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