The Story Behind the Annual Boat Race Between Hyannis and Nantucket
In 1972, a friendly conversation among friends at Baxter’s Boathouse in Hyannis, MA escalated to a challenge to see who could sail their boat to Nantucket the fastest over Memorial Day weekend. This was the inception of Figawi Race Weekend, a Nantucket and Cape Cod tradition that has grown considerably in popularity since it’s informal start in 1972 thanks to names like Kennedy and Koch joining the competition in the 80s and beyond.
Originally billed as a fun race across Nantucket Sound over Memorial Day weekend, Figawi grew by leaps and bounds during the 70s—so much so that a lay day was added in 1978 along with a race back to Hyannis, as the race committee, now formerly organized, turned the Figawi from a one day race into a three day weekend event. Since it’s inception, the race and 3-day festivities have drawn thousands of sailors, sailing enthusiasts and those who just want to be part of this fun tradition to Nantucket for Memorial Day weekend.
The annual race, which raises money for various charities, is sponsored by a number of companies including Vineyard Vines (their boat is the Nancy A), Budweiser, Sam Adams, Mount Gay, Viking River Cruises and Coca Cola. And though the race is competitive, the emphasis on this event has always been about friendly camaraderie and the festivities following the race.
Why is it called Figawi? Legend has it that during the first race back in 1972, there was a thick fog that blanketed Nantucket Sound. This caused confusion for some of the sailors who were looking for the island of Nantucket (no GPS back then) and in turn began asking each other “where the f**k are we?” Although imagine that sentence in a deep Boston accent and “Where the Figawi?”…or simply “Figawi” was born.
The 44th Annual Figawi Race Weekend is recognized as a top sailing event not only on the east coast but is known nationally as well as internationally. Figawi Race Weekend kicks off the Cape Cod and Nantucket summer season with this year’s race boasting 226 boats and over 3,000 sailors and visitors, as well as many locals who attend the event as spectators. Entries include sailors from Virginia, Washington, DC; Alabama, Indiana, California, Hawaii, South Carolina, New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and a number of harbors throughout Massachusetts.
The 200-plus boats are organized into classes based on a complex formula known as PHRF (performance handicap racing fleet) that takes many variables, from sail size to propeller drag, into account. This assures, in theory at least, that all the boats compete on a level playing field. The starts are also staggered, with faster boats starting last, all racing for the island of Nantucket, some 30 miles away. The distance, however is not a straight line—different classes of boats are sent off on different vectors, depending on the many variables of mother nature, like wind speed/direction, sea state and wave heights. Depending on the various conditions, the theory of the “Pursuit Race” format is that all competitors should reach the Nantucket MO(A) at around the same time, at the entrance of Nantucket Harbor.
Once on Nantucket skippers and their supporters will head to the Figawi Tent Party near the Boat Basin to enjoy Goombay smash’s, Dark N’ Stormies and live music compliments of Shea Rose, while the rest of the crowd will likely pour into Slip 14, Straight Wharf and the Lobster Trap to celebrate the occasion. The Chicken Box, an island institution for over 50 years, is also a popular spot during Figawi weekend, with live music all weekend long.
On Sunday, the Figawi Tent Party continues with a joke telling ceremony in the morning followed by the traditional lobster clambake, awards ceremony and more live music. The trek back to Hyannis starts at 9:30am Monday morning.
Figawi hats, which debuted in the late 1970s, are highly prized accessories given only to the sailors in the race. Mount Gay embroiders hats specifically for each of their 140 sponsored regattas worldwide—including Figawi. No more than three are distributed to each finishing team, so veteran sailors see them as badges of honor. They also grant access to the Figawi tent and stealing them has become a tradition for island youth. Groups of teenagers have been known to devise elaborate schemes to obtain these sought after items. One or two will strike up a conversation with a sailor, while a runner will stealthily sneak up behind and grab it off the unsuspecting sailors’ head.
Figawi is a great time, but like any weekend party event you may want a break from the scene and noise. Cisco Brewery, Nantucket Vineyard and Triple Eight Distillery, located all together on Bartlett Farm Road, are the perfect place to engage in a little festive behavior away from the crowd. Enjoy a large assortment of freshly brewed craft beer at Cisco, including their famous Whale’s Tale Pale Ale. Triple Eight Vodka has become somewhat of a local (and mainland) favorite too. The “Figawi Wowie” which is comprised of their signature blueberry vodka, lemonade and soda water is a favorite among the race weekend crowd and pretty much all summer long.