A Win at Key West An Incomparable Experience After Three Years
Swan 42s on the starting line at 2008 Key West Race Week.
Acura Key West Race Week, sometimes called the World Series of Sailing, is the largest mid-winter regatta in North American and is usually held during the middle of January each year. After 21 years, this year's event hosted 260 boats and 16 classes representing 18 countries. Mother Nature provided a wide range of racing conditions from 35 knots of breeze to less than 5 knots throughout the week. Despite the various wind conditions, the race committee was able to start 8 great races in 3 of the scheduled 5 days of racing. The past three regattas held at Key West have shown how Mother Nature can throw a diverse mix of sailing conditions to challenge sailors at all levels.
In our first year of racing on EmOcean, a J-120 from Charleston SC, our goal was to bring home the honors racing in a sub-class of J-120's, while also racing against competitive PHRF class boats. Conditions the first year consisted of 25+ knots and big waves each day. On the last day of racing, and in the hunt for first place, we understood the need to be aggressive - every point counts. We understood that a super aggressive mentality leaves room for mistakes.
Attempting to make a bold maneuver in the final race, we doused our kite at the last second, only a few boat lengths from the leeward gate. With the bow sprit out and forgotten, we attempted to clear the stern of a passing competitor. “Crunch.” We didn’t make it. The sound of the carbon fiber bow sprit breaking and tearing apart was awful. Game over! Our hopes of clinching the title instantly faded like the last glimpse of a setting sun. We were crestfallen.
Conditions the following year at Key West Race Week were very different, with choppy waters and a challenging light breeze. The EmOcean’s crew this time consisted of our local team that had been sailing together on various boats for several years. We were experienced and ambitious and seemed to have victory at our fingertips. But Cash Flow, the Hadley 40 from Elizabeth City NC edged us out for first place in PHRF 2. We were proud of second place, but disappointed that we hadn’t been able to close the deal for our first win.
This year marked my third consecutive trip to Key West Race Week, this time on Bandit a Swan 42 from Newport RI . It proved to be the most challenging and difficult event yet.
Bandit gets back on her feet in practice session.
Sunday, the last practice day, saw winds topping out at around 35 knots. Brutal conditions. We managed to pop the kite and successfully complete one jibe, but round two was an instantaneous wipe out as a huge puff filled our spinnaker. After several minutes on our side we managed to blow the halyard dousing the spinnaker and get back on our feet. We had our fun, but it was time to call it a day to save the boat before any real damage was done.
Monday began with a heavy NE breeze of 30+ knots and waves of 6-8 feet. Most competitors barely managed to sail out to the race course and among those that did, many opted to quickly call it quits for the safety of the crew and vessel. By the end of the day, Mother Nature prevailed and all races were abandoned.
On Tuesday, Day 2 , the Race committee was able to get three races in for the day in Division 2. Bandit took the lead and won the first race, with Hoss taking the second race and Apparition in the lead at the end of the third. The point totals were close. Tiburon had the lead with 11 points, followed by Bandit with 12 points and Vitesse with 14 points.
Wednesday was another washout, this time due to light southeasterly winds less than 3 knots, but Thursday (Day 4) unveiled a slightly optimistic forecast for a breeze that would build throughout the afternoon. As the race committee's engines fired up, so did the hopes of 3,000 anxious sailors ready to go yacht racing. As all 260 boats gathered on their respected courses, the breeze began to build even better than the forecast had indicated. With nice sailing conditions and two races in the Swan 42 class, Bandit pulled ahead and took the lead with a total of 16 points, 4 points better than Amelia who had two bullets for the day.
On Friday, the final day of racing, contenders were planning their strategies and tactics for the big win, knowing that every point counts and that the smallest mistakes could ruin a chance of victory. We knew we had to get a good start in order to put our closest competition behind us. And that was exactly what we did, taking control of the race, and finishing with a bullet.
The second race of the day, however, was a different story. We had a great start off the line and were in a great position to control our competition Amelia, when flags were quickly hoisted followed by the sound of a general recall. Disappointed, we regrouped for a second start.
Bandit in the lead.
Now in sequence for the start of the second race and looking for a clear lane, we got off the starting line with great speed and clear air. We tacked onto port and began to converge with the starboard tackers. Suddenly, we heard a loud bang. The entire crew looked up to see a half hoisted mainsail. At this point you can imagine the look on our faces as the regatta flashed before our eyes. Sailing only under our headsail, we watched the fleet pass, but a quick trip up the mast from our bowman Jonny Goldsberry, aka “Flash”, resolved the issue. But the damage was done and with our 12th-place finish, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Only one more race to go.
Our hearts were pounding before starting the last race as we knew it would not be an easy victory. 11 boats with a start at the pin and after being rolled by Vitesse, things were not looking good. With most of the fleet ahead and on starboard, our tactician Steve Benjamin decided to make a move. We tacked onto port taking the transoms of six boats while riding on a nice lift and rounding the weather mark in fifth. Over the next four legs, we managed to move past two more boats for a third place – just enough for a 5-point victory over Tiburon.
Finally, after three straight years attending Key West Race Week, a victory!
Making its debut in 2008, and sparring with 12 boats on the starting line, the Swan 42 proved to be one competitive class. With assistance from a well managed and determined race committee, our crew, all the competitors, and a 21-year racing tradition, Key West is one venue where sailing conditions and competition cannot be foretold. Victory is bliss, despite all the trials and tribulations that accompany the sport of yacht racing.