Anyone who has been around the sport of sailboat racing for a while can conjure up a pretty vivid picture when you mention Yachting Key West Race Week. Strong breezes kicking up turquoise waters define the setting for a fierce but fun five days of racing hosted by an unlikely town that often feels like the state fair on hallucinogenic drugs (not that I can verify that particular metaphor). Like the tick of a glacial-paced metronome, this mega event rolls around each January as a landmark in the sport. It's generally counted on as a barometric regatta, measuring who's who and what's what in racing, a sort of state-of-the-sport happening. In previous years, the latest and greatest speed machines have made their debuts here, and normally, what you see at KWRW sets the tone for the rest of the year in competitive sailing. But this year's event, which begins today (January 15), is looming as somewhat of an anomaly, and here's why.
Record Participation Three primary factors have collided to put over 300 entrants on the scratch sheet this year: a strong economy, a renaissance of popularity in offshore one-design competition, and the fact that the America's Cup is in its boardroom-not-racecourse stage. As of early January, 327 boats were committed to the event, so many that the organizers at Premier Racing were obliged to create an unprecedented fourth racing circle. "To say that we were overwhelmed by the number of entries would be an understatement," explained Peter Craig, Premier Racing's head honcho. "We've never really come close to the 300-boat limit in past years, which is why we were reluctant to turn boats away. We haven't slammed the door on anybody [this year]. The owners were probably as surprised as we were."Consider these statistics: The J/105 class solidified from 18 entries in 2000 to 25 in 2001. The Mumm 30 class crept up to 31 entries from 26, and the Melges 24 group has gone from 46 entries to 59. Leading the surge in entries this year is the Farr 40 Class. Just four years in existence, this international, grand prix one-design has become the steed of choice for many high rollers who formerly attended KWRW in 50-foot models. This year, no fewer than 37 Farr 40s will strut their stuff out on the Straits of Florida, putting participation up by 30 percent over the 2000 event. Among the crews in this class are some of the world's top racing sailors, some Olympic veterans, and many of the current employees of America's Cup campaigns. And spicing up the action is the fact that a nucleus of these boats will be vying for the right to represent the US in next summer's Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup. One boat to watch in particular will be Philippe Kahn's Pegasus, with Olympic gold medallist Mark Reynolds newly signed to the afterguard.
Grand Prix Meets Grass Roots Yachting Key West Race Week is now in its 14th year, having been established in 1988, and throughout that span of evolution it has taken on a singular identity as the foremost regatta in the US where professionals mingle on the racecourse with weekend warriors. Consider that among the 80-plus boats scheduled to compete in Division 1, roughly 40 have professionals among their crews. Pros are littered through the ranks of the Farr 40s and scattered liberally among the 1D 35s, but elsewhere, particularly among the classes in Divisions 2 and 3, they are scarce.
Not only can the rank-and-file sailor go head to head with the pros on the water, but the organizers take advantage of this preponderance of talent and stage post-race seminars featuring some of the sport's most successful practitioners. Here, via an informal format, topics like tactics and boat speed, or the 2003 America's Cup, define the arena for engagement between household names in the sport, and, well, everyday Joes like me. International Appeal Though the bulk of the competitors that make up the fleets at Key West Race Week are riding aboard boats bearing US homeports, among the list of entrants this year are some 50 foreign vessels representing 20 countries. It's a statistic you don't often hear associated with sailboat racing events in this country. Actually, having 50 foreign entrants in a sailing event anywhere is something tacitly reserved for the Laser Worlds or the Olympics.
That crews like the one aboard Naohiko Sera's Farr 47 Sea Hawk from Japan would come all the way from the Pacific Rim to compete is a factoid that begins to establish the measure of this event. And consider that nearly half the entries in the Farr 40 class hail from overseas (or Canada), that's legitimately international competition. Of course that claim won't be verified until the organizers can demonstrate international media interest, but it's certainly a start.
Broad-Based Sponsorship Unlike most previous editions of this event, there is no title sponsor this year at Yachting Key West Race Week. Instead, a collection of companies has agreed to participate as supporting entities (SailNet is one), supplying the organizers with a combination of funding and products. It's a situation that appears to be emblematic of the new age of sponsorship in racing, and a quick rundown of these companies, Mount Gay Rum, Lewmar Marine, SailNet, B&G Electronics, Grand Banks Yachts, the Kenwood Cup, Sam Adams, Saucony, and Vascodagama (a Portuguese sailing club), indicates that most of them represent the sailing industry. When businesses that derive their commerce from a particular pastime support the participants of that pastime, it should be interpreted as a healthy trend.
This year, SailNet is not only a sponsor of KWRW, it is the official host for Internet-based results. To get daily updates of the action as well as photos and scores, log on to SailNet's homepage and direct your cursor to the Yachting Key West Race Week Logo.
Suggested Reading List
The Pre-Race Checklist by Dan Dickison
Getting a Handle on Wind by Dan Dickison
Asymmetrical vs. Symmetrical Spinnakers by Dobbs Davis
SailNet's Buying Guide - Traveler Systems