There's been a flurry of activity at the various marinas as boats and crews prepare for Quantum Key West 2012.
Tourists disembarking from the cruise ships have been gawking at the high-tech big boats berthed at the docks in front of the Westin Hotel while crews tune rigs and load sails. Vacationers renting jet skis in front of The Galleon have dodged the many Melges 32s heading out of Government Cut to go practice. Couples having lunch at the Half Shell Raw Bar have watched Farr 30 teams return to docks of Historic Seaport after a day on the water.
Quantum Key West 2012 officially begins on Monday and the forecast calls for 15-20 knot winds. Big-name professionals sailing state-of-the-art racing machines makes the 52ft class the one to watch at the 25th anniversary regatta.
Challenging to sail and powerfully-built, the 52-footers require highly experienced crews to get around the course and thereby have attracted a who's who of professional sailing. America's Cup veterans Terry Hutchinson and Gavin Brady headline a list of top-notch tacticians.
Hutchinson will be calling the wind shifts and course decisions for Quantum Racing, which captured the Audi Med Cup Series championship on two of the last three years. Doug DeVos, the primary stockholder for regatta sponsor Quantum Sail Design Group, will be steering the boat.
"I definitely think we are capable of winning the regatta. We have a good boat and a strong crew," said Hutchinson.
Bella Mente, a team led by skipper Hap Fauth of Minneapolis, is racing another boat from the Audi Med Cup - the premier TP52 circuit in the world as the team awaits the launch of its new Mini Maxi. Fauth has chartered the Juan K-designed Team Origin 1851.
"We have an old team that has been together for a while sailing a variety of designs," Bella Mente strategist Dee Smith said. "We're comfortably optimistic, but we don't really know. We're new to this particular boat so we'll see how things go. We just have to keep it together and minimize the mistakes."
Smith tabbed Quantum Racing as the team to beat because "the team has been together and the boat's had a lot of success and they have Terry Hutchinson."
Two brand new 52-foot designs will be debuting at Quantum Key West 2012. Highland Fling XII, owned by Irvine Laidlaw, is a new Reichel-Pugh design and will be scratch entry in the class. Peter Holmberg will be calling tactics on board.
"This boat has all the latest design innovations so in theory it should be faster than the other boats in the class," Laidlaw said. "On the other hand, this is the first time any of us have stepped foot on the boat. It's going to take time to learn how to sail her to maximum performance."
Interlodge, owned by Austin and Gwen Fragomen of Newport, R.I., is a new Botin Partners design sistership to Quantum Racing, built to the TP52 rule. Veteran Newport-based pro Brad Read, whose brother Kenny is skipper of the Volvo Ocean Race entry Puma, is tactician on Interlodge.
Some of the world's finest professionals can also be found in the Melges 32 class, largest of the regatta with 19 entries. A pair of California-based boats - Samba Pa Ti (John Kilroy, Los Angeles) and Warpath (Steve Howe, San Diego) - are the consensus choices as pre-regatta favorites. Samba Pa Ti was named Boat of the Week after winning the Melges 32 class at Key West 2010, sailing with three-time Melges 24 World Champion helmsman Lorenzo Bressani. 2011 Melges 32 Gold Cup Champion Steve Howe on Warpath, with tactician Morgan Larson placed second overall last year in Key West, has just captured the Melges 32 Gold Cup off Fort Lauderdale and is determined to conquer all, especially since World Champion William Douglass’ Goombay Smash is not present to defend his title.
"That's flattering to hear, but the truth is there are a number of tremendous teams with fantastic sailors in this fleet," Kilroy said. "Warpath was fantastic in the Gold Cup, very fast and well-sailed. But there are many other boats that are very capable. It's always wise to have a healthy respect for all of the competition. It's one of those deals where you can't take anything for granted."
Vincenzo Onorato’s Mascalzone Latino with tactician Gabriele Benussi is expected to fair equally well: "Key West is one of my favorite events. For ten years, Mascalzone Latino has taken part in this event. It’s our first time racing in Key West in the Melges 32, without a doubt it will be more competitive than ever," says Onorato."For us, it is the first of many events on the USA Sailing Series that will best prepare us for the World Championship, hosted by the New York Yacht Club taking place in Newport, R.I. in September."
A dark-horse candidate in the owner-driver Melges 32 class is Hedgehog, which has a very talented helmsman in skipper Alec Cutler (Bermuda) and Canadian superstar tactician in Richard Clarke. Cutler was a three-time All-American collegiate sailor at the Naval Academy and mounted an Olympic campaign in Finn class. Clarke is a multi-time Olympian who has done America's Cup and Volvo Ocean Race campaigns.
"Alec certainly has the pedigree to be one of the top drivers in the class and we have a strong team," Clarke said. "That being said, it's important to be realistic. This is our first regatta with the boat and we have to climb the learning curve. It's going to take time to get up to speed."
Hedgehog is one of several new fleet additions including Makoto Uematsu on Esmeralda, Roberto Tomasini Grinover on Robertissma 1 and Keisuke Suzuki on Swing.
Others teams that complete the ring of contention include Chris Larson calling tactics aboard Joel Ronning’s Catapult, Benjamin Schwartz’s Pisces with America’s Cup legend Ed Baird serving as tactician, and Morgan Reeser calling tactics on Geoff Pierini’s Shakedown.
Competition should be just as stiff in the 18-boat J/80 class, which features more amateur crews. Glenn Darden and the Le Tigre team from Forth Worth, Texas will be seeking to three-peat at Key West against a deep, talented fleet.
Darden, who has a J/80 world title to his credit, expects stiff competition from past North American champion Bruno Pasquinelli aboard Tiamo and thinks class newcomer Brian Keane could make some noise. Keane was Key West champion in J/105 class the previous three years, but will sail the J/80 in 2012 after jumping into that design in time to compete in the 2010 worlds.
A strong fleet of seven boats from California to New York, not to mention one from Sweden, will duke it out in the Farr 30 class. Fellow skippers expect class president Deneen Demourkas and the Groovederci crew, including French America's Cup sailor Philippe Mourniac, to set the pace after capturing the class world championship in September off San Francisco.
"As always, Groovederci is the standard we all have to meet. Gotcha has been practicing hard all Fall so their crew work should be pretty solid," said Mummbles skipper Brad Kauffman, who finished third in Farr 30 class at Key West 2009. "I think we have a chance. We've got a good boat and a good crew. We just have to find a way to reach out our full potential speed-wise."
There is a Groovederci entered in the Farr 40 class as well as John Demourkas is the other half of a husband-wife sailing team. The Santa Barbara-based boat is part of an old guard of a class that once attracted 37 entries to Key West. Barking Mad (Jim Richardson, Newport), Flash Gordon (Helmut Jahn, Chicago) and Struntje Light (Wolfgang Schaefer, Germany) are other Farr 40s that have competed in this regatta 10 times or more.
"We have a smaller fleet than years past, but it will still be great racing. We've got some very strong teams here so it will be just as intense out on the course as it always has been," Demourkas said.