wide world of (sport)boats

wide world of (sport)boats

It would take wilful ignorance to miss the speed at which course racing is changing in the US, and the most obvious impact in the sport today is coming from sportboats, big and small.  From the diminuitive Open 5.7 and RSK-6 all the way up through the Melges 32 and FT-10, sailors are voting with their wallets and schedules, and these fast, light, easy-to-trailer rides are providing possibly the only silver lining in the economic clouds darkening participation in sailing today.

Let’s look at some examples:

Big Boat Blues
The geniuses that run the Miami Grand Prix booted anything under about 35 feet from their regatta three years ago to focus exclusively on exclusivity, choosing big boat IRC and one-design classes while ousting the largest fleet and biggest supporter of the event, the Melges 24 along with almost a hundred other small boats.  Little did they know that this single move would start a movement.  Yet even before the economic meltdown, the writing was on the wall:  Smaller, simpler, quicker raceboats were obviously the future, while the Farr 40s and Mumm 30s that made up the majority of the big boat fleet were taking their last Grand Prix breaths.  Fast forward to 2010, and one class makes up nearly the entire regatta – at twenty-three boats, there are twice as many of these big sporties as there are all other entries in all other classes.  Is it any surprise that Melges 32 Class insiders are talking about running their own 2011 race? 

Twenties Roaring
For a decade, twenty footers were excluded from many of winter’s big events – notably, Miami and Key West – but that has all changed with a vengeance, altering the racing landscape forever.  From this year’s successful Charlotte (FL) Harbor Regatta to the Shake-A-Leg regattas for both Melgi and Vipers, to the marketing and exposure muscle involved in the Bacardi Cup’s inviting the Vipers and Melges 20s and 24s to their dance, to the sportboat explosion in Charleston, a new winter circuit has formed in less than a year.  Even Premier racing tried to get in on the action with an open invitation from Key West Race Week to the 20s last September that no one paid attention to, perhaps because the new paradigm is all about value and user-friendly racing; something that Key West hasn’t had in many years.  Meanwhile, the new circuit has created a plethora of racing options for other boats as well – the St. Pete NOOD suffered massively from just this problem this year, down another 20% to barely more than a hundred boats.  The most common reason given for those who blew off the suckhole that is Tampa Bay?  "It was time for a change."  Word.  And let’s not even get into the whole Key West debacle – we’ll save that for another day.

World Championship of the World
Sailing Anarchy’s inaugural San Diego ISAF regatta proved a massive success – so much so that our original entry cap had to be stretched once or twice.  And with a few months notice, more than 60 sportboats showed up to race in two fleets, and 2010 should undoubtedly be bigger.  But other than allowing only sportboats, not allowing separate one-design starts, and heavily discouraging protests, did this regatta do anything differently than the slew of events that are bleeding entries up and down both coasts?  It didn’t,  and smart event organizers are paying attention, figuring out how to capitalize on a trend that continues to gather steam.  Hell, even the Chicago Yacht Club – hardly a beacon of progressive thought – is inviting a sportboat class to race the Mackinac Race.  Sacrilege! More on the 2010 SA Worlds tomorrow.

Thirty Two Pickup
There are definitely two tiers to the sporty revolution.  The Vipers, Opens, Melges 20 and 24, Rocket 22 and similar allow a normal dude to buy and race ’em.  For 75 grand you’ve got a new boat and a bunch of events to do, and for half that, you’ve got a newish boat and plenty of change in your pocket for Motel 6s near the marina and a few sails.  The thing is, the coming of small sporty revolution was telegraphed – it wasn’t a surprise to anyone that was paying attention.  But the outrageous growth of the Melges 32? That continues to be a surprise.  20+ boat fleets in Europe?  Certo!  Growing fleets on both coasts of the US?  Yep.  Class racing in Sydney Harbor?  Looks like it, mate.  All for a single-purpose boat that costs 200 grand out the door and another 200 grand to race for a season – and get your ass kicked!  And while this may seem obscene to those of us that make our sailing gloves last another regatta despite huge holes on the thumb, realize that the owners who’ve sold their Swan 42 (6 of them?), TP52, STP65, Farr 40, or whatever to step into a 32 are making the identical decision for the identical reasons of the J/35 owner selling to step into a Viper:  Faster.  More Fun.  Better racing.  Less People.  Less Money.

Southern Fried
No discussion of US Sportboating would be complete without mentioning the one regatta that has managed to not only stave off the 30-50% attendance drops experienced by so many others, but it’s grown year after year, setting record after record.  That is, of course, Charleston Race Week, which already counts 155 entries more than a month from its start, more than half of which are true sportboats (and if you count J/80s as sportboats, it’s well over a hundred entries).  Organizers expect around 180 boats, but already CRW is the biggest multi-class keelboat regatta in the South for the second year running, and it shows no signs of letting up, regardless of the economy.  And they owe it all to the sportboats.  CRW do-it-all guy Danny Havens told us that "we have the usually big and very strong PHRF classes for 2010, and for the first time, an IRC class, but we can’t deny that the sportboats have really put Charleston Race Week on the national and international map."  Charleston will likely see one of the biggest Melges 24 classes of the North American year, with around 40 likely to attend, as well as 30+ Vipers, 10-12 Melges 20s, and the aforementioned two dozen J/80s.  More germane to this article is the Mixed Sportboat Class – a Charleston first that includes an FT-10, Viper 830, Azzurra 310, Thompson 730, and probably a handful of Melges 32s. 

Do Your Thang
We are not saying that sportboats are the end-all, be-all of racing – in fact, a lot of low-cost, focus-on-fun regattas are doing very well and good on ’em.  Hell, some folks like a cabin, some folks like to cruise their raceboat or race their cruising boat, some folks are intimidated by speed and power, and an increasing number of laid-back sailors are turning out time and again for government-mark reaching races.

But it is impossible to ignore the fact that top drawer racing in the US has migrated first to one-design, and then to sportboats, and if you’re talking about growth in closed-course racing, there is really only one game in town.  And it ain’t IRC or Farr 40s.

Our advice?  Don’t find yourself on the wrong side of the shift.