Mother Nature flipped the switch just in time for Key West 2010, presented by Nautica.
The unseasonably chilly temperatures gave way and competitors in the 23rd edition of North America's most prestigious winter regatta were greeted by Chamber of Commerce conditions on Monday. "This shapes up to be the warmest race week here in Key West in recent memory," event director Peter Craig said.
Sunny skies, 75-degree temperatures and solid wind produced an ideal opening day for the week-long event, organized by Premiere Racing.
"It was a picture-perfect day for sailboat racing. The weather was wonderful, the seas were calm and the wind was more than adequate," said Wayne Bretsch, principal race officer on Division 3.
Bretsch and fellow PROs Ken Legler (Division 1) and Dave Brennan (Division 2) were all able to complete two races in oscillating winds that held steady between 7 and 10 knots. Competitors reported wind shifts ranging from five to 50 degrees, which kept tacticians on their toes.
"The wind speed was up and down and it was shifting as much as 45 degrees so there were plenty of opportunities to gain or lose," said North Sails professional Larry Leonard, tactician aboard the J/122 Pugwash, which is leading the IRC 2 class after posting a first and a second on Monday. "It was very tactical racing and we got fortunate a few times. We managed to hit more shifts than we missed."
No skipper sported a broader smile on the dock afterward than Wolfgang Schaefer, who won a race in Farr 40 class for only the second time in four trips to Key West. Schaefer steered Struntje Light to victory in race two after finishing sixth in race one and holds the overall lead via tiebreaker over both Barking Mad (Jim Richardson, Newport, R.I.) and Joe Fly (Giovanni Maspero
, Rome, Italy).
"I am very happy because this is a new boat and a fairly new team. It is also the first time in nearly 40 years that I am steering with a tiller," said Schaefer, whose previous Struntje Light had a wheel.
Struntje Light finished 17th in Farr 40 class at Key West 2008 and it was navigator Angela Schaefer who realized a newer design was needed in order to win the prestigious regatta. "My wife asked me if I wanted to just compete or if I wanted to try to win," Wolfgang Schaefer said.
Schaefer purchased the former Mean Machine from Peter de Ridder and the crew sailed the boat for the first time in practice last week. Apparently tactician Jes Gram-Hansen
and the rest of the crew figured out the new boat fairly quickly.
"We did very well on the first downwind run. We rounded the mark in third and went left. The left proved to be really strong and we opened up a lead of about six boat lengths," Hansen said of how race two unfolded.
Early competition is also close in the 21-boat Melges 24 class as two of the top contenders - UKA UKA Racing and Blu Moon - both won a race. Helmsman Lorenzo Bressani also posted a second as the Italian team took a two-point lead on the Swiss entry. UKA UKA Racing, owned by Lorenzo Santini of Porto Civitanova and featuring American Jonathan McKee
as tactician, was declared the Nautica Watches Boat of the Day.
, helmsman aboard Blu Moon, posted a fourth in race two and was happy to get through the first day in good shape. "It was light and shifty, which is something we have encountered before here. It was a bit tricky for the tacticians, but all in all very nice racing conditions," Favini said. "I thought the race committee did a great job of setting the course very quickly between races. They hurried to get the fleet started again while there was still good wind."
Rod Jabin and his crew aboard Ramrod posted a pair of third place results to grab the early lead in Melges 32, which is loaded with professional talent like the Farr 40 and Melges 24 classes. Jabin is a former Farr 40 owner who moved into the Melges 32 last spring and enjoyed immediate success - winning the Gold Cup held off Fort Lauderdale in early December. America's Cup veteran Gavin Brady
is calling tactics for Jabin, who has picked up right where he left off last month here in Key West.
"You take an average boat and put Gavin Brady onboard it makes a big difference," Jabin said. "I did a reasonable job of getting us off the start line and Gavin did a great job of positioning the boat.
Jabin has a crew comprised entirely of fellow Annapolis residents and said the ability to get out on the water and practice together on a regular basis should not be underestimated. "We have worked very hard with North Sails on rig tune and that has been a big help," said Jabin, who practiced with John Kilroy and the Samba Pa Ti team last week. "I don't think we're the fastest boat out here, but our rig is set up well while our crew work and tactics are strong."
Bella Mente, a Reichel-Pugh 66-footer skippered by Hap Fauth of Newport, R.I., is the opening day pacesetter in IRC 1 class, which features the largest boats in the regatta. Kelvin Harrup is calling tactics aboard Bella Mente, which won both races on Monday and holds a four-point lead over the TP52 Interlodge (Austin Fragomen) and the Wally 82 Highland Fling (Irvine Laidlaw).
"Today was an ideal Bella Mente day, absolutely ideal conditions for our boat," Fauth said. "Give me a few more days like this and I'll be a happy camper."
Highland Fling is by far the biggest boat entered in Key West 2010 and was expected to sail around the IRC 1 course by itself. However, Fauth said Bella Mente was able to keep the 82-footer in range in Monday's flat water and less than 10 knots of wind.
"Off the wind in this type of breeze, we're very competitive with Highland Fling," said Fauth, noting that owner Irvine Laidlaw and his 24-man crew are learning the newly-launched maxi. "They're still shaking her down so we haven't seen her top end by any means."
Premiere Racing has introduced a handicap multihull class at Key West 2010 and all involved were eager to see how it would work out. Merlin, a Gulfstream 35 that is scratch boat in the fleet and the lone catamaran, notched two bullets to seize the early lead. "Today's conditions favored us because we have more sail area," said tactician Doug Fisher, a Florida-based professional with Ullman Sails.
Skipper Bob Harkrider and the Merlin team are sailing out in front of the six smaller trimarans in the class and thus have to focus on sailing their own race. "It's all about going fast and going in the right direction. In a fleet like this in which the boats are so different, you need to make sure you take care of yourself… which is probably what you should do most of the time anyway," Fisher said.
Brian Keene (Marion, Mass.) is off to a good start in his bid to repeat as J and 105 champion at Key West, steering Savasana to a first and a second on Monday. North Sails professional Will Welles (Newport, R.I.) won race one and took third in race two to jump ahead in the 19-boat J/80 class, which is contesting its Midwinter Championship at Key West 2010.
Follow all the grand prix action, racing excitement, and results at www.Premiere-Racing.com.