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Bringing Back a Legend

Published on August 23rd, 2018

John Williams is a four-time national champion catamaran sailor, a former member of the US Sailing Development Team, represented the United States at the 2011 Pan American Games, and will be the principle race officer for the 2019 Worrell Reunion Race.

The multi-stage contest from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Virginia Beach, VA rekindles an iconic test that began as a bar bet in the 70s and grew in notoriety until it famously flamed in 2003. In this report, John shares the battle of bringing back a legend.

“What do you think, Johnny?”

I stood, leaning against the boardwalk’s wooden rail, squinting against the blowing beach sand. The onshore breeze was a flag-snapping 20 miles per hour and the surf seemed to roil rather than break. I was gripping my VHF radio a little too tightly. I’d been reminding myself to not grind my teeth when Mike Worrell casually matched my posture against the well-worn rail with a smile and a mild tone that didn’t at all reflect my internal DefCon 3 anxiety.

“Will you race them in this?” I asked.

Mike didn’t answer right away. He turned to look out across the shoreline, but it seemed to me he wasn’t seeing what was in front of us. He was thinking. Maybe he was replaying in his mind the hundreds of other mornings he’d stood on a beach with a decision to make. Maybe he was thinking about what he’d had for breakfast. It was an uncharacteristically private moment with a busy man.

“Let’s see what it looks like in an hour,” he said in that unmistakable drawl, patting my shoulder in encouragement and walking away.

It was May 8, 2001 in Jensen Beach, Florida and I was working for the Tommy Bahama Sailing Team in the Worrell 1000 – a brutal, punishing year in the almanac of the endurance sailing race from South Florida to Virginia Beach. The course was 1000 miles of open ocean on a beach catamaran that tested, and sometimes broke, the men and women that dared the challenge.

It was only my second time at the event; I’d previously been the manager for a 1st-year team that made it to the finish line. That experience and some good friendships had been enough to land me the manager position for a much higher profile team with significant resources. I learned that more hands don’t always make the work easier, but the experience solidified for me that the race was something special. I knew I wanted more.

But in 2003, a cascading series of circumstances saw the event cancelled.

There were bad feelings, broken hearts, and broken friendships that year. People lost money, confidence, and sponsor relationships. In the intervening years between the last event in 2002 and Mike Worrell’s death in 2010, other events were organized and attempted, and Mike himself worked doggedly to rekindle the fire from ashes.

Events like the Tybee 500 gave offshore distance catamaran sailors a “fix” for a time, but nothing approached that pinnacle – the Worrell 1000 remained the Tour de France, the World Series, the Super Bowl of the beachcat community. There are catamaran sailors in the current fleets who weren’t yet alive the last time the Worrell 1000 was run, but even they have heard of it.

Now a dedicated core group has resurrected that spark. The 2019 Worrell Reunion Race is a reality in a way that previous organizing efforts couldn’t quite achieve. The team has been quietly working for a year with strong headwinds from an aging fleet’s long memory and understandable skepticism. The focus has been not “if,” but “how?”

They decided to focus on the logistics; nailing down checkpoints, dates, permits… whatever had to happen to make the race possible, with a hope that if it were built the fleet would come. The mistrust, the old resentment, all were set aside as unresolvable without the tangible: a start line and a race committee.

Maybe in the end, the strongest driver was simply that the clock was running out – nobody’s getting any younger and it seemed like now or never.

Like any family reunion, I expect there will be some tension. But that’s going to fall well short of the nostalgia, stories and warm greetings between old friends, and that’s the part the new blood will be left with after the beach is cleared and the last trailer leaves the parking lot in Virginia.

And now, inexplicably and beyond any imagined future, I’ll be standing in the Florida beach sand next May with a decision to make. And it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone whose voice will be in the back of my mind…

“What do you think, Johnny?”

Editor’s note: The photo above is Mike Worrell gazing out over the Jensen Beach checkpoint on May 8, 2001.

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