Being There

the thrill of the chase

John Casey takes you where you were not

My absolute favorite two-day distance race was last weekend with the best conditions any of us could ask for. The Key Largo Steeplechase is a 110-mile race around the upper Keys, and this year the 15 boat fleet was blessed with a 15+ knot northeasterly the whole weekend. This race is one of the only opportunities we have to let our charged up carbon beach cats stretch their legs. It also allows distance racers to match sailing skill with navigation, ingenuity and pure paddling muscle, with small islands, channels and mangroves giving limitless track possibilities from Barnes Sound, out into the Atlantic, to the final finish in Blackwater Sound on the Gulf side of Key Largo.

The fleet consisted of some F18s, Nacra 20s, Nacra 5.8s, a Hobie 16 with kite and the Carbon Show. The five boat Carbon Show fleet had a mixture of go fast ideas. There were the massive ARC22s which are 12’ wide and nobody really knows how much sail area, the newly Morelli & Melvin designed three meter wide powerhouse Nacra F20c and two Marstrom 20s which are narrower (9.5’ wide), lighter and uni-rigged. Little did I know the Carbon Show meant something completely different.

Let me start this next sequence of events by explaining the Steeplechase is a skeleton race, meaning there is no protest committee and it’s a loose organization putting it on. Up until this year it wasn’t a problem. The competitors stayed out of each other’s way and when there was a problem every sailor garnered the respect they deserve for having the balls to sail in this race where so many things can go wrong that can put any of us in harm’s way at any point in time.

So at 9 AM on Saturday we lined up for the start, which like most distance races was set up facing the first obstacle, Card Sound Bridge. With the wind direction it was a reach, so everyone should just time the start and stay out of each other’s way because it’s a long day and gains can be made at any point. Well, that didn’t exactly happen as this video explains. The big boat is an ARC 22 and the now pregnant boat is a Nacra 20. Get over the 70’s skater music and hang in there for the onboard footage.

The owner of the ARC22 didn’t think he was at fault at the time and sailed on for the rest of the day. He then claimed responsibility Saturday night, then rescinded responsibility on Sunday. What do you think?

Just when you think that little nugget of boat sex was the pinnacle of viewing pleasure for this race, the other ARC22 shows they are the real stars of the Carbon Show with this very well timed and speedy cut through the Card Sound Bridge. (I’ll pause while you watch it about five times) Is this the end of the ARC era? This once dominant catamaran was in fourth place going under the bridge. Even though this boat’s had more modifications than 10 seasons of Housewives since its Portsmouth number was given, they’ll probably ask for their rating to go up.

Now back to the actual race. On the first day the Nacra F20c took the lead on the reach to the bridge, then the Marstroms passed them upwind on the way to Angelfish Creek. The faster tacking F20c then took the lead back in the channel. On the screaming reach on the outside we passed him back on our grey Marstrom. The Marstrom performed better in the waves. The wider beamed F20c held the kite better going to Tavernier Key and took the lead back, but when we turned more south we found a gear and rolled over the top about 15 miles to the finish and never looked back.

Little did we know there was more drama unfolding up the course. One of the Nacra 5.8s missed the channel to get out to the Atlantic and ended up peering at the Miami skyline. With their GPS on the fritz and the sun quickly dropping, they contacted Sea Tow who pulled them back to Key Largo. Their race was over.

A Nacra 20 team also had a small issue. They flipped over on the outside and the skipper became separated from the boat. In the breeze, cats drift sideways faster than a person can swim, especially with a hydration pack and other gear on. While still on the overturned boat, the crew used his super App’d up phone to find his position and call the Coast Guard who snatched up the skipper up and delivered him to his boat after he swam around for about an hour and a half. Lucky guys for sure.

The second day was a beat up the Gulf side of the Keys. Nobody got holed at the start, no sticks broke and it was hard to get separated from your boat when the whole way is only about 6’ deep with plenty of shoals. I used my trusty way points gathered from past races to find the unmarked prop channels and cuts around shoals all day during our back and forth battle with the F20c. The 50-mile beat in 15 knots was a test of determination and stamina and we weren’t to be denied. This was a day when we left it all out there and we won the leg by five minutes which gave us the coveted Old Lawn Chair for first to finish and the Rick White Perpetual for first on corrected time. Sadly for this weekend, the mood on the beach was less about everyone’s accomplishment and more about the lack of sportsmanship displayed from the first day, which marred the competition in the end.

Head here for more event photos and here for the results.