Like more than a thousand others, I’m just now recovering from a breezy and insanely fun Charleston Race Week. Unlike most of them though, my fatigue came not from beating through square chop or some of the insane broaches in the harbor – nothing quite so glamorous – but from banging around on our sexy Layline.com Chris Craft in hot pursuit of sportboats charging downwind during the world’s first ever live streaming video coverage of any multi-class keelboat regatta. And our final impression on this, one of the very few events that has continued to grow during these tough times, is that it was just about perfect.
Conditons literally could not have been better – whatever deal with the devil that CORA and the SC Maritime Foundation made to guarantee three solid days of great sailing breeze, it was worth it- and the big smiles on literally everyone’s faces – from the grizzled pros to the first-time sportboaters – needed to be seen to be believed. One of the happiest was Melges 32 World Champion Pieter Taselaar, who chartered a Viper 640 along with his Bliksem crew both to cross-train for his 32 as well as to sail an event that’s more about sailing fast and partying hard than about crossing tacks with the top pro teams. Taselaar managed a strong second-place to perennial Viper champ Brad Boston in the 29-boat fleet despite never setting foot in the boat before, but that wasn’t what he was most proud of. "I finally passed every Melges 20 in a race," he told me Sunday with a laugh. You might remember Piet as the guy who coined the term "Grandpa 20" of the baby Melges, the 14-boat fleet that started six minutes before the Vipers.
Other than to Taselaar, the speed differences in the fleets weren’t on most people’s minds – the M20 continues to appeal to a more upscale crowd that includes a lot of family programs as well as some of the top pro sailors found anywhere. We were suprised to see much tighter competition than in the Miami events, where Jeff Ecklund cleaned up with Harry Melges and Morgan Reeser as crew. Ecklund (with Harry aboard) didn’t even make the podium in Chucktown, while Michael Kiss had an unconscious regatta to win by 13 points over Joel Ronning, with Bill Hardesty on tactics and OTW Anarchy’s own Peter Crawford pulling strings up front. With more than double the fleet size of last year, the Melges 20 crowd not only showed that they adore racing on the harbor, but also that they’ve taken the Viper’s thunder by becoming the fastest-growing of the ‘roaring twenties’.
Another OTWA alumnus – US expat John Casey made headlines as the trimmer aboard Flying Elvis, the Melges 24 driven by Bora Gulari with Raptor Sails owner Dan Kaselar and longtime Detroit M24 Patrick Drummon aboard. Gulari’s love for big air gave him a solid lead on the fleet during breezy day 1, while local rock star and former All-American Dave Dabney used his knowledge of the tricky harbor to eat into Bora’s lead during the more moderate conditions on days 2 and 3. Dabney pulled into the lead by one point going into the final race, and the match race between the teams, first during a start that was recalled and then during the final race, was epic. As Cary Siegler’s Rock Steady port-tacked the fleet and jumped out to a huge lead, Gulari found himself on the unfavored end with Dabney further down the line. Dabbers crossed Bora once, but the second cross saw the Charleston racer foul Elvis’s blocker, Guy Mossman. And rather than hoping that no protest would come, Dabney proved what kind of guy he is – he did his circle and rounded the top mark in the mid teens. Bora rounded third.
The next move was classic: Dabney gybed out immediately and switched his instruments to read depth, sailing to within a stone’s throw of the beach before gybing out, and by the time Gulari could cover him, David had sailed around most of the fleet. They rounded nose-to-tail, and Gulari – his hands shaking with anticipation and adrenalin – covered the rest of the way, and crossed the line just ahead of Dabney, overlapped at the finish, and tied on points afterwards. Bora’s three bullets broke the tie, giving him his first major one-design victory in a while in the place he lost the M24 National Championship in two years ago on the last leg of the last race. It was also the first major victory for Simon Strauss’s USA 757, which Bora ran (with Simon at the helm) for the Worlds campaign last year. Gulari knew how lucky he was though, as Travis Weisleder’s Layline.com, with the entire Quantum Racing team aboard except for Terry Hutchinson, would likely have run away with the regatta were it not for nearly losing their rig during the first race of the event when a jib halyard parted on the way to the course. Gulari threw his keys to Layline’s George Peet, and they ran to the dock, grabbed a spare halyard from Bora’s truck, dropped the rig on the water, rove the new gear, and made it to the start of the second race. The crew work pulled off by Peet, Brian Janney, Scott Nixon, and Amy Ironmonger to was astonishing, and the cooperation that led Gulari to give his only spare halyard to Weisleder – his major competition for this big event – was refreshing. Layline finished just 3 points behind the winner.
We didn’t spend much time offshore, though reports from out there were as good as those from inside. 15-20 with bigger gusts on the first day, 14-18 on the second, with the kind of lump that sent water over the bow of the OTWA live coverage boat and sent us scurrying for flatter water in the harbor until the final day. We stayed just long enough to see a little action on both offshore courses, with the photographers favorites being the hot GP42 Big Booty along with the gorgeous Vincitore, the new-for-2010 Summit 35 Act One, and a handful of other IRC boats. Nearly the only criticism of the event came from this fleet – with boats from 35 to 52 feet, it was never going to be particularly fair racing – though guys from every boat agreed that it was a necessary evil if IRC is going to catch hold at the biggest multi-class event on the entire winter/spring circuit. And hell, even this small, disparate fleet was bigger than that of the Miami Grand Prix, so they’re clearly on the right path. We’re guessing that the rave racer reviews of race management, the venue, and the parties, next year will see some meaningful IRC racing at Charleston.
The same goes for some of the other offshore courses – the new and small PHRF Sport Class had a big ratings spread, with Kip Meadows’ Melges 32 Roxanne showing what grand prix one-design experience does by scoring allbullets ahead of another M32 and the Viper 830 Rented Mule. Teddy Turner lost the rig on his little Thompson on the first day and Mule couldn’t finish after losing their mast track, though everyone was stoked on the big downwind rides.
The Anarchists on the shoal-draft Beneteau 36.7 Echo couldn’t repeat their class victory in PHRF B, a buckled rig ending their regatta on Saturday, while Steve Stollman’s Primal Scream battled from behind to win over two Cape Fear 38s – just a point separating all three boats. Stollman was awarded the Palmetto Cup – the antique trophy for most competitive PHRF team – his third overall CRW win in three tries with a team that pays their own way and exemplified the amateur ideal – a great story about a good bunch of folks.
Maybe I’m just unaccustomed to a major regatta where no one bitches about anything, but the mood at CRW was almost surreal in its positive nature. Newcomers to the event were a little shocked at what a great show the event put on, especially considering the price of entry; the racing, the race village, the city, and of course the ridiculous quality of the eye candy walking around in tight shirts and short skirts in a town with nearly a 2 to 1 ratio of girls to guys. It seems obvious that this event is going to continue to grow – but can it?
There is endless room offshore, but we went to some effort to find out whether congestion on the inshore courses was a real issue. Most enjoyed the mixing of the fleets, it created new challenges and kept things interesting – at least until J/24s started holing M24s. And while some said they thought the inshore courses were likely maxed out with 118 boats on two courses, most of the dozens we spoke to said the opposite: That with a little change in sequences, the Viper/M20 course could likely handle another fleet. That may be true today, but will it be true next year, when twenty-five M20s and 40 Vipers are on the line, the beach cats itching to race the event, and with a huge M24 fleet likely with their Worlds just a month later? It remains to be seen, and while it may turn out to be necessary, an entry cap just seems anathema to a regatta that has become successful largely due to its reputation as one of the most welcoming in the US.
Other than the big ratings spreads on IRC and PHRF C and the fact that the Vipers and M20 starts should have been switched around, it was hard to find a single criticism anywhere. Race Committees inshore banged off as many races in three days as Key West does in five, with PRO Sue Miller getting the MVP award for managing a 17-boat J/24 fleet, a 20-boat J/80 fleet, and a 31-boat M24 fleet masterfully, getting everyone in for drinks before 3 PM every day. If there’s one thing that gave CRW an unprofessional look, it was the weak and disjointed official event website, but even that was almost a positive – evidence that the young (and hot) girls running the event PR focused their attention on keeping the media happy with fast results, a powerful and constantly updated Facebook and Twitter presence, and VIP treatment of onsite reporters rather than the more conventional official website stuff.
Given that Charleston attendance obliterated that of the season’s other major regattas – Key West, Miami, and the St. Pete NOOD – it’s clear that their approach is working, and equally clear that those other events have unwittingly passed the torch to Charleston Race Week as the new "must-do" regatta of the Southern circuit. Its organizers have adapted to the changing needs of racers faster and better than anyone else – and hopefully other regattas will learn from that success. It’s time that other organizers deliver what racers want instead of clinging to the past as their dwindling events disappear.
We’ll have a final OTWA wrap-up for you later in the week that captures the fun, the carnage, and the hotties, but for now, you can watch hours of live video of the racing (including some sick roundings, turtled Vipers, and much more) as well as hundreds of amazing pics, two good Cocktail Hours, and the usual stellar interviews right here in the On-The-Water Anarchy forum.
And a huge thanks to the sponsors that gave us such great support and made our coverage possible – Harken and their very sweet new Radial winches, Layline, Ocean Sailing Academy, the US Melges 24 Class’s "Road To Corpus" campaign, and of course Latis Yachting Solutions.
Photos by the lovely Meredith Block.