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Exceeding Expectations

Last month, I went to the Volvo Ocean Race Newport stopover. I was accompanied by my wife and son, as well as WindCheck’s Advertising Sales Manager Erica Pagnam and her husband and daughter. I also met up with a few other sailing friends. The disposition of the people I was with is germane because we were a mixture of adults and children, as well as sailors and non-sailors. I was counting on Newport to deliver everything that I thought was missing from the previous Volvo Ocean Race stopovers that I’d visited in New York and Boston – chiefly atmosphere and personality – and Newport did not disappoint.

The spectacle that was the VOR Newport stopover provided, for my non-sailing companions, an identifiable and comfortable closeness to the sport. It was cutting edge, yet human. The Race Village at Fort Adams State Park allowed for close proximity to the boats and racing teams, as well as incredible shoreside spectating. It was fun for the entire group. Ranking highly among the many family-friendly  features was that every attraction designed to keep the little ones engaged did just that, from the marine science exhibits in the Exploration Zone to the sit-on-top Volvo play cars and trucks.

What I witnessed in Newport was friendly and welcoming accessibility to a sport that, in the past, you’d need a boat of your own to watch, and at least rudimentary training to understand. Say what you will about the modern iteration of sailboat racing, but you cannot deny that a stadium/festival atmosphere for an event like the Volvo is a good thing. It made me think of the many regattas held on a smaller scale that will take cues from this and other high profile events.

We know that just as there is a trickle-down of sailing technology, there is also a trickledown of spectator technology. Real time scoring and on-course blogging and video is the norm these days, but lay person-friendly commentary and big screen viewing for an event like Block Island Race Week would be an awesome addition to an already incredible event. There are usually throngs of people shoreside at BIRW – on the lawn at The Oar and elsewhere on the island – that would relish the opportunity to watch the action, especially with expert, yet understandable commentary like VOR spectators enjoyed in Newport. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

Now that the VOR has left Newport, and this stopover lauded as the best of this go-round (and maybe every), I think it’s reasonable to expect that plans are well afoot for an even better event when the race returns here in three years. Yes, this is speculation, but how could it not return after such success? It is this sort of continuity of purpose that I expect from the Storm Trysail Club at each biennial edition of Block Island Race Week; that this year’s running will be the same or better than previous. The reason that I think BIRW has been so successful for 50 years is because STC does a great job of combining competition with camaraderie. Who knows, maybe Brad Read and the Sail Newport crew took some of the character of Race Week and added it to the magnitude of the VOR; a perfect balance in my opinion.

Speaking of crews, the folks that produce the magazine you’re holding are once again heading to Block this month. The format of the popular Race Week News is evolving, and this year it’ll be available as an app for your mobile device. We will, however, be publishing one edition of the traditional newspaper on the last day of the regatta.

With BIRW celebrating its glorious past, the hard-working Storm Trysail Club volunteers are looking toward the event’s next half century with a focus on the family fun for which Race Week is famous, as well as cultivating a crop of young sailors who just might be sailing at Race Week with their own families in 2065. With that goal in mind, the event has a new perpetual trophy. The Gem Trophy was donated by Heidi & Steve Benjamin to memorialize the ideals of Heidi’s father William Ziegler, III, an accomplished sailor who frequently raced his yachts named Gem at Block Island Race Week with youth sailors.

Enabling families to participate or watch sailing as a unit is a big part of the way the sport is growing, and it’s nice to see. I’ll take pleasure in watching the parade of boats egress the Great Salt Pond each day during Race Week just as I enjoyed watching the spectator fleet escort the VOR boats out of Newport – and just like with the Volvo Ocean Race, you’ll be able to follow your favorite team’s progress throughout the week via the BIRW App. I expect there is a future Volvo racer or two among the crowd, either sailing or following the action.

See you on the water.

Chris Gill


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