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J-boat fleet at the Rolex Big Boat Series

by J/Boats 23 Sep 2018 19:50 BST 12-16 September 2018
Rolex Big Boat Series at St. Francis Yacht Club © Sharon Green / ULTIMATE SAILING

Bright sunshine, steady breeze and flat seas greeted the 76 teams for the final day of racing at the 54th edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series (September 12-16, 2018), hosted by the St. Francis Yacht Club. That was the recurring theme for the entire regatta, considered one of the premiere "bucket list" events on the world yachting calendar amongst knowledgeable sailors anywhere.

In the ginormous fleet of twenty-eight J/105s, it was Jeff Littfin's MOJO that cruised to a class win with virtually all top five finishes, a rarity in that class. Gary Panariello's J/88 COURAGEOUS won class with all top three finishes. The MADMEN on Dorian McKelvy's J/111 eclipsed, literally, ORR B Class with nearly straight bullets. The same was true for ORR C Class, with David Halliwill's J/120 PEREGRINE simply blowing away their fleet with all top three scores. Here is how it all went down on a daily basis.

Day One

It's not often that Mother Nature's agenda perfectly aligns with a regatta's racing schedule, but that's exactly what unfurled for the first day of racing. Warm sunshine and a flooding tide ensured that the good times only compounded as the day unfurled and the breeze slowly but consistently built, eventually just knocking the tops off the waves to punctuate San Francisco Bay with sporadic white caps.

And, while the racers more or less stayed dry (by San Francisco Bay standards, of course), the smiles were visible from multiple boat lengths away as teams put their steeds through the paces, their sails staying powered-up throughout both of the day's races.

"I'm really excited about all three ORR classes," says regatta co-chair Susan Ruhne, about the week's racing. "It's the most robust and competitive handicap fleet that we've had in years. I'm also excited about the first race of each day, as some fleets will have their finishes off of the Race Deck. This is new and it will bring racing to the clubhouse windows."

Sailors competing in Class ORR-B began their day on the Treasure Island racecourse, and while the flood tide effectively lengthened each beat, the fastest teams did a great job finding maximum current relief along the City Front.

Day Two

What goes up must come down, but the flat, fast conditions that greeted sailors at Day One, continued on Day Two, following a short postponement to let the breeze gather. But, once the starting guns began sounding, racers were rewarded for their pre-racing patience by a flood tide and 10 to 15 knots that built all day. The net result of westerly wind cooperating with tide was long beats juxtaposed with blistering runs, bow spray and big grins aboard the boats that gathered on San Francisco Bay to contest the West Coast's most prestigious regatta.

"It's been awesome!" says Gary Panariello, skipper of the J/88 Courageous (USA 77), about conditions. "It was a long way upwind— it took days!! I needed to shave! But, downwind was super-quick with the flood tide."

San Francisco Bay's legendary breeze was the gravity that pulled Panariello to the Bay Area from New York City. First in his fleet after four races, he's clearly adapted well to his new hometown. "If we can just dial up [the wind] it would be awesome!" he says with a smile reflective of the week's phenomenal conditions and his team's enviable 2-1-3-1 scorecard. Tied for points with Marc McMorris' M Squared (USA 75) and only three points ahead of Aya Yamanouchi's Benny (USA 79169), means he'll have to keep working to hold his place.

"Everyone in the fleet has been having a great time, irrespective of where they are in the fleet," says Betsy Weiler, who is serving as Panariello's strategist. "On Day One, we finished both races within one boat length of M Squared."

M Squared's McMorris echo's Weiler's sentiments, even if the two crews are fierce on-the-water rivals. "It's been lots of fun," he says. "It's a great group and great competition. It's our first year having our own start, which has been terrific." As for strategy, McMorris is succinct. "Stay fast," he says with a knowing smile.

While the flat waters have been making for long uphill legs for the sailors, the swiftly flooding tides haven't exactly been making racecourse management easy. Here, however, the StFYC's highly experienced teams of professionals and volunteers, as well as the father-and-son team of Peter and Anderson Reggio, the event's Principal Race Officers, have a steady pulse on an otherwise highly complex situation.

"No two races are ever the same," says Anderson Reggio. "That's what makes it interesting in my mind. StFYC provides a great venue. It's one of the most well set-up facilities for running an event of this style. The volunteers are amazing, and they provide us with a level of confidence that we can do what we need to. I don't mean to say the company line, but the quality of the sailors, from the Pac 52 class to the largest class — the J/105s — is great and is a testament to time spent sailing on the Bay. You become a hardened person sailing here."

Class ORR-B was currently being controlled by Dorian McKelvy's J/111 Madmen (USA 17), who was seven points ahead of the 2nd place team and 13 points up on Zachery Anderson's J/125 Velvet Hammer (USA 51517).

Among the stacked J/105 class, after four races, Jeff Littfin's Mojo (USA 119) was currently sitting in first, followed by Tim Russell's Ne*Ne (USA 3) and Chris and Phil Perkins' Good Timin' (USA 35).

While ORR-C may be last on the scratch sheet, alphabetically, this does nothing to lower the competition levels among these talented sailors. David Halliwill's J/120 Peregrine (USA 25487) was currently first in the ORR-C class, followed by Stephen Madeira's J/120 Mister Magoo (USA 28289) in second.

Day Three

Strong airs and freshening white caps greeted the third day of racing. Long uphill bashes in three to four-foot seas and 20 knots, gusting higher, were rewarded with blistering downwind runs and adrenaline-saturated kite rides juiced by a flooding tide.

"I'd say these conditions are typical of San Francisco Bay, but the courses are so much longer that it's testing people's endurance," says Jenn Lancaster, StFYC's Race Director. "We tried to improve the reaching angles on the course for the handicap boats, and it's been exciting to see them perform. These fleets are really competitive this year."

Racing was tight in the J/105 class, which is the 2018 Rolex Big Boat Series' largest one-design class. "It's a little bit of chaos, a little bit of analytical planning and a lot of guts," says Ian Charles, skipper of the J/105 Maverick (USA 385) about what it's like to be on the helm on a 28-boat strong Rolex Big Boat Series starting line.

When queried about the hardest aspect of driving a J/105 on a racecourse with 27 other identical boats in the West Coast's most prestigious regatta, Charles, who races with his wife, Natalie, pointed to the entire experience as the crux. "It's everything," says Charles. "You've got to have your eyes on everything, the crew, the lines, right-of-way situations, tidal influences— you've got to process a lot of information at once." After three days of racing, he's sixth in the standings, with Jeff Littfin's Mojo (USA 119) in the J/105 class' pole position, followed by Tim Russell's Ne*Ne (USA 3) and Ryan Simmons' Blackhawk (USA 40).

Competition was also predictably fierce in the J/88 one-design class, as well as in the ORR-B and ORR-C handicap classes. Among the J/88s, which were enjoying their first Rolex Big Boat Series as a one-design class, Gary Panariello's Courageous (USA 17) heads into the regatta's final day in first place, with Aya Yamanouchi's Benny (USA 79169) and Marc McMorris' M Squared (USA 75) close astern. In the handicap classes, Dorian McKelvy's J/111 Madmen (USA 17) dominates ORR-B, with Zachery Anderson's J/125 Velvet Hammer (USA 51517) in third. Meanwhile, in ORR-C, David Halliwill's J/120 Peregrine (USA 25487) was commanding headlines, followed by Stephen Madeira's J/120 Mister Magoo (USA 28289) in second.

Day Four

The race committee announced a 15-minute postponement on both the Alcatraz and Treasure Island race courses to allow the breeze to consolidate and, given the flood-tide cycle that the racers have been enjoying all week, the water to flatten-out prior to the day's single long-form Bay Tour race.

This traditional final-day course selection allowed all seven competing classes to finish this no-drop series directly in front of StFYC's Race Deck, giving onshore spectators a fantastic view, their cheering audible from the water as winning sailors crossed the finish line in one of the sailing world's greatest natural amphitheaters.

"It's been very successful with the wind, great sailing and competitive classes," says Susan Ruhne, regatta chair. "San Francisco Bay delivered the breeze and flat water to allow all boats and classes to show off great teamwork. I liked having all handicap boats in ORR, including the sportboats, and we continue to learn about the ratings."

Others agree. "We've been blessed with amazing conditions," says Jenn Lancaster, StFYC's Race Director, who explains that some of the pre-regatta work entailed editing the course shapes and scratch sheet breakdowns. "I think the new courses worked well," continues Lancaster.

"The classes were still compressed, especially in the handicap fleets, and we saw the one-design boats finish close to each other. We tried to group "like" boats more than worrying about rating bands, and it's been successful."

While all teams were primarily racing for top honors in the West Coast's most prestigious regatta, six classes — Express 37s, J/88s, J/105s, ORR-A, ORR-B, and ORR-C — raced for StFYC's perpetual trophies. Of these perpetual-trophy winners, five will also be rewarded with gleaming new Rolex Submariner Date timepieces.

Dorian McKelvy and his crew aboard his J/111 Madmen (USA 17) fully owned the ORR-B class, winning the City of San Francisco Trophy— one of the Golden Spades used during the 1933 groundbreaking ceremony for the Golden Gate Bridge.

While the Madmen team sailed away with a Rolex, they faced plenty of racecourse competition from Zachery Anderson's J/125 Velvet Hammer (USA 51517), who sailed to a third-place finish.

StFYC's Commodore's Cup went to the winner of the largest one-design class– once again the J/105 class, which has commanded this enviable perpetual for the past decade. With 28 on the starting line and top contenders shuffling firsts, this was one of the regatta's toughest wins.

After seven races, Jeff Littfin's Mojo (USA 119) crew claimed top honors and a beautiful new Rolex chronometer, followed by Tim Russell's Ne*Ne (USA 3) and Ryan Simmons' Blackhawk (USA 40).

ORR-C sailors competed for the Keefe-Kilborn Trophy, a prestigious perpetual trophy that was established in 1976 to honor the memory of the late StFYC members Harold Keefe and Ray Kilborn.

David Halliwill and his crew aboard his J/120 Peregrine (USA 25487) out-pointed and out-ran Barry Lewis and company aboard Lewis' J/120 Chance (USA 28484) to win the Keefe-Kilborn Trophy, and accompanying Rolex timepiece, for his fourth win in four years.

J/88 sailors raced as a Rolex Big Boat Series' one-design class for the first time this year and, in addition to dockside bragging rights, were competing for the Richard Rheem Perpetual Trophy, which honors former StFYC member Richard Rheem and his crew aboard Morning Star, Transpac record-breakers in 1949 and again in 1955.

This year's trophy and accompanying Rolex were presented to J/88 fleet winners Gary Panariello and his Courageous (USA 77) teammates, who beat out Marc McMorris and his M Squared (USA 75) squad and Aya Yamanouchi and her Benny (USA 79169) team.

In short, there were four Rolex Submariner watch winners in just six classes in the 2018 edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series- J/88, J/105, ORR B an ORR C. Congratulations to all J/Sailors for their class wins and for supporting what many consider to be the premiere West Coast event on the California summer circuit of regattas.