Epic tease for 167th Annual Regatta
Published on June 11th, 2021
Newport, RI (June 11, 2021) – It can’t simply be coincidence that the boat that took overall ORC honors in today’s tricky Around the Island Race at the 167th Annual Regatta is named Skeleton Key. Peter Wagner’s J/111 was true to its name today, opening one metaphorical locked door after another during a spirited lap of Conanicut Island until it found itself in rarified air, sailing a mile ahead of the 140-boat fleet with just the Maxi72 Bella Mente for company.
The two boats started the 19-mile race 48 minutes apart, but as they crossed tacks with just a few miles remaining in the race, the overall ORC crown hung in the balance. Hap Fauth’s 72-foot Bella Mente, sailing with many members from the American Magic America’s Cup crew, would scoot away to win line honors, completing the course in 1:49:03.
But the 36-foot Skeleton Key, from San Francisco, took the big prize of the day, first place in ORC E and first place in ORC overall, with John Cooper’s 43-foot Cool Breeze in second (first in ORC B) and Bella Mente in third (first in ORC A).
“It was fantastic, good racing, but also just a great day on the water,” says Wagner (Atherton, CA). “We were sort of smart about sail selection and chose some good lanes through the traffic, of which there was plenty. It wasn’t really an ideal set up for a J/111, as there wasn’t enough wind for us to plane. Nevertheless, it came together.”
When the traditional southwesterly seabreeze fills in, the Around the Island Race plays out like one lap of a very long windward leeward course, a start to windward, a spinnaker set at Beavertail Point, a douse around the north end of Conanicut Island and then a beat to the finish.
A strong easterly component in the today’s breeze complicated things significantly, with many boats setting spinnakers shortly after the start and carrying a downwind sail of some kind two-thirds of the way around the course. Those boats equipped with Code 0s or reaching spinnakers executed multiple sail changes. Those without hung on with skill and guile.
After a career racing all over the world, Mike Toppa has acquired plenty of both. And they have lifted the Newport, RI, native to the top of the sailing world, notably as a member of the America3 team that won the 1992 America’s Cup in San Diego. But, pardon the hackneyed expression, there’s no place like home. And Toppa couldn’t have been more pleased with today’s race. An overall win in PHRF in the W-37 Cavalino was almost secondary. Almost.
“I’ve never found a place that’s more fun and beautiful to sail than Narragansett Bay; I tell everybody that,” says Toppa. “And then today, the race around the island, such a cool event because the boats were strung out for what seemed like miles. The scenery is amazing and the course is really challenging because there are all these geographic shifts.”
For Toppa, one of the big keys to the win was the start.
“We were watching the earlier starts and seeing how that slow, persistent right shift was affecting the starting strategy,” says Toppa. “During the earlier starts, you couldn’t cross the line on starboard, then for our start you could sail from committee boat to the pin on starboard. Our strategy was originally to start on port and be very aware of starboard tackers. But then we started on starboard at the pin and were able to tack.”
That staked Cavalino to a sizable lead, but there were plenty of pitfalls still to come. With just a main, jib and one spinnaker, Cavalino didn’t have a lot of options when it came to sail selection. What Toppa did have was a crew of family and old—and very talented—friends, and a boat that they could work.
“It’s a very simple boat to sail,” he says. “We have just a roller-furling jib, an A2 spinnaker, and main sail, and a giant cockpit. If the boat is 37 feet, the cockpit is 20 feet long. It’s fun and simple. I love it because it my opinion, it’s very pretty. And it’s quick. If it wasn’t fast, it wouldn’t be so pretty.”
While Toppa and his team were plying familiar waters, Wagner was sailing 3,000 miles from his home port on San Francisco Bay. With the 2021 J/111 North Americans and World Championship both on Chesapeake Bay, Wagner moved his program east this summer.
“We don’t do much [point-to-point racing], we’re usually just a pure one-design program,” says Wagner, “This is a bit of change of pace for us, and we’re really happy to be participating. Lovely weather, great conditions and a great venue.”
Like Toppa, Wagner and his team benefited from a strong start and then made some savvy sail selections on the first leg. Once they gapped away from their division, the path to victory required maneuvering Skeleton Key past the 36 boats that started ahead of them.
Beating up the East Passage, the Skeleton Key crew could see the entire fleet astern of them, at least until a certain 72-foot rocket ship charged past.
“The highlight of the day was Bella Mente tacking on us,” says Wagner, with a laugh. “We were admiring Bella Mente coming across on port, then we were a little surprised to see them tack on us. But they were just sailing their own race.”
Racing in the 167th edition of the Annual Regatta will continue tomorrow with a two-day series of buoy racing or point-to-point racing on Rhode Island Sound and Narragansett Bay.
Racing in the 167th edition of the Annual Regatta starts with the traditional lap of Conanicut Island on June 11. That race is scored separately from the series on June 12-13 which features buoy or point-to-point racing for boats racing in one-design classes and under ORC, PHRF and classic-yacht rating formulas.