Big Boat Series: Expect legendary

Published on August 23rd, 2023

Rolex Big Boat Series, the premier racing event on San Francisco Bay since 1964, is once again set to deliver a legendary experience for sailors: epic conditions over four days of racing, dynamic racecourses managed by a world-class race committee and memorable post-racing parties hosted by St. Francis Yacht Club.

Competitors and spectators converge on San Francisco Bay September 14-17, 2023, to enjoy this second-to-none racing destination. For skippers eager to join the action, the window for entries closes at 2100 hours on Thursday, August 31.

“There is no better way to complete the summer racing season on San Francisco Bay than to race in this outstanding event which is held in high esteem throughout the west coast and beyond,” says Beau Vrolyk, 2023 Commodore of St. Francis Yacht Club.

So far, over 75 boats are registered to compete in five divisions: J/88s, J/105s, Express 37s, Classics, and a handicap fleet racing under Offshore Racing Congress (ORC) rules. Competitors will be vying for Rolex timepieces in select classes, and six perpetual trophies are up for grabs.

The J/105s will also be competing for the PICYA Jesse L. Carr Perpetual Captain and Crew Trophy; and the Rolex Big Boat Team Trophy will be awarded to three boats with the highest cumulative placement. The trio must be comprised of an ORC entry, a one-design entry and a third from any class. The 2022 Team Trophy winners J/120 Peregrine, J/105 Niuhi and Cal 40 Viva are all returning to defend the title.

With 31 boats registered to date, the J/105 class will be the largest fleet and remains as competitive as ever. Previous class winners Blackhawk (2019 and 2021) and Niuhi (2022) both return, as does Arbitrage, which placed third last year. Peaches, owned by John and Michael Rivlin, is another to watch, taking fourth in 2022 and currently placing in the top of the fleet at most 2023 regattas. Scott Sellers, Harrison Turner and Geoff McDonald, a trio of skippers who dominated the J/70 fleet last year, have opted to race the J/105 Beast of Burden this year. They acquired the boat, formerly called Jam Session, last winter, and are looking forward to the change.

In the J/88 class, 2022’s frontrunner Split Water returns to defend its title, joined by newcomers Fly and Speedwell, which is raced by Tom Thayer and Robert Milligan. The pair previously owned a J/70 and prior to that, Thayer owned a Farr 40 and two J/105s. Thayer’s first Big Boat Series was in 1989 and he’s raced nearly every edition since then.

“We bought Speedwell a few months ago and have been spending most of our free time getting her fixed up for racing. RBBS will really be our coming out party,” Thayer said. “I like the one design racing, the great group of owners that have chosen to race the J/88, and the small-boat feel and planing capability integrated with big-boat controls.”

Within the ORC handicap division, plenty of opportunities for duels are shaping up: Zach Berkowitz’s Feather and Tom Hutton’s H-Pod in the J/100s; Octavia, Oaxaca and City Lights in the Santa Cruz 50/52s; J/120s Chance and Peregrine; Cape 31s M2 and Full Send; Cal 40s Sea Star and Viva; and J/111s Swift Ness and Skeleton Key, the latter of which is skippered by Peter Wagner, who just won the J/111 North Americans.

Don Jesberg won the Cal 40 class aboard Viva in 2022, and this year will be competing in ORC with most of the same winning crew, “a star-studded group who loves sailing together,” including Matt Frymier, Steve Marsh, Ethan Doyle, John Bonds, Jimmy Franzone and Jeff Mulvihill.

“Racing in ORC will be completely different. The competition will be unknown because we don’t know how the rating system will treat the different designs—it’s a bit of a wild card, but we had so much fun last year, and my crew wanted to do it again,” said Jesberg.

Another top contender, David Halliwill has been sailing the J/120 Peregrine since 2010. He raced Big Boat Series three times in the early ‘80s on other people’s boats and became addicted to big boat competition, tacking duels on the San Francisco city front and podium-finish performances.

“2011 was our first chance to put Peregrine on the start line, having brought her west in winter of 2010 for a refit. We’ve now won RBBS five consecutive years, which I believe is the best performance historically to date of any boat.

“We sail with guys I’ve raced with for several decades on small boats, and now over a decade on Peregrine. It’s a great pleasure to have a platform and a sport where we can almost get the whole gang together, and the J/120s are a tremendously fun and competitive fleet. We’re all getting older though, so let’s hope we’re also getting wiser!”

Barry Lewis, owner and skipper of J/120 Chance will return this year to give Peregrine a run for its money, he’s won Rolex Big Boat Series four times and raced in the event since 2002.

In the Express 37 fleet, 2022 winner Andy Schwenk on Spindrift V returns to defend his title, as does 2021 winner Shawn Ivie on Limitless. They’re joined by Bartz Schneider on Expeditious, who has raced in 35 editions of Rolex Big Boat Series.

In the Classics, Michael Zolezzi’s legendary 8-Meter Yucca returns to defend his title, and new to the fleet is the 57-foot Gesture, a custom S&S owned and skippered by Alex Mehran. Beau Vrolyk will again be racing Mayan, an elegant centerboard schooner built in Honduras in 1947 and rebuilt by master shipwright Wayne Ettel in 2005.

“Mayan has steadily been upgraded to match her original John G. Alden design, and last year was the first year since the early 1950s that she sailed with a gaff foresail,” Vrolyk said. “This year completes her return to original design as we move to 2:1 jibsheets. As always, we hope to do well, but the most important thing is to get around the racecourse safely. These old boats are treasures and we are very careful. After safety, camaraderie and fun come in as close seconds.”

Mayan will sail with a crew of St. Francis Yacht Club members including legendary boat designer Bill Lee, champion navigator Christopher “Lew” Lewis, Greg Meagher, Lance Berc, Nadine Franczyk, Thom Maslow, Cindy Turner and her two young boys, “representing an age spread of 7 to 82, which will be fun.”

Rolex Big Boat Series has always showcased leaders in innovation, from attracting the latest in high-tech sailing vessels and race management strategies, to event operations ashore, which abide by the latest in environmental responsibility practices.

“We encourage competitors to use our water bottle filling stations, we provide recycling bins and we compost everything possible,” noted Meg Ruxton, Sustainability Chair of Rolex Big Boat Series. “We partner with several environmental organizations and this will be our fifth consecutive year achieving Clean Regatta status with Sailors for the Sea.”

Rolex Big Boat Series meets the highest level of recognition from Sailors for the Sea. Goals include eliminating single use plastic, abiding by Green Boating Guidelines, waste reduction via recycling and composting and partnership with environmental organizations.

It bears mentioning that St. Francis Yacht Club takes its post-racing socials seriously. From the Commodore’s Reception kick-off on Wednesday to Friday’s funky outdoor Mount Gay food truck party to the intimate Rolex Owners Dinner and the Crew Dinner hosted in the elegant Main Dining Room—not to mention free dockside beer every day after racing—there is something for everyone.

Enter now for world-class racing and epic parties at the 59th edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series.

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Source: event media

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