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A Q&A with Sara Zanobini about the final regatta in the 2019-2020 Melges 24 Winter Series

by David Schmidt 4 Mar 2020 16:00 GMT March 5-7, 2020
Starting line action at the 2020 Melges 24 Winter Series © Image courtesy of Kathleen Tock

While the now-venerable Melges 24 was designed during the first year of President William Jefferson Clinton’s two-term presidency (read: 1992) and entered production the following year, almost 30 years later the class still continues to draw top-shelf talent thanks to its fast, planning-friendly design, large fleet numbers and active international racing circuit. Winning a major international Melges 24 regatta remains a serious accomplishment for any skipper and team, and with over 850 boats sailing across a wide range of countries and continents, odds are excellent that this will remain the case for years to come.

Take, for example, the three-regatta 2019-2020 Melges 24 Winter Series. These events were (or will be) contested on the waters of Miami’s Biscayne Bay, and (event depending) attracted between 19 and 27 teams.

The majority of these programs flew the letters “USA” on their sails, however a glance at the entry lists also included Canadian, British, German and Italian entries. Further reading also reveals some big names, both in the class and in the sport, including (but certainly not limited to) Bora Gulari, Brian Porter, Jeff Madrigali, Mark Ivey, and Peter Duncan.

While all three of these regattas were held as part of the 2019-2020 Bacardi Invitational Winter Series, the final event in this trifecta (March 5-7) will unfurl as part of the bigger Bacardi Cup Invitational Regatta (March 1-7), and—as with the previous two events—is being hosted by Shake-A-Leg Miami.

I checked in with Sara Zanobini, event organizer of the 2020 Bacardi Cup Invitational Regatta, via email, to learn more about the final regatta in the high-octane Melges 24 Winter Series.

Tell us about the first two Melges 24 Winter Series events—how competitive was the racing?

There has been growing interest and a great Melges 24 turnout for both events with thirty-one different teams competing across Winter Series #1 and #2. The Melges 24 Class is super supportive of the Bacardi Winter series and promotes it really well. Since we started this new Winter Series in 2019, more and more Melges 24 sailors have chosen to add our events as ‘must dos’ to their calendar.

The level of competition is incredible with some really high-profile names competing.

Michael Goldfarb, who is the reigning U.S. National Champion, took out the event #1 victory aided by an impressive and massively experienced crew, including Morten Henriksen of match-racing and America’s Cup pedigree, and Jonny Goldsberry who counts World Championship medals in the Etchells and Melges 24 amongst his successes.

At event 2, Bora Gulari and his team upgraded a 4th place finish in event #1 to a win. Gulari holds multiple podium finishes at Melges 24 Worlds and is a two-time Moth World Champion, so [he] has vast experience to draw on. He was joined by Olympian Dave Hughes, who will be representing the USA in Tokyo 2020 in the 470 Class, onboard for event #1.

What’s the culture of the Melges 24 Winter Series like? Are we talking mostly professional sailors, or are there also strong Corinthian teams?

There are many professionals sailing in the Bacardi Winter series, racing alongside numerous really outstanding Corinthian teams.

The pro sailors include America’s Cup stars, Olympians and numerous World Champions competing against some really good Corinthian (no professional sailors on board) teams. The rock stars do not have it all their own way, either. It has been fantastic to see Corinthian teams claiming front-of-fleet finishes up against the sport’s top talent, including Steve Suddath on Three and a Half Men and Megan Ratliff and her crew on Decorum.

Although we thought this was going to be a series mainly for U.S. competitors, we’ve also welcomed a lot of European nations that have come to Miami to race the season and the series. The sheer quality of the all the helms, tacticians and crew is incredible.

The Melges 24 is hardly a new boat—what do you see as the gravity that keeps top-level teams involved in both the class and with travel regattas such as the Melges 24 Winter Series?

The appeal of the Melges 24 is sailing a high-performance and fun boat against the best sailors in the world on an extremely level playing field.

The Melges 24 class does a wonderful job at marketing events and communicating with its owners. The class is like a family, a big group of friends who are very social and enjoy spending time together pre- and post-racing. We are proud to provide [an] environment to enable that fun and camaraderie to thrive.

As event organizers we dovetail superb racing and fun socials into a really memorable event in a picture-perfect location–and that is what the sailors come to Miami for.

Moving into the final event, do you have your eye on any particular teams for podium positions? And have there been any teams that have shown strong improvement during the previous two regattas?

Numerous teams have a shot at winning, and all teams will have high- and low-scoring races as the quality of sailors is world-class. There is no certainty at the top and in reality, who will pocket the trophies is anyone’s guess. Many teams have claimed a brace of top three race scores, but every year the line-up is hard to predict as new improvers battle through all the time. Teams need to compete in at least two of the three events to be able to qualify for the overall series, including the Bacardi Invitational. A team’s score from the Bacardi Invitational will be added to the lowest score from either Winter Series Event #1 or #2 to decide the overall leaderboard.

In terms of improvement over the two Winter Series events, we were impressed with the Corinthian team skippered by Steve Suddath on Three and a Half Men who exchanged mid- and rear-of-fleet results to scores of 2,1 to finish 11th overall in event #1. By event #2, they leapt up the leaderboard to finish in seventh overall and position themselves in contention for a strong outcome across the three events.

As well as the top finishing teams I mentioned earlier, tough to beat at the Bacardi Invitational will be defending 2018/2019 Bacardi Champions and 2019 Melges 24 World silver medalists Bruce Ayres and his team on Monsoon. The team finished third at last year’s invitational regatta, and scored fifth and eighth at each of this season’s Winter Series events.

I would also expect to see Kevin Welch and his team on Mikey striking at the front, with Olympic silver medalist and America’s Cup sailor Jeff Madrigali at the helm. They finished second at event #1 and scored fifth at the Invitational last year, so [they] should be well up in the favorites.

Brian Porter on Full Throttle finished second in last year’s Bacardi Invitational with a narrow one-point deficit to the winner. Porter has been honored as a US Sailing Rolex Yachtsman of the Year and counts numerous podium finishes at [various] Melges 24 Worlds, including overall victory in 2013, so [this team] has all the experience required to nail a win.

We could also see a showing from Canada’s Roger Counihan and his team on Jaws. They nailed last year’s Canadian National Championship with a run of race wins, and whilst they have not competed at the Winter Series, they will be flying the flag for Canada at the Invitational.

Numerous teams from Europe will also be leading the charge and I imagine well up there will be Alessandro Rombelli on STIG. Rombelli won the Melges 20 Worlds last year here in Miami, so [he] knows the nuances of the race area well. Amongst his crew is two-time Olympian in the 470 Class Matteo Ivaldi, who himself counts multiple top-ten finishes at past Melges 24 Worlds, and Giorgio Tortarolo who is also a holder of multiple World, Continental and national titles.

Also well-known on the international circuit is Great Britain’s Stuart Simpson, who has around twenty-five years’ experience in the Melges 24, and will be challenging with his Team Barbarians crew.

Jan Frederik Dyvi led his team to silver at the Norwegian Melges 24 Nationals in September last year, aided by 2000 Olympic Bronze medalist in the Soling Herman Horn-Johannessen in the crew line-up, and will be hoping for an improvement on his eight-place at last year’s Invitational.

There are plenty more big names and the depth of talent is really inspiring. I can’t wait for the racing to start. So far, we have twenty-eight teams registered for the Bacardi Invitational which is a jump in numbers from last year. We will be providing full coverage from the event, so I encourage your readers to tap into the action at bacardiinvitational.com

Do you expect that teams will approach the final regatta of the series any differently than they did the other two events? Or, do most teams view all three regattas as one big event?

I think everyone understands the importance and appeal of the Bacardi Invitational Regatta in March, and teams are really excited to be part of it. The Winter Series are fun and very competitive weekend events. The Bacardi Invitational goes a step further, capturing a mix of tradition, history and excitement at a world-class event where participating and winning is extremely prestigious.

Many of the teams who are competing in all three events are really targeting the podium. So far, the top-three leaderboard at each event was different, with only the team skippered by Travis Weisleder, racing on the aptly named Lucky Dog, racking-up back-to-back top-three finishes. So, for sure, all eyes will be on his team, who also happen to be the reigning Melges 24 North American Champions.

What kind of weather can teams expect in Miami in March? Also, how does this typically differ from what they have already experienced at the previous two regattas in the series?

We had great conditions for event #1, although event #2 lacked wind a little bit. Usually in March the weather is just perfect, with great wind, sun and warm temperatures. We should be blessed with anything from six to 20 knots of breeze.

There are numerous venues around the world where we would all like to go racing, but Miami must be one of the best, offering guaranteed sunshine and reliable weather.

Can you tell us about any steps that you and the other event organizers have taken in the last couple years to help green-up the regatta or otherwise reduce its environmental footprint?

The biggest step we have taken towards a cleaner regatta is stopping the use of straws in our cocktails. We have also switched to fully recyclable materials for all our plates, cutlery and glasses, provide reusable water bottles to all competitors and run a waste management program. The organizing committee and Bacardi are fully committed to reducing the event’s environmental impact and playing our part to support a more sustainable world.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

We’re very happy that the Melges 24 class has enjoyed a resurgence. The class is popular worldwide and the sailors are a great group of people. We really enjoy having such friendly and involved participants attend our events. We expect to see the numbers continue to grow over the coming years, and [we] aim to run a dedicated Melges 24 race track for the next season.

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