A diverse assortment of sailors and boats has descended upon the southernmost tip of Florida. Key West 2010, presented by Nautica welcomes veterans and first-timers, big boats and small.
An impressive fleet of 133 boats in 11 classes on three divisions will begin racing Monday in the 23rd edition of this popular international regatta.
Many participants, such as Farr 40 owner Jim Richardson, have been coming to the Conch Republic for years. This is the 14th Key West for Richardson, a Boston resident who anxiously awaits his annual winter getaway from the frigid northeast.
"I think this is the premier sailing event in the United States every year and I wouldn't miss it for anything. Key West always attracts the best sailors so the competition is second-to-none and the race management is top-notch so you can count on quality racing," Richardson said. "Add in the fact the weather is wonderful and the town of Key West is a lot of fun… this regatta has all the elements you could ask for."
At the opposite extreme are Jeremy Reynolds and his team aboard Magic in Motion. Having joined the J/80 class less than a year ago, the Annapolis resident is making his Key West debut. Reynolds readily admits his crew is still learning the boat, but that has not stopped them from taking the plunge and entering one of the most competitive events in North America.
"We are doing this for the experience. We are not concerned with the final result or worried about placing," Reynolds said. "We just want to soak in the atmosphere and learn as much as we can."
Reynolds and the rest of the Magic in Motion team hopped in a truck on Friday and made the 24-hour trek from the Chesapeake Bay regions to his Stock Island marina with the J/80 in tow. Some of the top J/80 teams in the United States are part of a 19-boat fleet and the regatta rookies are excited to see how the game is played at this level. This is the Midwinter Championship for the class and attracts all the top competitors, including two-time defending Key West champion Rumor (John Storck Jr). New York professional sailmaker Kerry Klingler and his Lifted team won in 2007 while Annapolis amateur Brian Robinson always has Angry Chameleon in the mix, finishing third last year.
"Everybody talks about Key West and what a fabulous regatta it is so we are very, very excited to be participating. This is going to be an amazing experience for us," Reynolds said.
Just as there is a large disparity in experience level, so too is the range of boat sizes. At the top end of the spectrum is Highland Fling XI, a Wally 82-footer owned by Irvine Laidlaw of Monaco. This is the first buoy regatta for the massive yacht, which was launched from the Goetz facility in Newport this past August.
"It's a new boat and this regatta will be its first true test. We are still learning how to handle it," said Peter Isler, a veteran professional who is serving as tactician aboard Highland Fling. "The sheer size of the boat is one thing, but the fact it goes twice as fast as some of the other boats in our fleet is another issue. Everything happens so fast and it's sometimes hard to gauge if you can cross another competitor or not."
This is the sixth of 11 Highland Fling designs that Laidlaw has brought to Key West, joining a Swan 53 and Farr 60 among others. Laidlaw said the Wally 82, which has been described as a oversized sport-boat, achieved 27 knots of speed in 22 knots of breeze during practice last week.
"I always enjoy coming to Key West because this is one of the best organized regattas in the world. Peter Craig and his team do a tremendous job," Laidlaw said. "The wind is very reliable over the course of the week and the fleet is usually very competitive."
One of the smallest boats in the fleet is berthed right here in Key West and has competed in the regatta 21 of the 23 years it has been held. Mark Milnes, a resident of Big Pine Key, has won the J and 24 sub-class in the past and finished second or third in his overall PHRF class many times.
"When you have a major regatta like this right in your backyard it makes sense to enter. We always have a lot of fun," said Milnes, whose crew consists of Key West or Stock Island residents.
The Melges 32 made its debut as a one-design class at Key West in 2006 with eight boats. Interest in the exciting sport-boat has soared since then and Melges 32 is now the largest class at Key West 2010 with 22 entries stocked with some of the top professionals in the world.
Star, owned by Jeff Ecklund of Fort Lauderdale, is the two-time defending champion at Key West. Other top competitors include 2006 winner New Wave (Michael Carroll), 2009 runner-up Red (Joe Woods) and reigning Gold Cup champion Ramrod (Rod Jabin).
Successful owners from other grand prix classes have moved into the Melges 32 while the list of tacticians reads like a who's who of the sport with America's Cup competitors such as New Zealand native Gavin Brady
(Ramrod) competing alongside Volvo Ocean Race veterans such as Richard Clarke
(onboard Arethusa of Phil Lotz).
"I think there are a number of reasons why the Melges 32 has taken off. First and foremost, it's a fun boat to sail… it gets up on top of the water and planes very easily. Second, the Melges folks are doing a really good job of managing the class and making sure regattas are run at a high level," said Shakedown tactician Chris Larson
, a long-time pro who recently teamed with Clarke to capture the Melges 24 World Championship.
Farr 40 and Melges 24 are two other classes that feature considerable professional talent. Richardson steered Barking Mad to victory in Farr 40 class at Key West 2008 and is the reigning world champion. Italian entries Joe Fly (Giovanni Maspero
) and Nerone (Massimo Mezzaroma
) are always in contention while Goombay Smash (William Douglass) has come on strong in recent years.
All 13 boats in the fleet boast a big-name tactician with America's Cup, Volvo or Olympic experience with Ian Walker
of Great Britain, Bouwe Bekking
of the Netherlands and Vasco Vascotto
of Italy among the international standouts.
"I think it's going to be the usual knockdown, drag-out fight and I expect this regatta to come down to the wire as usual," said Richardson, who has former Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Terry Hutchinson
It's a similar story in the Melges 24 class where UKA UKA Racing, the Italian entry steered by Lorenzo Bressani, is the defending champ. USA 587, skippered by Alan Field of California, is an up-and-comer in the class while Baghdad (Kristian Nergaard) and Blu Moon (Franco Rossini) should also be in contention.
"It's a typically competitive fleet with a bunch of boats that could do well. I think several teams have the potential of winning," said Bruce Ayres, whose Monsoon is annually one of the top amateur Melges 24 programs at Key West.
A new addition to Key West 2010 is a multihull handicap class that has attracted seven entries. For many years, the regatta featured a Corsair 28R One-Design fleet, but interest from other multihull owners prompted event director Peter Craig to institute handicap racing.
Merlin, a Gulfstream 35 owned by Bob Harkrider of Sarasota, is the lone catamaran in the fleet and scratch entry with a minus -12 rating. Merlin owes the smaller trimarans such as the Corsair 28-footers up to 33 seconds per mile.
"It will be interesting to see how it plays out. We'll need to win by three or four minutes in order to save our time on the trimarans. Hopefully, it will be like a bunch of tortoises chasing a rabbit," said Harkrider, a past Key West winner in the Corsair 28 class. "I think this is a great idea that Premiere Racing has come up with and could really take off. Next year, we could have twice as many boats."
Follow all the grand prix action, racing excitement, and results at www.Premiere-Racing.com