Ken Legler – Front Row Seats in Key West

Published on January 27th, 2011

Front Row Seats
View from the Race Committee boat at Key West Race Week

kenleglerFrom the snake charmer on the sidewalk to the competition on the race course, with a fleet ranging from J/24s to Reichel/Pugh 72s, there are few events as diverse as Key West Race Week 2011. Division 1 PRO Ken Legler was privileged to have front row seats to watch the Mini Maxi fleet last week. Here is his story:

The bow of the committee boat is a great place to watch races, especially with good binoculars. Even better is watching a class that doesn’t require binoculars when two miles away. The Mini Maxi is that class as each boat is both distinct in appearance and really big. The biggest at Key West 2011 was Titan at 75’. She is almost all red but fades to black near the stern to enhance an already really cool looking boat. Shockwave is nearly as big but all white (hull and chute). Bella Mente is the next largest and is pure dark blue. She won here last year. Numbers, the smallest but not by much at 66’ has wavy graphics on the hull and funny words on the spinnaker.

For these boats, upwind legs of only two miles means short course racing. So the tactics with other boats are dynamic. A bad start and there could be limited breathing room for much of the leg. But they start really well. On Sunday before the first race, our race committee practice just happened to be at the same time as, and right next to, their last practice session. They did many starts that day, two of which went to a short windward mark and back while the other starts were quick turnarounds.

That practice session seemed to have paid as these stallions lined up for us really well with about ten knots of boat speed in only ten knots of wind. I’ll describe the third race. All four were on the line with Shockwave near the pin, so close she almost gets called over early but no boat was more than a few feet behind. Titan is the only boat with a problem. She starts at the committee boat end just to windward of Numbers, and even though Numbers is the smallest Mini Maxi, she points the highest.

So Titan tacks out, meaning she’s hitting the right corner. They like to two-tack the first beat since tacking costs. The best placement for that first tack is all about positioning with the other boats. Three continue left, Shockwave, Bella Mente and Numbers. Numbers continues to point away as windward most of the three, which allows her to hang in enough with the slightly bigger and faster boats to leeward, thus pinning them into the left corner.

We saw a lefty on the committee boats but the right might have gotten the slowly building breeze earlier. The tropical feeling wind was a light to moderate Southerly. In any case, Titan came out of the right corner to round three lengths ahead, about where her rating as scratch boat would put her. Shockwave legged in on the long port board with Numbers with Bella Mente right there too.

Downwind, Shockwave had the most efficient leg by one-gybing it in the right (looking downwind) corner. That put her outside at the leeward mark but right behind Titan. This leeward mark was below the starting line to give them a little more distance but with the wind bent left a bit these behemoths were now coming right at us in the committee boat still anchored right after starting the fifth class (Farr 30s).

Titan bore off a hair, with the corresponding winch noises, and just missed us to leeward going full speed. Shockwave, with their outside rounding, came out of the leeward mark with just enough height to miss us close aboard to windward. Numbers points high again and clears us to windward by half a boat length while Bella, still a close 4th opts to tack out left. She is nimble enough to make the extra tack if she doesn’t get hurt by a small predicted righty.

Was this perfect race management being an obstacle? No, but we were where we needed to be. I felt like a dinghy team racing umpire for a moment. When they can’t get out of a boat’s way, they go into neutral and put their hands in the air meaning, “I can’t get out of your way so deal.” I must say this close passing was a thrill for all of us, including the PRO, the committee boat owner, and our 12 year old guest youth sailor. We didn’t see too much more as we had to watch the other classes and perform race management stuff. Titan took the gun but Numbers took the corrected win with Shockwave right behind.

The 52 foot IRC class started second and also put on a good show. They too conserve tacks and gybes to build great momentum, particularly downwind. The RC 44s were rad, the IRC boats were diverse, and the Farr 30s are the reincarnated Mumm 30s.

Since the Mini Maxis were sailed by humans, there were two imperfect starts. Bella Mente and Titan came within inches of hitting each other at the start of race seven and Numbers and Titan almost hit at the start of race eight. Both near misses were mere feet from the committee boat, giving us a fun chance to play pretend umpire. Pleasantries were exchanged along with a bit of flag waving but in both cases the boats ended up about where they should have been anyway and with no collisions, they seemed to be cases of “No harm, no foul.” No protests were filed.

The Mini Maxi class looked a lot like the short course college dinghy racing I enjoy watching all fall and spring (as head coach at Tufts) except that these boats were enormous, colored, probably wicked expensive, and had 20 crew each instead of two. After ten races they came out almost dead even with point totals of 24, 25, 25, and 26. Now that’s close racing.

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Seconds after start of race 3

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Titan coming at us

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Titan passing us to leeward

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Shockwave and Numbers coming at us

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