By Dan Dickison
Nothing can undermine credibility faster than an unsubstantiated claim. So, it’s good to know that the people behind the largest multiclass gathering in North America – Sperry Charleston Race Week – always make good on the tagline they’ve adopted for their event: “A regatta unlike any other.”
In recent years, Race Week’s organizers have worked hard to cement their springtime event as a bucket-list fixture on the U.S. sailing scene. They’ve done this primarily through innovation, and the formula seems to be working. Each April, competitors from across the U.S. and around the globe make their way to the South Carolina Lowcountry. They enjoy top-notch competition on the water with some of the world’s best racers in attendance, and unparalleled festivities on shore. It turns out that Race Week is equal parts wild party and superb competition. It’s Mardi Gras meets the America’s Cup – on a much smaller scale.
This year (April 23 – 26), Race Week is celebrating its 25th anniversary and the organizers are intent on commemorating the milestone in fitting style. Given that, expectations are high that the event will live up to its reputation as well as its tagline.
Nearly every year the regatta’s organizers add new classes to the event. Last spring, they added a fleet of RS 21s, the popular sportboat from the UK, as well as a fleet of mostly professionally-crewed M32 multihulls. Past editions of the event have also featured new course formats. For offshore entries, the key innovation in 2019 was the addition of a hybrid-pursuit course that featured three contests in one.
For this year, the organizers have arranged free launching and hauling at the Charleston Yacht Club for any entries 28 feet and smaller. (There will be crane launching available for larger vessels, which comes with a nominal charge.) And to highlight the shoreside proceedings, they’re planning an engaging multimedia presentation on the upcoming America’s Cup.
“This kind of innovation is something we do every year,” explains Randy Draftz, whose tenure as regatta director for Race Week stretches back over the past 12 years. “Our steering committee purposely examines trends in the sport and listens to the comments from participants in previous editions of the event. All of that information is factored into the tweaks we make regarding the programming. We’re always looking to add value for our participants. It’s something that Race Week veterans have come to expect because we’ve done it for over 20 years. It’s important that we make every decision with the competitors’ interests in mind. That’s embedded in the DNA of this regatta.”
Draftz and his co-organizers are cognizant of the fact that some major regattas around the U.S. have shrunk (i.e. Rolex Big Boat Series) or vanished entirely (think Key West Race Week). Consequently, it was no surprise that few years back they opted to expand participation by offering scoring under ORC, along with the PHRF and one-design formats they’ve long used. This change initially drew a fleet of five 26-foot keelboats. Three years later, in 2019, 15% of the event’s entries competed in four classes using the ORC rating and scoring system. This growth prompted the organizers to score the prestigious Palmetto Cup – one of two perpetual trophies that have always been part of this regatta – under ORC. And this spring, Race Week will serve double duty as the ORC North American Trophy regatta. (The regatta will also be a pre-Worlds tune-up for the Melges 24 Class because the 2020 M24 Worlds will take place in Charleston two weeks later.)
As challenging as the competition is at Race Week, that’s not the only thing that the organizers focus on while making their yearly tweaks. In more recent years, they’ve sought to augment the event’s programming so that the experience isn’t just about what happens on the water. It’s also about education and skill building. To do that, they’ve worked closely with corporate sponsor Quantum Sails to bring in well-known and accomplished sailing personalities such as Ed Baird and Shirley Robertson, who deliver daily briefings. Aided by aerial videos and graphics projected on the event’s beachfront jumbotron, these experts engage their audiences with savvy tactical analyses as well as pre-race weather briefings.
Quantum’s role in this represents another attribute that Draftz identifies as pivotal to the event’s success – longstanding commitment from key sponsors. Sperry has been the title sponsor for the past decade, providing not just financial support, but also delivering tremendous presence at the regatta by way of the company’s singular, tropical-themed retail booth. And Goslings Rum is Race Week’s most veteran corporate partner, having donated huge amounts of its delectable product and branded accessories for the past 15 years.
Draftz also cites important sponsorship from Gill North America (a 13-year backer), Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina (a 15-year backer), Quantum Sails (a six-year backer) and vineyard vines (14 years). “The formula for success here,” Draftz explains, “is equal parts ingenuity and commitment. Our planning team provides the ingenuity and our sponsors provide the commitment.”
Draftz will also tell you that Race Week is the beneficiary of a superb natural setting for sailboat racing. Charleston Harbor is unique in that it’s a broad venue with protected water and a variety of wind conditions (at this time of year). When you add to that scenario the tricky tidal currents that abound here, you’ve got a place that’s equally challenging for locals and visitors alike.
“And it’s also a real bonus,” Draftz adds, “that for the past dozen years, we’ve operated out of one of the best venues in the country – Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina. Our regatta village where we have nightly parties is right on the beach overlooking the marina and the race courses. It’s another reason that attendance at Race Week has remained so healthy.”
Everyone who volunteers for Race Week is proud to help bring about this annual event. “We couldn’t do it without the many, many volunteers who turn out to set marks and help with registration and do so many things,” Draftz says. “Over the past 25 years, this event has steadily built the kind of assets and resources required so that we can run up to seven different race courses simultaneously. That’s a high bar. With more than 200 dedicated volunteers on the water and the fact that we import some of the top race officers in the sport, we get it done. The caliber of race management here is just one more of the many things that make Race Week a regatta unlike any other.” Registration is open at charlestonraceweek.com. ■