We figured the biggest keelboat regatta in the US deserved a detailed analysis, so we turned to the man who’s been working the event as long as he’s been working here. Clean reports:
Sperry Top-Sider Charleston Race Week delivered yet another year of (sort of) perfect weather, huge fleets, and some of the best nightlife of any sailing venue on the planet. The parties were ridiculous, with Gosling’s going through something like 300 gallons of rum, The girls were as delicious as ever, both downtown and on the race course. The live bands rocked. The competition was full-on. But there were a few sticky moments, and for the first time in years, things didn’t go off quite as planned.
Day 1 was typical South Carolina springtime, allowing all fleets to cram in 3-4 races in 15-20 knots of warm Southerly. For reasons that I’ll outline below, Day 2, with a simply stunning (and forecasted) 18-22 knots, went unused by any of the fleets as they sat ashore while the afternoon gale worked its way into town. Sunday had its own problems, with sailable breeze offshore but much more fickle conditions inshore until the sea breeze made its appearance a half hour before the deadline for starting a race. By that time, all but the big Melges fleets had been sent home.
By The Numbers
Pre-event press releases touted “279 entries” but the reality was nowhere near that lofty number. By our count, 233 boats actually raced – still enough to ratify the event PR that it was “America’s Biggest Keelboat Regatta” and still a 25% increase over 2010, but nearly 25% less than the registration high. Most events see a pretty standard attrition rate between registration and the first race of 5-8% – not 25%. Organizers told us that much of the attrition came from inshore boat owners that made other plans when they thought they were excluded by the first “entry cap” decision in the weeks leading up to the event (prior to the establishment of a third inshore course), and other dropouts came from late decisions by a number of Melges 24 owners who chose to head straight to Corpus for training rather than hang at a flat-water Charleston event that wouldn’t prepare them for South Texas’s big chop. Race Week organizers told us that the 2012 picture should be much clearer, with the third inshore course proven and a plan of attack in the works to decide who races where, far in advance.
With a powerful cold front moving into the area on Saturday afternoon, there was no doubt there’d be plenty of big Southerly breeze to romp around in on the harbor, though forecasts called for a rare April gale by 2 PM reaching into the high 30s. RC wisely cancelled all offshore courses quite early in the morning, in part because of the 6-9 foot seas already reported by USCG Station Charleston and partly because getting the boats back in from the offshore courses early enough to miss the big stuff meant they’d have to buck that gnarly current that Race Week works so hard to get going out in the morning and in during the afternoon. When RC imagined 70-odd boats sailing in against a 3.5 knot ebb while squalls in the 30s ran through the fleet, the decision was easy. Inshore was a different story.
The timing of the cold front’s passage didn’t have much guesswork in it, and the gradual build and shift of a classic frontal system seemed ready-made to provide at least one good race for the boats that live for 20 knots – the Melges 24, J/80, and J/24 at a minimum. An earlier start – and with an 11 AM gun there’s plenty of room to take an hour our of that – would easily have given these fleets two races before even the earliest forecasts of 25 knots. Yet there was no schedule move, very little communication, and the official notice cancelling all racing went up around 830 AM on Saturday.
It didn’t stop those top boats from going out and ripping around for two full hours, with some boats staying out until the wind started to really kick at 1 PM (see our full video of the training session here – it’s sick!). Sure it reached 43 knots in the afternoon, but that warm, epic, morning breeze never even gusted to 25 knots between 11 and 1, the harbor was flat and juicy as it always is, and that conservative RC call squandered one of those days that would’ve gone down in history for Charleston Race Week.
We quizzed Race Director Randy Draftz about it (watch the interview here), and while he supported his PROs’ decisions, we could see that he was second-guessing it a bit mentally, especially for those classes that were itching to get out there and play. His concerns included the large number of newbies to Charleston and her currents, the size of the fleets, and the likelihood of carnage if everyone had to come to the dock under biblical conditions. We can’t fault his concerns, especially for a regatta that’s long prided itself on catering to the middle of the pack rather than the vocal minority at the front, but with the racing just a few hundred yards from the finish line, we think things could’ve been done better for the folks that spent so much time and money to get down to Charleston.
Sunday was as different as could be. The Melgi started a half-hour early but were blown off when a huge shift made things silly. The same dying Northerly was enough to start one for the Vipers/J/80s/Ultimates that was shortened to one lap and saw more than half the starters TLE. Not only was the race not abandoned, but the RC sent the circle in shortly thereafter, seemingly oblivious to the coming sea breeze that any local would tell you was on its way. Sure enough, with only the Melgi on the inshore courses (the offshore circles had one super light and one moderate race), the Race Committee showed good patience in waiting for the lovely 6-10 knot Southerly thermal that provided a nice race about 20 minutes before the 2 PM start deadline, ending the event on a good note. But like Saturday, an opportunity to start much earlier in the morning was wasted, and an additional half hour on the course could easily have given the sporties and J/boats more the 4 races on Friday and one light air race on Sunday that decided their Regattas.
Come Back Now, Ya Hear
The good news for the event is that even the really annoyed will likely be coming back. I got a half dozen text messages from noted rabble-rouser and past Melges 32 World Champ Piet Taselaar on Saturday morning complaining about the ‘incredible pussy-ness of this regatta,” and how weak it was to call off racing for a perfect sailing breeze.
Yet that same psychopathic Dutchman texted me a few hours later, telling me ‘I take it all back. Those guys were so helpful just now, they may have saved my boat from sinking with great communication and being observant over the docked boats” His crew was more direct. “Don’t worry, we’ll be back, Clean,” Jeremy ‘Troll’ Wilmot told me on Sunday afternoon. “Hell, I’ve gotta get out of here right now or I’ll never leave.” Sidebar: Taselaar grabbed me on Sunday at awards, and looking at my damned nice Gill plaid button-down “On-The-Water Anarchy” gear, snarled “You’ve gone mainstream!” He then proceeded to tear the nicest shirt I’ve owned in a year right down the middle, looked me in the eyes, and said “Now you’re anarchy again!” The people I call ‘friends’ are a strange lot.
Things That Go Bump In The Night
While the Course Zero (J/22 and J/24) experiment was a resounding success, the ‘Dynamite Hole” shortcut and closer location of the South offshore course was not. A few boats bumped the sides of Dynamite on the way to the course, we heard it may have contributed to local Teddy Turner having to withdraw his T-750 Lola on Friday with a wonky keel, and Wairere touched bottom near the starting line. The fleet abandoned the short cut almost entirely, making the location a bit nonsensical, and we understand next year will return to the status quo.
The Race Village set up on the beach behind the Charleston Harbor Resort has really become special over the years, even more so now that it’s completely full with sponsor booths and tiki bars. Check out this interview with Jonny Golden Nuggets where he explains that the race village is “the only regatta in the US that has a real party village like the Caribbean.” A nice addition for 2011 was a Mach 2 Moth and RS-100 on the beach as exhibition boats, while Sperry’s shoe cabin was nowhere near as dorky as what we’ve come to expect at other events. Gill did some serious business at the Coral Reef booth, and the official branded merchandise from Vineyard Vines was sold out at event’s end. From the Sailing Anarchy/West Marine party on Wednesday to the last beer and bowl of chili on Sunday, the social schedule and race village was a smashing success with two small exceptions.
First, the Friday and Saturday night beach bonfire was strangely gone, and I don’t know why – and I missed it. Second, the ‘snacks’ on Thursday night were as bad as the lowcountry barbecue on Friday was awesome. Seriously, the best you can do is nasty SysCo nacho cheese from a tub and tortilla chips? Then again, considering the volume of Gosling’s and beer drunk, no one seemed to care, and considering the fact that CRW hasn’t raised prices in 5 years, maybe they don’t have a reason to. If expenses mean less food and just as much rum, I don’t mind either.
All in all, organizers and volunteers handled the extreme growth of 2011 Charleston Race Week successfully. At the cost of a few easily-remedied errors for next year, they dodged the bullets that growing too fast can sometimes entail, and we’ll frankly be plenty surprised if 2012 Charleston Race Week doesn’t see yet another year of double-digit growth. For 2012, we expect they’ll continue to set the standard for communication, marketing, and social media use in the promotion of US regattas. We also understand that there’ll be another launching venue with a 3-ton hoist for 2012, which is sorely needed. We expect tracking to make its way to some of the fleets for 2012 too, and we’ll be surprised if some of the other fleets don’t follow the M24 blueprint of making CRW the final stop on their winter series circuit to maximize entries. And we think there will be some new PROs coming in at the request of classes that like to work with those they’re familiar with. We do not necessarily expect an entry limit, but that could change quite quickly when registration opens. We do think that entry fees are set to rise after being frozen since the Van Liew’s came on board so many years ago. Whatever the changes, it’s still one of our favorites, and if you missed it, you should remedy that for 2012. With OnDeck’s Charleston operation gearing up to include 4 Farr 40s for charter as well as some Melgi and piles of lesser boats, it should be an easy pill to swallow for the boatless or those who don’t want to bother with deliveries.
The half-dozen Melges 24s readying themselves for a breezy Corpus Christie Worlds were nonplussed by Saturday’s forecast, and they were out early pegging the knotmeters up near Fort Sumter (check out the high-speed practices here and here). Bora Gulari’s Air Force One, Brian Porter’s Full Throttle, Alan Field’s WTF, Kristin and Peter Lane’s Brick House pair of boats, and Alec Cutler’s Hedgehog (with most of Chris Larson’s World Champion team) lined up all weekend with constant lead changes, though the plucky Kristin Lane with Charlie Mckee calling tactics would sail an extremely composed and consistent regatta to take the Charleston title from Alan Field, Peter Cucci, and Gulari. We may not have the best memories in the world, but we can’t recall the last time a woman helm has won any Melges 24 event of this size, anywhere in the world – big kudos to a long time reader of SA and former SCOTW. Michael Kiss and son (with Chris Rast on tactics) beat a deep Melges 20 fleet, showing again how a little cross training in the Europe M20 fleet will go a long way.
J/24 multiple national champ Mike Ingham beat a few rock stars to take the tough J/24 fleet – listen to him talk about it and the Worlds he’s helping to host in Rochester next year, while Brad Boston surprised no one with final race heroics to take the Vipers for yet another regatta (can anyone beat this guy?)
Kerry Klingler took a nailbiter in a 22-boat J/80 fleet, edging out Henry Brauer and Will Welles on Rascal and Bruno Pasquinelli’s Tiamo only because the latter two scored TLE in the dopey final race on Sunday morning, and Jim Pearson’s Slippery won the first Ultimate 20 fleet action in Charleston in years.
Offshore, Robin Team’s Teamwork wasn’t able to back-to-back it in PHRF B, though another J/122, Gambler was, with the new J/111 acquitting herself nicely with a second. The slick GP42 of local Patrick Eudy took PHRF A by a point over the big Bennie 47.7 of Don Terwiliger, and Tim Tucker won PHRF C – the largest handicap in the event – sailing the old Primal Scream, a 3-time overall champ at CRW.
You can check out all the results here, and check out Charleston Race Week’s facebook page for a damned thorough collection of links and content. Don’t miss the On-The-Water Anarchy thread for video of every minute of racing, including the big air practice day, as well as interviews and highlight reels and Mer’s famous shots of hot chicks and the flavor of the week. Over half a million hits on our live page in less than ten days…thank you!
Thanks to all the great Charleston folks for making us and the entire 232 boat fleet feel so welcome, and of course a huge thanks to Evolution Sails, Gill, J/Boats, Latis Yachting Solutions, Layline, High and Dry Boatworks, and Perrin Woodworking for their strong support of our coverage of this great event. Please check out their sites and let ‘em know we sent ya, and look for our final HD highlight reel later this week.