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Dan Dickison
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Key West Race Week 2002

"Huge regatta. Huge success. All around bigger than Elvis." 
              —sailmaker-racer Andreas Josenhans on KWRW 2001

Packed with excitement on the water and fun on shore, it doesn't get much better for keel boat racers than Key West Race Week.
It’s early winter in the US, and for a fortunate group of performance-minded sailors that can only mean one thing—Key West Race Week. This five-day cocktail of intense competition and shoreside camaraderie in the self-acclaimed Conch Republic is without question the premier keelboat racing event in the US, and it is rapidly attaining a similar stature worldwide. Nearly nowhere else on the planet can you find such an ample mix of amateur and professional sailors sharing the same racecourses during the day and the novel ambience of a fairy-tale-tourist-town-turned-counter-culture-mecca at night.

As a fixture on the racing scene, KWRW owns a brief history of serving as a barometer for the sport. In former years, this was the venue where designers and builders staged the debuts of their latest work. Fittingly, many of the movers and shakers in the performance sailing industry were on hand for the occasion. While the event continues to draw its share of sailing’s luminaries, in the half dozen years since offshore one-designs have monopolized the racing arena, KWRW has evolved to become less a new boat fashion show and more a performance sailing convention. What takes place out on the water is fun, but it’s the hob-nobbing, networking, and posturing on shore where the real action goes down. So slap on your nametag and jump into the fray. But before you do, here are a few conversational nuggets to take with you so you’ll be suitably armed.

In keeping with this transitional theme, KWRW has a new sponsor and thus a new name—Terra Nova Trading/Yachting Key West Race Week. It's a mouthful to be sure, but in an era when it’s exceedingly difficult to secure corporate support for the racing game, let’s not quibble. Terra Nova Trading, a company that facilitates direct-access stock transactions, is run by long-time Chicago sailor Chris Doubek. He isn’t only sponsoring the event, he’s also competing in the aggressive Farr 40 class as the tactician aboard Stuart Townsend’s Virago. Now that’s what I call commitment to the sport.

The Melges 24 Class will feature almost 80 boats on the line and no scarcity of top talent among them. 
Of course much of the attention for the 2002 edition of the event will focus on the machinations in the Melges 24 Class, which is staging its World Championship regatta in the turquoise waters just south of the famed isle. Postponed in the wake of the September 11 tragedies, the M-24 Worlds has fielded almost 80 entries, making it the largest ever event in the US for this class. As you might expect, the prospect has drawn some of the class’s top talent with sailors hailing from 11 countries and 16 US states. In my opinion there are at least 10 boats that could end up atop the standings by week’s end. The short list includes European Champ Cedric Pouligny, Swiss ace Flavio Favini, match race maven Marcus Weisser of Germany, West Coast wizards Vince Brun and Argyle Campbell, Olympic Silver Medalist Morgan Reeser, Hawaiian phenom Philippe Kahn, and the two most potent M-24 teams in the Midwest, Brian and John Porter, and Harry Melges, the latter last year’s KWRW winner in a 59-boat fleet.

Among the other six one-design classes in attendance this year, 28 boats will hit the line in the J/105 class. Though this sprit boat is occasionally mistaken as a platform for retired gentleman’s racing, the tenor of this gathering in Key West will be decidedly cutthroat. West Coast sailor Larry Harvey has recently jumped into the class, bringing a talented cadre of racers with him aboard the appropriately named Angry Beaver. Perennial favorite Tom Coates will be back with his team aboard Masquerade, and last year’s champion Bob Johnstone is returning with his Charleston, SC-based crew; but it’s really anybody’s game this time around.

Even in a year when so many high-profile names in the sport are engaged in the Volvo Ocean Race or preparing for the impending America’s Cup, KWRW will nonetheless reverberate with sailing talent. From the hired guns directing the action in the Farr 40 and 1D 35 classes (among them Robbie Haines, Chris Larsen, Ed Baird, John Bertrand, Thierry Peponnet, Vasco Vascotto, and Gary Weisman) to a few notables aboard the speedier craft (Gary Jobson on a Santa Cruz 70 and Randy Smyth on his own F-38R), to the unsung heroes elsewhere in the fleet, this event is a showcase for some of the best performers in the sport.

"How often can rank and file sailors rev it up on the starting line next to guys like John Betrand, John Kolius, and Gary Jobson?"
Though a lot of the sailors here wouldn’t likely cop to it, this celebrity-and-top-caliber aspect is one of the reasons so many of us continue to attend the event annually. And why not? How often is it that the rank and file get to rev it up on the starting line while watching what John Betrand or John Kolius might be doing on the boat right next door? Of course you can’t discount the near perfect sailing venue that Key West presents—where the winds are usually consistent and ordinarily strong and the seas just choppy enough to be challenging—nor the opportunity to escape colder temperatures up north.

The other thing to keep your eye on at KWRW is the race committee work, which in recent years has really raised the bar. Peter Craig and his colleagues who labor behind the scenes for Premier Racing do an almost incomparable job of providing quality race management for over 300 boats on four different racecourses. From their on-the-water execution to the timely posting of scores, it’s ordinarily a first-class operation.

Key Weird, as the island is occasionally  known, offers as much variety of amusement on shore as it does competitive caliber on the water.

And then there are the intangibles, particularly Key West’s wholly unique flavor as a vacation spot. Located closer to Cuba than to Miami, the island is an independent and irreverent subtropical paradise. It’s been called alternately "a sunny place for shady people," and "America’s perverted paradise." Those who frequent this former playground for US presidents and literati run the gamut, from sunset street performers at Mallory Square to the colorful denizens of Duval Street, collectively creating a wholly unique scene with an expansive spectrum of lifestyles seeping through every societal seam. The mix you’ll find ranges from the tony to the tawdry, from obscure but authentic Cuban restaurants to boisterous waterfront saloons. It’s worldly, it’s weird, it’s occasionally wild, and it’s hard to beat. And for a week in mid January, it all becomes a haven for racing sailors. Hope to see you there.

For photos and daily results of KWRC, visit the event’s website at

Suggested Reading:

Racecourse Lessons from Key West by Dobbs Davis

Key West, a Sailing Destination by John Kretschmer

A New Era for Key West Race Week by Dan Dickison

Buying Guide: Headsail Sheet Lead Systems

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