Key West kicks off tomorrow
One of the world's hottest new one-design racing sailboats will compete for the first time at Key West 2011, which begins Monday and runs through Friday off the southernmost tip of Florida.
The RC 44 class, which was conceived and co-designed by four-time America's Cup winner Russell Coutts, has five boats entered in the 24th edition of the renowned mid-winter regatta. Coutts will be aboard his own entry in the class.
"It is great to be back in Key West. It's good to take a week out of the calendar and enjoy the regatta in a relaxed atmosphere. Premiere Racing does a great job, and creates a very social regatta," Coutts said. "The European owners really wanted to race in Key West. I supported the decision. The main reason is to have fun. The whole atmosphere is very laid back, and it is a great regatta to show the boat. The racing is always great, and very challenging."
This marks only the second competitive outing in North America for the RC 44, a high-performance racer that has attracted some of the world's finest professional sailors. Among the notable owners entered in Key West is Vincenzo Onorato, whose Mascalzone Latino syndicate is the Challenger of Record for the 34th America's Cup.
One of the top entries figures to be Chris Bake's Team Aqua, which is led by highly-regarded tactician Cameron Appleton. Team Aqua is racing a 2007 build, which is the oldest RC 44 in the fleet.
"We felt it was important to bring the class to Key West. This is a major regatta that has always been a proving ground for new designs," Appleton said. "We wanted to use this venue to show everyone that these boats are a lot of fun, a real pleasure to sail."
A total of 134 boats in 13 classes will compete on three separate courses in Key West 2011, presented by Nautica. One of the most exciting classes will once again be the Melges 32, which has 21 professional-laden teams on the scratch sheet.
Samba Pa Ti captured class honors at Key West 2010 in dominating fashion, finishing with an 18-point advantage over runner-up Red (Joe Woods, Great Britain). California skipper John Kilroy stood on the dock Sunday morning with a broad smile on his face as he surveyed the brand new graphics on his boat.
"It's going to be another great Key West race week. We have a typically strong fleet so it figures to be a real battle out there," Kilroy said. "Obviously, we had a great regatta here last year and we'd love to duplicate that. I'm excited to be here and anxious to get racing."
Warpath, skippered by Steve Howe of Portland, Oregon, placed fifth at the Melges 32 World Championships in September and figures to be a top contender. Also on the scratch sheet are Leenabarca (Alex Jackson, Riverside, Conn), Goombay Smash (Bill Douglass, Stamford, Conn.), Red and Yasha Samurai (Yukihiro Ushida, Tokyo), all of which placed Top 10 at the worlds.
Competitive teams from 15 countries and 24 American states are slated to compete with other notable classes including the revitalised Farr 30, the international Melges 24 and the always competitive J/105 and J/80.
Skipper Lorenzo Bressani and his Italian entry UKA UKA Racing are defending regatta champions while 2010 runner-up Blu Moon (Franco Rossini, Switzerland) is also back. Full Throttle, skippered by Brian Porter of Wisconsin, is among the top Americans.
"All the European teams have been sailing a lot so they may have a little advantage. The U.S. circuit has been dormant lately so we may have some catching up to do," said Porter, who owns three top five finishes at Key West since 2007.
What a difference a year has made for the venerable Farr 30 class, which has nine boats at Key West 2011 after skipping the regatta a year ago while undergoing a re-organisation. Farr 30 owners took over management of the class and appointed skipper Deneen Demourkas as President.
"We are extremely pleased to be back at Key West. This has always been one of our favorite venues," Demourkas said. "The class has come a long way in a year. The owners now have something they can believe in, and it is reflected by the strong numbers here."
There figures to be plenty of thrilling action in the Mini Maxi class, which four big boats ranging in size from 66 to 72 feet. Titan, a Reichel-Pugh 72, has been chartered by former America's Cup skipper Bill Koch and will go head-to-head with defending champion Bella Mente, an RP 69 owned by Hap Fauth.
Competition is always intense in the J/105 and J/80 classes, which have attracted 15 and 16 boats, respectively. Brian Keane and his crew aboard Savasana are defending champs in J/105 while Glenn Darden and the Le Tigre team were 2010 winners in J/80.
Key West 2011 kicked off Sunday with a practice race in strong winds under sunny skies and the annual pre-regatta 'All-Star Tune-Up' panel discussion featuring Coutts and fellow professional champions such as Ed Baird and Cam Lewis. Racing begins Monday.