What Goes Around…
We created the Media Matters award for an event, class, or club that uses technology and exceptional efforts to bring their regatta to the world. The award comes with a free month’s advertising spot on the single-most visited site in sailing – our front page – and we’ve only had one previous winner. We awarded the MM prize in September to the Columbia Gorge Racing Association for the widespread print, internet, TV, and radio exposure they won for the Moth Worlds last August.
The Mothies and CGRA are a bunch of dinghy sailors, all full of piss and vinegar and the promise of hot-blooded competition in ultra-fast carbon rockets. That’s not the way the somewhat older makeup of this month’s winner rolls; the newly reestablished Southern Ocean Racing Conference is a bit older…
Many of you remember SORC as the loose association behind North America’s most famous – and infamous – racing series. The circuit began in the early 1940s and ran until the mid 90s, and in its heyday the entry fees were nonexistent and the parties and characters legendary with some 300+ boats racing a handful of epic distance races that, over the years, included St. Petersburg, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, the Keys, the Bahamas, and of course, Havana, Cuba. The emphasis was on great racing, great parties, and great weather over nearly a full month of racing.
But in the early 90s, the people that had been doing the heavy lifting for such a big event burned out – hard – and participation rapidly fell under a confused and apathetic organization. Distance racing gave way to less time-intensive buoy racing, and the SORC name was co-opted by the organizers of the newer Miami Race Week, which grew into a sizable one-design and PHRF regatta in its own right. It kept growing until an event organizer named Peter Craig decided that only big boats should play at his regatta and in 2006 he disinvited around 100 regularly attending boats from the J/24, Melges 24, Etchells, and PHRF boats up to 40′, retaining only the big-money IRC 40+ footers and Farr 40/Melges 32 Grand Prix racers.
Around the same time, that same event organizer made a back-room deal with a select group inside the Storm Trysail Club that would destroy one historic and beloved race – the Pineapple Cup – in favor of a competing race that would run at the same time and would end in the lavish master-planned community and resort that sponsored it. Carpetbaggers turned SORC into a buoy race for high-dollar pros and now carpetbaggers were trying to destroy the Montego Bay race in exchange for a sponsorship check from the Casa De Campos in the Dominican Republic.
So a cadre of old time Lauderdale YC and STC folks led by Bob Meagher, Jr. started a cheeky and largely underground campaign to take back their race, and labeled it with the storied SORC moniker. Their slogan "Turn Right in 2009" made fun of the fact that Craig’s race to the Casa De Campos would finish with a brutal 250 NM upwind slog along the unprotected North shore of Haiti and DR, while their own race finishes with 200+ NM of some of the most epic downwind rides in racing.
Outrage quickly killed the Casa De Campos race once racers found out what Craig and the STC were up to, with the STC backpedaling so hard they found themselves supporting the Jamaica Race, and Craig canceling his race with a public apology. And the new SORC found themselves with strong, grass-roots community support, a bunch of new volunteers looking to foster ocean racing, a few nice races to run, and a bright future.
The New Era
We’ve been extremely impressed with the way SORC has quietly and competently built on their early successes as they work towards the growth of ocean racing in the Southeast US. SORC capitalized on the publicity created by the Jamaica/DR battle to hold a memorable Pineapple Cup that produced stories that would dig into the public’s imagination: Pitch-black 30 knot rides as Rosebud missed the record by less than an hour, the nightmarish tow from the Jamaican Coast Guard after Thin Ice’s rudder disintegrated, and numerous boats nursing their final spinnakers to the finish after destroying everything else.
Next, SORC relaunched the historic Ft. Lauderdale to Charleston Race, a current-boosted ride that coincides perfectly with the end of the winter and the start of Charleston Race Week, which has become the biggest regional event in the Southeast.
And finally, SORC pitched the Ft. Lauderdale to Key West Race to a new demographic – managing to increase race participation even as Key West Race Week (traditionally the destination of most participants) shrank to less than 1/3 of its 2005 size.
And finally, we’re happy to break the news that SORC is taking over the venerable Miami-Nassau Race, a former jewel in the SORC circuit of old. Crossing the stream from South Florida to the Bahamas on November 11, often in seriously bumpy conditions, will rovide a real challenge to both navigators and crew. But the pain is short-lasting and the party in the Bahamas should more than make up for the pain in the Stream, and SORC expects a good mix of local and traveling boats.
But this award isn’t about race participation – it’s about effective use of media. And for a bunch of old guys, SORC is doing an incredibly good job both with traditional media and modern alternatives. SORC members have longstanding ties to the journalists in South Florida, so it wasn’t hard for them to get the Miami Herald, Sun Sentinel, and local TV stations down to cover the start of the Lauderdale to KW Race, but the Sentinel went further, with stories on the race almost every day that week. And like every race that SORC runs, every boat is equipped with a tracker from IonEarth, by far the best supplier of tracking solutions in the US, and the same company that outfits the Iditarod sled dog race and the Baja 1000. They’re also not screwing around with scoring, and for years now they use Yachtscoring, the industry standard for rapid scoring and corrected time calculation. Considering that nearly every boat carries coastal internet ability via iPhone or 3G card, the ability to track the fleet and see finish times while on the course is a big hit with competitors, and makes the racetrack seem smaller and the competition slower.
Aside from these small but very important amenities, the race organization focuses on convenience, fun, and value. The courses are generally downwind and timed to make sense with regard to weather and seasonal considerations. The parties are simple but reliably good, with free booze and a good atmosphere, and the hospitality is extended in equal fashion to crews of 90-foot racers and cruising schooners. But SORC doesn’t have a clubhouse, and no one would know about this great club’s races it if the word didn’t get out, which is where SORC hopped outside the box and hit a home run.
First they got rid of the old New England standby PR firm Media Pro, which has been writing Rolex sailing press releases for about a century. Their reports are dry and generally out-of-date and the writers out of touch, and their internet presence dismal, and SORC knew they needed to do better. More importantly, they needed to do better while the racing was going on. So they got together with Etchells Class reporter (and SA’er) Paige Brooks and gave her the tools to not only write news reports, but to coordinate live updates from as many boats as she could and get that info on the official blog. Paige worked with SA’s own onboard reporter as well, and the overall result was so good that it easily overshadowed this year’s Sydney Hobart media effort, long considered the benchmark in providing distance racing information. SORC had photos, almost hourly text reports, and plenty of interesting stories from the rail – just the kind of info that prospective entrants are looking for when they think about their winter schedule. The blog starts here, and the SA coverage with numerous videos and pics is here,
The SORC media effort drove tens of thousands of views to the SORC site, and we hear from the organizers that they will never run a race again without trackers – that’s how valuable they are. And with a little work with team facts and multimedia presentation, SORC could well become the pioneer in coastwise distance race coverage – something that EVERY race needs to do better. If their races continue to grow, they keep adding events slowly, and Havana reappears as a viable race destination, the circuit could become far more than just a shadow of its former self.
In the meantime, SORC is doing it better than anyone.
Congratulations to the old guard for thinking ‘young and fun’ instead of ‘old and stubborn’: Joel Bowie, Buck Gillette, Bob Meagher, Jr., Ken Batzer, and Tom Gleason. And congrats to the young(ish) guns for leading a historic club into a new era: Paige Brooks, Bob Meagher III, Chris Woolsey, Chris Brown, and Barr Batzer.