Champion yachtsman for a day

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PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- Question: Why has St. Maarten's 12-Metre Challenge become a top water-sports attraction in the Caribbean, where water sports are a way of life?

Answer: Because anyone who can afford the $70 fee -- from weekend sailors to landlubbers -- jumps at the chance to become another Dennis Connor, if only for a few hours.

Connor was captain of the racing yacht Stars & Stripes and brought yachting's America's Cup trophy home to the U.S. in 1987. Stars & Stripes is now owned by Colin and Jill Percy, who run a firm called 12-Metre Challenge in St. Maarten. The couple also owns several other America's Cup challengers, including three Canadian yachts and an earlier version of Stars & Stripes.

"You're the captain of this group," our instructor informed me as we all stood on the Philipsburg dock.

Nothing cures ambivalence like being in charge, and I was definitely shaky. I was about to crew a sleek 70-foot yacht, and I don't even swim! Our two 15-member teams (18 is the limit) were tendered out to the vessels. Each team wanted to crew the American prize-winning yacht, but our team graciously accepted a Canadian contender named True North IV.

Thankfully, three seasoned professionals accompanied our team of amateurs. Everyone who wanted a job was assigned one. The most able-bodied among us served as the main grinders. The main grinders manned a double winch that controlled the mainsail with a mast as high as an eight-story building. Other team members worked the ropes. One volunteer handled the important function of bartender.

By reason of default, I was not only the captain but also the timer. I was told to count down six seconds so that our yacht would cross the start line at the same time as a white flag was lowered to signal the beginning of the race. We jockeyed for position during the countdown to block our opponents from zipping out ahead of us. It worked -- we won the start.

Sails rippled as we heeled furiously around the buoys. Orders were barked as the helmsman relayed our rival's position and argued strategy with us. Should we go inside the next marker or outside to gain more wind speed?

Go for the wind, we yelled, and we did, at a speedy 18 knots. The two yachts were neck-and-neck at the buoys, sailing on a crash course into each other.

"We have the right of way," shouted our leader. I wasn't so sure it mattered at the speeds we were both traveling. Yet, we did miss each other -- barely.

On the last leg, maneuvering was intense. We decided to sneak behind the enemy for the best wind and a straight shot at the finish. It worked -- we beat Stars & Stripes! It had been an exhilarating two hours, and we were an ecstatic bunch at the rum punch victory party on the dock. During the excitement of the race, I'd completely forgotten my nervousness about being washed overboard.

Now, I was proud I had bravely resisted the offer of a flotation device. After all, what would our victory picture imply about a captain who wore a life jacket?

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