Show Goes on at Key West

Published on January 25th, 2016

Yachting Magazine founded Key West Race Week in 1987, with Premiere Racing taking over the event management in 1997. Now at the helm is the Storm Trysail Club, which successfully completed the 2016 edition on January 18-22. Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck spoke with Regatta Chairman John Fisher for an update…

IMG_2748After 2015 Key West Race Week, there was uncertainty about the future of the event, which was later confirmed when Premiere Racing announced on March 1 they were stepping aside. When did Storm Trysail Club enter in conversation on taking it over?

Before the Premiere Racing announcement had come, there had there been discussions with Storm Trysail Club. We were – I guess the best phrase to use – in the discovery phase. You know, trying to understand, make sure that we had all the pieces to the puzzle to be able to make a good decision. A lot of that has to deal with the economics of taking on a big event like this, and they’re reasonably substantial economics for a club that is really a paper club but with a great depth of experience in race management.

You have to put all your ducks in a row before you make a big commitment to take on an event like Key West Race Week, and also a big commitment to the sailing community in general, because it’s an event that has been very well run for many years and we want to make sure we can do as good of a job, if not better.

It must have been of some comfort in that Storm Trysail Club had previously been involved in Key West Race Week.

While we have a history of being very active in running the races, we had not been on the organizational side of the event. Our principal race officers this year were the same ones that had been used for quite a few years. So we’re acutely aware of what it takes to put on the regatta out on the water. The harder part is the logistics of setting up the shore side and the entertainment component to the event, but also the legal side, which is the permitting process that you have to undertake.

That process involves Army Corp of Engineers, the Navy, the Coast Guard, NOAA, the city of Key West, and also the marine sanctuary that we race over. It’s an undertaking. It’s a lot of leg work, a lot of understanding how it all works, and we’d be doing it for the first year. Premiere Racing had it down like clockwork through all the years of doing it.

When it came time for us to do it, we were probably a couple months behind the curve because it took that long before we made our announcement on April 23, for many reasons. There was a lot to take into consideration to get to that point. But first and foremost, getting a commitment from Quantum that they would stay on as the title sponsor. Also, we wanted to make sure we can instill the confidence in them that we could deliver a product that they wanted to have their name associated with.

IMG_2658As Storm Trysail Club is the host of Block Island Race Week, was that experience helpful in running this sort of pop-up event?

Pop-up event is a great term. Block Island Race Week is an event that Storm Trysail founded back in 1965. We’ve just finished our 50 years out on Block Island. It’s a biennial event, and it’s an undertaking similar to what happens here in Key West, though it’s in our own backyard, which makes it a little easier.

The Block Island venue is a little different than trying to do something in the middle of the city like Key West, but there are very similar challenges to running an event where you really have no facility and support to rely on like with a yacht club.

Certainly, however, we looked to draw on our experiences. There are a few similarities between the two events in terms of people; among the core team that’s in the leadership role here in Key West is a lot of ex-commodores.

One of the things that you do as you come through the flags at Storm Trysail is, as vice commodore, you are responsible for Block Island Race Week – everything from the regatta oversight to the sponsorship side of things. So bringing those people in the leadership in Key West gave us some pretty good depth in those roles.

Each of us took on an area to focus on, about eight of us, where we spread the responsibilities that Premier Racing did as a professional company. Most of us still have a day job, so this is entirely a volunteer effort, but we made time to put something back into the sport.

Was there consideration during the discovery period that the sailing landscape had changed since Key West Race Week was first started, and that it was no longer a good fit? What was the driving force to keeping the event going?

Many of the aspects of Key West Race Week continue to have great value. First and foremost, Key West offers great consistency in conditions. It’s a very attractive backdrop, always very competitive, and it’s probably the most international offshore type event that we have here in the United States.

I believe we had 14 countries represented this year, which brings a different element that we hope to expand on in the future. The European market is very organized and they’re very competitive, and to us it gives us all sorts of possibilities in terms of expanding what we offer here. But the consistency of the conditions is really what people come to Key West for.

People don’t come for the roosters on the street?

For sure, the city is a very eclectic place – it is unique. I think that’s also some of the attraction and allure of the place, so that contributes to the regatta. Aside from the consistency in conditions, you also hope to get a couple of days where you get some good sun and some warmth, which is important relief in the middle of the winter.


I was trying to think of a snappy way to describe the city. It’s sort of a college town without a college or an adult Disneyland.

It’s a walking town. Pretty much anywhere you walk, there’s something of interest, whether it’s a saloon or a pub, or whether it’s a gallery or some sort of island-themed store. There plenty of music and dancing amid museums too. It’s refreshing having come down from up north in the middle of winter to just be able to walk around in shorts and enjoy yourself out in the fresh air. The street entertainers are not to be missed.

Using Kelly’s Caribbean restaurant and Caroline Street for the event village, it’s pretty rare to see a regatta that has its headquarters in the midst of the city.

Yeah, I can’t think of another regatta that actually does it either. The regattas in the places that we’re familiar with, probably the bigger name ones, revolve around a yacht club facility or an actual water site facility. It is pretty unique as to what is done in Key West. But the city itself is very supportive. The Tourism Development Council is very supportive. Without their help, it would be a difficult task to do what we do here. But it’s very much in keeping with what you find in Key West, to be able to have this sort of street festival, if you will, that revolves around a regatta.

I have been impressed with the footfall. There was good traffic each night at the regatta village, with a schedule of events alongside the Mount Gay Rum bar.

I think one initiative within the sport is to continue to educate and upgrade people’s abilities and knowledge of what goes into being fast on the racecourse and also being safe on the racecourse.

Each morning we have a weather briefing that’s been offered by Quantum and sponsored by the Gowrie Group. Ed Baird gives a very detailed outlook in a 15-minute capsule of what he feels is going to happen on the race course each day from wind direction, wind speed, as well as the current and how it affects your decision-making throughout the day. That gives people a lot of things to think about. That gives them some great takeaway points as they go out on the racecourse.

There’s a debriefing at the end of the day that Quantum also has in the village, with panel discussions covering different topics each night. So it’s not just about going out and sailing and coming back and having some drinks with friends. We were trying to make it a complete experience for all levels of interest, and I think I see more and more of that happening with regattas. It’s to help the sport.

It’s also tough to beat the three drinks for $10 package.

We never get any complaints about the price of the drinks.

After a successful 2016 event, I’m sure everyone is wondering if there will be sequel for Storm Trysail.

IMG_2653I think that the event will continue. I think Storm Trysail is committed to undertake it again. We know that we’ve got some room for improvement. The sustainability of the event is absolutely tied to being able to put on a successful event, and with that, attracting sponsors. The sponsorship side of things is critical to all events.

The recreation marine industry itself does not really have enough of a marketing budget to completely undertake all of these events that take place. But they do a great job and are ever present. The sponsorship side of things has got to come from other domestic or international big name sponsors that are not necessarily directly tied to the recreational marine industry but are tied to the demographics that the competitors represent.

But no doubt this is an undertaking. We’ve got 145 volunteers to run a regatta of about 133 boats. You might scratch your head as to why that is, but it takes a lot to be able to produce a product administratively, as well as out on the racecourse, to make something like this happen, especially when it’s a pop-up event. We’re not relying on any staff or a facility. We have to set up, we’ve got to break down, and we’ve got a lot of moving parts all day long.

We’ve got at least 25 support boats that are out there, not only race committee boats but we have safety boats and medical boats. All those things are necessary nowadays to put on a first-class event. We also have to be prepared for contingencies. All boats don’t work all the time, so we need to have a little bit of redundancy to be able to make sure that we don’t compromise the quality of the product that’s out there. So there’s a lot of things to go into it, in coming to Key West. Even trying to find housing for our volunteers is a logistical challenge by itself.

But as far as Storm Trysail’s commitment, we want to continue to run first-class events for the sport. We want to help build the sport and also promote good race management. A lot of people here take what they learn, and their skills, and bring them back to their other clubs. It helps just make things good for any race organizer. The more experience you have, the better.

For the 2017 event, when can we expect an announcement?

We expect to make an announcement at the beginning of March. I know at this point in time we’re talking with the TP52 class, which is largely based in Europe, with the potential to see somewhere between a minimum of eight to ten boats. Plus the Melges 24 class is in Florida for their 2016 Worlds in December, and we want to present a plan for them to come to Key West afterwards. So yes, we are eager to provide dates and any areas of improvement from this year, and we’ll be sure to get that information to Scuttlebutt Sailing News.

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