Looking Ahead at Key West Race Week
The 24th edition of what has become, for many, the annual trek to Mile Marker Zero on Route 1 in Florida, known in 2011 as Key West Race Week presented by Nautica, delivered a solid week of racing for the 134-boat fleet. Competitors traveled from the four corners of the United States – 24 states total, and representation from international participants arrived from Italy, France, Great Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Bermuda. Key West is regarded as the premier international keelboat sailing event in the United States and the level of competition did not disappoint across three divisions and 13 classes.
If you live in the Northeast, and consider yourself a full-fledged participant in the winter dubbed ‘Snowmageddon’ and you’ve been part of the shoveling, plowing and ice-chipping brigade, then allow yourself to be transported to the turquoise-hued waters off Key West for the time it takes you to read along. You’ll feel better, but please don’t look outside unless, of course, you’re sitting at the top of a mountain with a vista of pristine ski trails.
If you’ve previously raced at Key West and you happen to have a Mount Gay hat, and if you own a pair of Sperry Top-Siders, go ahead and put those on. If you’ve purchased a t-shirt, polo shirt, hat, fleece or jacket from SLAM, then – at the risk of your family staring at you oddly – throw that on. Now you’re in the mood. You might want to reach into the fridge and grab a frosty beverage or – depending on the time of day, that bottle of Mount Gay Rum and some ice – slice a lime and settle into a comfy chair.
Among the 1,000 or so sailors in Key West during the third week of January was four-time America’s Cup winner and current Oracle Racing CEO Russell Coutts, returning after a five-year hiatus to showcase the RC 44 that he co-designed. The one-design boat debuted in 2006, and following a 14-boat regatta in Miami in December, a few of the European owners decided they wanted to come to Key West. “It’s good to take a week out of the calendar and enjoy the regatta in a relaxed atmosphere,” said Coutts of his return to the Conch Republic. “Premiere Racing does a great job, and creates a very social regatta. The main reason is to have fun. The whole atmosphere is very laid back, and it is a great regatta to show the boat. The racing is always great, and very challenging.”
Key West was the second North American regatta for the RC 44. Among the notable owners present was Vincenzo Onorato of Naples, Italy, whose Mascalzone Latino syndicate is the Challenger of Record for the 34th America’s Cup. A special invitation was extended to all media in attendance. On each day, a “ninth man” could join each boat in the five-boat RC 44 class to ride along in a non-crew role in the back of the boat to experience racing firsthand. At the Friday evening awards presentation, Vincenzo was beaming as he came to the stage to accept the RC 44 overall trophy. Vincenzo has come to Key West for years, and he asked for the microphone briefly. “I love racing in Key West – it has been a great week,” he said. “I have started a sailing program for underprivileged kids in my home, Napoli, to introduce them to the sea, and I hope that they can get the same joy that I get from sailing.” The crowd response was loud, heartfelt, and joyful.
Entries in Key West are a contrast; one of the many unique aspects of the event. It’s the only North American event where the recognizable names of America’s Cup sailors, Olympic medalists and Volvo Ocean Race veterans amounts to a list of “Who’s Who” in professional racing, are combined with a wide range of talent across One-Design, PHRF, Multihull and IRC classes. For the racing that most of us can relate to, in PHRF 1, a very happy Jim Sminchak and Team IT from Cleveland, OH were the winners of SAIL Magazine’s “Best Around the Buoys” competition. Sailing a brand new J/111 outfitted by J Boats and other contest partners, they enjoyed a “free ticket” to race in Key West. Sminchak and his crew had a great series, claiming first overall in PHRF 1. Talk about a sweet ride!
In the 18 years that Premiere Racing has managed the event both on and off the water, the bar has continuously been raised. Key West is synonymous with very competitive sailing, a diverse array of post-race activities, and an approach to regatta planning that’s unsurpassed in the US. Attracting top talent across multiple classes is a reflection of the priority that Premiere Racing places on offering outstanding race management and putting on a great show shoreside. Adding to this year’s event was a six-night street party at the host venue, Kelly’s Caribbean, located between Duval and Whitehead Streets at the corner of Caroline.
For ten years (more or less), I’ve seen the event from the perspective of the news desk of the daily paper, Race Week News. For the past few years, as editor, I routinely missed the action on the water, the tent parties and nightly award presentations, reliving the day through the words written by our writing team and the incredible photos provided by several exceptional shooters.
The changing economy has hit the sport of sailing particularly hard. This year, Premiere Racing responded by cutting costs across the board without compromising the event’s quality. Race Week News was cut, and the expanded use of social media delivered timely coverage from the racecourse via daily blogs from all three racing circles, daily press releases, dock talks and interviews posted to Premiere’s website, combined with posts on Facebook and Twitter. My new “job” was an assignment to PRO Ken Legler’s Division 1 Race Committee and providing shoreside assistance. I was thrilled to be involved…and back on the water!
A smaller event set up “SWAT” team started with a blank sheet of paper at the new venue. In a matter of days, the team transformed a quiet street into an inviting tropical block party with flags of the participating countries framing the street from above and backlit by a canopy of tree lights. Industry Partner booths from Nautica, Lewmar, Marlow, B&G and Sperry Top-Sider were located streetside, and official clothing sponsor SLAM set up shop on Kelly’s outdoor dining patio. TV monitors mounted on trees and telegraph poles and a large video screen replayed each day’s on-the-water action. Throw in some good music, mild evening temperatures (OK, there was one night of rain), and ever-flowing add Sapporo beer, Mount Gay Rum and daily awards. It didn’t take long to melt the memories of snow and ice in an atmosphere that provided a relaxing backdrop to the day’s competition. The Race office and jury made their home in a quaint outdoor garden of a wine and beer bar called Grunts, across the street from Kelly’s. The media office was situated down a short side street that doubled as a restaurant storage area for Kelly’s. The heartbeat of Premiere Racing was located behind the venue in a space that most would consider a modest-sized office for two people. Command central hummed at all hours of the day, managing multiple demands for the event.
I had the opportunity to chat with several sailors during the week (a real benefit of being part of the RC is to volunteer for the post-race party at least once during the week. What a treat!) Between punching entry cards and stamping hands, I had the chance to “meet and greet” hundreds of sailors and listen to their conversations. Their overall response? Event Director Peter Craig’s team of Race Committee members and the volunteer crew from Premiere Racing hit the ball out of the park, once again. Bars were situated strategically so that the wait was minimal. The awards presentations were well-attended and the decibel level on Kelly’s patio reached a crescendo on Friday night as the final day’s racing tipped the scores to the winners in the majority of the 13 classes.
In addition, George Carras of Commander’s Weather provided daily weather briefings. The All-Star panel discussion on Sunday was standing room only, and additional discussions on match racing and the proposal to move to a central measurement rule offered brain candy to participants. Post-awards, local bars and restaurants were well-frequented, and popular Key West watering holes had crowds spilling into the streets – even on “school nights.” The boost to the local economy reaches into every sector, above and beyond what cruise ships and weekend crowds from Miami bring at a time of year where tourism is very quiet.
From my seat in the front row on Division 1’s Signal Boat, I kept pinching myself as a reminder that I was not in Connecticut anymore. At the end of the first day of racing, Ken Legler turned to me and said, “This beats spending your evenings at the (Key West) Citizen, right?” My response was, “Is that really a question?”
On our circle, we had Mini-Maxis, IRC 1 and 2, RC 44s and Farr 30s. Watching the starts and mark roundings in all the classes, any sailor could learn a thing or three. Watching 70-footers thrown around the pre-start like small dinghies, Ken commented, “There are 80 sailors on the (four) boats – about the same number of Opti sailors at the last regatta I ran.” Being part of the Race Committee to experience firsthand how Ken Legler performs his task and knowing the other PROs Dave Brennan (Div 2) and Wayne Bretsch (Div 3) are doing the same on the other circles is impressive.
“The number one emphasis is race management, and to set a standard for race excellence,” Ken explained. “There are four top level priorities; 1-Lack of general recalls (there was one out of 125 starts this year – and not in our division!); 2-Start on time; 3-Post scores at every landing site and online by the time the boats return to shore; 4-Keep the classes apart to provide fair racing.”
One of the things repeated over and over by participants at Key West is the amount and quality of the communication from the Race Committee. On our boat, at 1015, Ken promptly made a general announcement to Division 1 to “greet” all of the competitors, announce the daily sponsor, highlight the number of intended races for the day, provide any warnings for changing weather like any bands of rainstorms, course length, and even details of any fish pots located on or near the start area. Each day’s script was a little bit different, and was always delivered professionally and enthusiastically. In case you don’t know Ken, he is the sailing coach at Tufts University and lives and breathes competitive sailboat racing. Shoreside, he’s is the emcee for the awards presentations.
The other committee members on our boat, Dave and Gail Bernstein, Ellyn Osmond, Nick Langone, Don Behrens, Susan Burnside and Sally Smith, all have a wealth of experience, and each day rolled along smoothly, quietly and professionally for all 50 starts. Marks were set, changed, moved, and boats called over at the start all promptly returned. All I could think was, ‘Would more people feel less intimidated to try racing if this type of communication was provided at all local sailing events?’ You bet.
There are rumors that this might have been the last Key West Race Week, and a great deal of speculation over whether the event will return to celebrate its 25th year. A decision has not been made, and there are multiple factors that will determine the outcome. Looking at the future from an economic sustainability view is certainly paramount, based on the falling entry numbers in recent years. In a recent Scuttlebutt interview, Peter provided a pragmatic outlook on the future of Key West: “At our pre-regatta meeting with our Race Committee, I said how I couldn’t assure them that this was happening next year. But we are going to make every effort to strategize and plan to make a viable event in 2012. I will give you one idea that I am thinking about. With leisure time getting stretched, I am hearing that a five-day regatta is now too much. So, you still have a ten-race series, but over a four-day period. Consider Saturday through Tuesday, with Monday still a U.S. national holiday. While it is only one day different, it would allow people to work parts of both weeks while slightly stretching the three-day weekend in the middle. That’s huge. People would still get a great ten-race series that would have a lesser impact on their responsibilities at home and work, plus there would be a day less of expenses at the event. So that is just one idea we are working on.”
After arriving back at Hartford Bradley Airport – welcomed by a bone chilling 7 degrees F - I drove home thinking about what it will take to keep the event on the calendar. While working from home during the most recent ice storm, I talked a bit more with Ken Legler, who’s been at Key West for as long as Peter Craig has been the Event Director. “It is important for classes to communicate,” said Ken. “If they talk it up in advance, and get people thinking early to plan on attending Key West, then it can create a ripple effect.” Peter summed it up in the Scuttlebutt interview: “Each individual one-design class, and to some extent the handicap classes, have to roll up their sleeves and play a role in these travel regattas. It can’t just be an event organizer knocking on the door and sending emails. It’s got to be a two-way street where they see the importance of the event for their class. And we really need it now.” Both the J/80 and Farr 30 classes communicated extensively among the membership in order to get the numbers up to constitute an individual class start.
For those of you who have raced in Key West, this is no time boat regatta in the U.S. fall off the sailing calendar, there are a few things you can do during the next few months. If you’re part of a one-design class, talk it up and generate some projected entry numbers. If you’re part of a larger IRC or PHRF sailing community, you can do the same. If the expense of trucking a boat is more than you want to spend, which is understandable, consider chartering a onedesign boat and trying something new. Most importantly, register early. Being a fence sitter waiting to see what the next guy is doing doesn’t win races, and won’t keep Key West on the calendar. Are you thirsty for more? Please visit Premiere-Racing.com. On a snowy day, I can look at the images, read the press releases, and easily transport myself back to Key West. I prefer to look ahead, not behind, and hope to see you there to celebrate number 25.