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Current Events at the Melges 24 Nationals

One of the 45 entries heads downwind in Charleston's current-induced chop.
Local lore holds that Charleston, SC&#151the site of the eighth edition of the Melges 24 National Championships this past weekend&#151is Ďwhere the Cooper and the Ashley Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.í That phrase is usually uttered with a heavy accent and an equally heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek bravado. But if thereís one thing these two rivers truly do form, itís confusion for sailboat racers. This murky confluence is one of the more confounding places to sail in the continental U.S., and for the 45 boats that journeyed here to compete in the waters that surround this historic southern city, the name of the game was current management.

The downtime moments between the eight races that made up this series were often peppered by across-the-water pleas like: "Which way do you go here?" Or, "What does local knowledge say about the ebb? And itís not only the currents, but Charleston Harbor is known for winds that ordinarily come at you from several of the cardinal points on a compass in a given day. Sadly, local knowledge here is about as easy to come by as shares of Berkshire-Hathaway, and even born-and-bred Charlestonian sailors are hard-pressed to answer the breeze and current questions.

All of that notwithstanding, it was the out-of-town sailors who fared best in this championship regatta, beginning with former Olympian Morgan Reeser and his Annapolis-based team aboard Neil Sullivanís M-Fatic, who emerged as the eventual winners by sailing smart and fast, and finishing consistently. Reeser and company didnít post a score worse than ninth, and grabbed two bullets to win by a 12-point margin in the no-throw-out series.

Eventual winner Morgan Reeser steers M-Phatic around the leeward gate just ahead of Scott Elliott's White Loaf

"Good starts and digging back when we didnít get them, that was what did it," explained Connecticut sailor Peter Renehan, who played the tactical role aboard M-Fatic. Standing on the docks of the Charleston Yacht Club after the final race, in which his team finished second, Renehan allowed that his group was initially daunted by their lack of local knowledge. But after logging scores of 9-1-2 on the first day, he said they felt comfortable in the unfamiliar waters. "The big thing was that Morgan just got good starts, and that was key for us. And downwind," he continued, "we just did a lot of work to stay in the puffs."

With two-time national champion Scott Elliott in the fleet and numerous other class stalwarts including Harry Melges, III, Argyle Campbell, and Mike Toppa sharing starting-line real estate with three top boats from the U.K. and the European World Champion Sebastian Col, getting off the line clean was definitely a challenge. And with 45 boats jockeying for a spot, the pre-start action had the aggressive characteristics of a spring sale at Walmart. Not surprisingly, the race committee resorted to implementing the Z flag (20-percent penalty for starting early) in almost every race.

After a frontal system moved through the peninsular city, Day 1 of the regatta featured a regional anomaly of rock-steady, 14-knot breezes out of 090 on the compass. The first of that dayís three, windward-leeward contests saw Harry Melgesí factory team bolt out of the gates after a general recall and gain ground by going up the left side of the course to avoid the final remnants of the flood tide. Melgesí Full Throttle was never seriously challenged in that race after they popped their kite and showed the rest of the fleet how to get a Melges 24 planing in marginal conditions.

"The big thing was that Morgan just got good starts, and that was key for us."

For the second race, the left side was the place to be, both upwind and down for each of the six legs, and Morgan Reeser dialed into that information early, making it pay. After rounding the top mark with a six-boatlength lead, Reeser and company capitalized downwind whenever possible to get their ride on a plane. They eventually built an unassailable lead.

In the dayís final contest, with the ebb now in high gear and the breeze topping out at 15 knots, the best gains came early on the right side of the course where the current was at its strongest. Southern California resident Argyle Campbell played it perfectly on the first beat and rounded a few lengths ahead of Elliottís White Loaf where Dave Chapin had helming duties. Those two sailed their own race for the remaining five legs, but Chapin was never able to pull ahead.

The following day dawned nearly breezeless, and a long, shoreside postponement provided a welcome break for those crew who had overindulged in the previous eveningís "knots and shots"&#151a quasi-competitive blend of drinking and knot tying. The wait also allowed Melges 24 class officers to hold an impromptu meeting as the wind deities went about making up their minds. Newly installed class president John Porter of Savannah, GA discussed some ambitious ideas including a revamped website for the class and a plan to stage the 2001 worlds in Miami on the heels of the Acura SORC. By the time the meeting broke up, news of a freshening southerly was spreading, and a general exodus toward the course was in motion.

The fleet navigates the top mark in Race Two with the ebb tide beginning to churn.

The race committee managed to get in three windward-leeward contests that day, which took the fleet directly across a building ebb tide toward the shores of James Island where an 8 to 10-knot breeze came off the land in fits and starts. The first race was all Reeserís as he used what seemed like an additional gear to get off the line fast and work up the right-hand side. White Loaf was in constant pursuit, but had to settle for a second.

In the next race, Americaís Cup veteran Mike Toppa sped out to first place by going right upwind and playing the puffs downwind. In the final race of the day, with the ebb again hitting its max velocity, Charleston native Will Martin steering Routt Reigartís Suzanne got what he described as a late start and was forced to go right, which paid huge dividends. Suzanne profited from better breeze on the right and rounded the first upwind mark with a 15-boatlength cushion that she proceeded to compound as the race progressed.

By the time the racers got out on the course for the final dayís activity, the wind had switched once again and the fleet now faced a shifty, six-knot northwesterly. Reeser held a comfortable, 15-point margin in the overall standings, but the battle for second between Elliott, Melges, and Argyle Campbell&#151with just four points separating them&#151promised to be intense. This time the flood tide would prevail on the course as the fleet picked itís way across the current-heavy waterscape.

British sailor Colin Smithís Loaded found some freedom on the right and launched out to a nearly private contest, picking up distance on each leg for the win. By grabbing a second place, Elliott solidified his overall chances while Melges and Campbell both logged double-digit finishes and slipped further from contention. The finale saw Argyle Campbell kick it into gear and lead from wire to wire to get the gun as Reeser crossed close behind in second, cementing his claim to the title.

At the ensuing award ceremony inside the Charleston Yacht Club, Morgan Reeser led his crew up to accept the Melges 24 2000 National Championship trophy. Addressing the audience he said "Itís really an honor to share space with the caliber of guys whoíve won this trophy before. But we sailed well and Iíve got a great crew. And thatís good because Iíve never sailed in a place where the winds are so challengingÖand you have to deal with current too."

Downtime at the 2000 Melges 24 National Championship meant swatting gnats and swapping stories.

Taking the Pulse   Charlestonís showing of 45 boats for the Melges 24 National Championship represents an increase of 13 boats from the previous national regatta in Traverse City, MI. "No question the class is getting ramped up," says Andy Burdick of Melges Performance Sailboats, the Melges 24 builder. "Weíve had two world championships to date and that helps enhance the level of competition and enthusiasm among the owners." Burdick expects this summerís Melges 24 World Championships, scheduled for August in La Rochelle, France, to attract 120 boats. He says his company will soon build the 500th of these Reichel-Pugh-designed pocket rockets, and hopes to see almost 100 boats materialize for the 2001 World Championships in Miami, FL.

Overall Standings for the 2000 Melges 24 Nationals

1. Morgan Reeser M-Phatic 9-1-3-1-6-2-6-2 (30)
2. Scott Elliott White Loaf 7-5-2-2-4-17-2-3 (42)
3. Harry Melges Full Throttle 1-3-9-4-3-13-14-4 (51)
4. Argyle Campbell Rock 'N' Roll 2-7-1-8-14-3-16-1 (52)
5. Colin Smith Loaded 3-18-6-6-510-1-6 (55)
6. Mike Toppa Buzzard 4-9-5-91-9-21-10 (68)
7. Dave West Chippewa 6-10-14-3-13-20-22-13 (101)
8. Tony Wetherell Snicker's 5-6-10-10-15-19-18-18 (101)
9. Brian Harrison No Name 17-2-7-20-21-18-11-8 (104)
10. Routt Reigart Suzanne 17-2-7-20-21-18-11-8 (104)

Argyle Campbell won top honors as the best amateur owner-driver in the fleet.

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