If sailors headed to Key West for the 2016 edition of Quantum Key West Race Week (KWRW) thought they were going to have a nice little winter sailing vacation, they quickly realized they had signed up for much more than a little ‘round the buoys action. Winds were steadily in the double digits with swells and heavy precipitation as a cold front moved its way out of the area.
Luckily this year’s race organizers weren’t afraid of a little weather. 2016 marked the first year that Storm Trysail Club (STC) managed the event. STC has for years run Block Island Race Week and promised to bring changes to KWRW with their new management.
One of these changes was replacing the PHRF rating system with ORC, a measurement-based system that race committee hoped would more accurately place boats against one another on the course.
By the numbers, about 70 percent of the boats racing KWRW were there for one-design action. As has been the case for the last four years, the J/70s were the biggest fleet by far, this year with 47 boats on the line. Instead of splitting the fleet into two, as they’ve done in Charleston and Annapolis, STC set everyone off with the same gun. The other big class to turn heads on the water was the C&C 30 One Design fleet, who had 11 boats come out to play. Of these, three were owned by Chesapeake Bay racers (Bay boats made up just over 12 percent of the regatta).
The regatta had its fair share of big beauties, too, and with them came their sailing celebrity crew. Steve Benjamin, owner of the TP52 Spookie, had just been announced as the winner of the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year award. In IRC 0, Terry Hutchinson, the 2014 winner of the same award, was one of 21 crewmembers on Hap Fauth’s Maxi 72 Bella Mente.
When racing got started Monday morning, you didn’t have to be a pro to know that it was a perfect day of sailing. For the first race, winds were steadily above 20 knots out of the northeast, diminishing only slightly throughout the day. The sea state was bumpy, with three to four foot waves rolling through the courses. On the C&C30 Themis, owned by Walt Thirion, two genoas were damaged prior to the first race. In Division 3, Solomons sailors John and Linda Edwards (onboard the chartered GP 26 Rhumb Punch) hooked the pin at the start and were fouled for five minutes (they still managed to beat two other boats). Another boat on the same course lost their lifeline, throwing three crewmembers overboard. All were recovered safely.
There wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver in the J/70 fleet, but Bay boats proved that they like squaring off against each other in tight spaces. Thom Bowen’s Reach Around and Henry Filter’s Wild Child traded places all day long, while Catharine Evans and Clarke McKinney chased each other around the buoys on Mojito and Family Truckster. The youngest skipper in the fleet at 13 years old, Gannon Troutman, was back onboard Pied Piper with dad Dan as foredeck. He struggled a bit in the first race, finishing mid-fleet, but steadily climbed back to the leaderboard throughout the day.
In Division Three, two Bay-based J/122s found each other practically match racing on the ORC 1 course. Robin Team’s Teamwork, based in Lexington, NC, but with a boatload of Annapolis-based crew, and Paul Milo’s Orion traded bullets all day long. “We chased each other around the course,” says Milo, “and quite frankly, that’s an incredibly well-sailed boat, so that we compete with them like we did, that says a lot for my crew.” Milo sailed with Chesapeake locals Mark Hillman, Mickey Lawlor (a Schooner Woodwind skipper), Tad Hutchins, Keith Scala, and Regina Welsh.
If sailors felt they needed a chance to regroup after Monday’s racing, they got it on Tuesday when races were called before anyone left the dock. Winds were steadily above 25 knots with what Neville called a “nasty sea state,” so racing was canceled for the day.
This was in part because of Monday’s carnage. “There were several incidents yesterday on the small boat circles that were borderline dangerous,” says Neville. “There were collisions, multiple gear breakages, and man overboard situations—and that was in 20 knots. Sailing in 30 knots is a huge difference.”
John Edwards was relieved. “I haven’t had a heart rate of less than 150 since I got out of bed this morning and saw that the mailbox had blown down.”
Wednesday told a bit of a different story but still promised a good time. At the weather briefing that morning, Ed Baird warned that they would see a “wind driven front,” meaning conditions would be very uncharacteristic for Key West. Three races were planned, and Baird warned skippers to be ready to fight. “This is moving day. Some boats are going to fall off the cliff, while others are going to climb up the standings.”
Winds were out of the northeast at a comparatively docile 15-18 knots. And this was certainly the day for boats to make a move. On the C&C30 course, Themis was reined in by Dan Cheresh on Extreme2 and Bob Moran on Bobsled, who each had bullets. Down the Line, the J/70 helmed by Nigel Brownett with Andrew Kerr, Eric Kownacki, and Jahn Tihansky as crew, had a great day, finishing in the top 10 in two races before falling to mid-fleet, and Clarke McKinney had his best race of the week, finishing 17th in the first race. The J/111 Velocity, owned by Martin Roesch of Ellicott City, had a string of fourth place finishes in the one-design fleet, his best day of the regatta.
With six races down, the regatta was still up for grabs. The plan had been to run 10 to 12 races, and on Thursday morning, race organizers were given the option of running two and two on Thursday and Friday. But with conditions as ideal as they were on Thursday, it was a no brainer: three race day!
Terry Hutchinson and the boys onboard Bella Mente managed to seal the regatta with three bullets, bringing them six points ahead of their next competitor. In the J/70s, Thom Bowen and Henry Filter finally hit their stride and had top ten finishes, but Gannon Troutman showed some signs of fatigue and fell to mid-fleet.
It turns out everyone needed to get some rest Thursday night, because Friday morning was miserable. Lightning, torrential rain, and unpredictable storm cells opened the final day, with organizers openly debating whether or not racing would happen. An on-the-water exploratory committee found that the forecasted eight to 15 knots were actually pushing 20 from the south, with monstrous seas enhanced by a south-flowing ebb tide. The tide was most influential in the Division 1 and Division 4 race courses, so their racing was abandoned for the day (PRO Ken Legler said he could hardly even see boats). However, for everyone else, it was all hands on deck.
On the J/70 course, carnage was inevitable; 15 boats decided to stay onshore and beat the storm for breakdown. This was perhaps wise, as one boat was dismasted on the water. On the C&C30 course, Walt Thirion closed out the week two points over the next competitor and took home the fleet trophy. Teamwork managed to break away from Paul Milo and won their class for the fourth time.
Later that day in the awards tent, Bella Mente was selected as the Quantum Boat of the Week, having come in first place in six of nine races in a tight fleet. Despite having half his crew fall overboard on the first day, Matt Wake’s Eagle’s Eye won the Sailing World Trophy honoring the best performing team composed of junior sailors. They had an average age of 21 years old.
Sailors had just enough time to get a quick hot shower and head over to the awards party where trophies were handed out to happy crews who then played a game of Hurry Up and Wait getting to the airport to come home. Flights were canceled from Miami to Maine while Winter Storm Jonas plowed over the Mid Atlantic. If Key West sailors weren’t sore from a week of bang-up sailing, they were once they got home to shovel two feet of snow.