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Charleston Race Week back following a one-year hiatus

by Bill Wagner 9 Apr 16:18 BST April 8-11, 2020

There was activity at many of the marinas around Charleston Harbor on Thursday, and it was a welcome sight.

Sailors were spotted hauling hardware and gear along the docks at Charleston Harbor Marina & Resort, as well as across the Ashley River at Charleston Yacht Club and Carolina Yacht Club.

Seeing crews rigging boats and performing other preparation was a clear sign Charleston Race Week was back following a one-year hiatus. Canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the iconic regatta will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2021.

"It's great to have Charleston Race Week back and I think I speak for all the sailors when I say we're super excited," said Crisp McDonald, owner of the J/24 Level Pelican.

"This regatta has become an annual tradition for so many people," he added. "I think everyone is just happy and grateful that major events such as this are returning to the racing calendar. It's a sign we're getting back to some sense of normalcy."

McDonald is a Charleston resident involved with organizing specialty events such as marathons and triathlons. He notes there is scant evidence to indicate outdoor athletic activities have contributed to the spread of COVID provided proper safety measures are enforced.

Charleston Race Week organizers, led by longtime event director Randy Draftz, have gone above and beyond to ensure this year's regatta is held in a safe and responsible manner. It has meant taking drastic measures, such as canceling the popular post-race parties on the beach at Charleston Harbor Marina & Resort.

"I think most sailors would agree that we will forego the parties in order to have great racing on the water," McDonald said.

A strong fleet of 177 boats in 14 classes will compete on five different racing circles at Charleston Race Week 2021, which begins Friday. Quantum Sail Design Group is serving as presenting sponsor of the three-day regatta, which traditionally completes a double-digit number of races.

"Quantum has really stepped up, and their generous support is a big reason why this regatta is happening this year," said Draftz, who is largely responsible for transforming Charleston Race Week into one of the largest grand prix sailboat racing events in North America.

This marks the first time Charleston Race Week has implemented live tracking on all five courses. Trac Trac devices, the latest innovative technology in tracking, will allow regatta organizers to deliver live broadcasts of racing from all four inshore courses.

Quantum will have seasoned professionals such as Cameron Appleton and Farley Fontonet providing expert commentary and analysis during racing. Log onto CharlestonRaceWeek.com to find a link for the live racing.

Melges 24 is the largest class of the regatta with 34 entries with 2019 Charleston Race Week champion Travis Weisleder and his Lucky Dog team leading the way. Also returning is Bruce Ayres, who skippered Monsoon to a runner-up result two years ago. Other perennially competitive boats include 3 half Men (Steve Suddath), Full Throttle (Brian Porter), Shaka (KC Shannon) and Decorum (Megan Ratliff).

The Melges 24 class was not completely idle during the year-long pandemic, conducting a handful of regattas. Most recent was the Bacardi Cup, which completed a three-event winter series. Charleston Race Week marks the culmination of the racing schedule until the class nationals are contested in mid-September. That is why there is a deep, talented fleet here this weekend.

"This will be by far the biggest event numbers-wise over the past year," Weisleder said. "There are a bunch of good boats and great sailors here."

Bora Gulari and his team aboard New England Ropes captured the Melges 24 Winter Series and will have a "big bullseye" on their backs, according to Weisleder. He described class veterans such as Ayres, Porter and Suddath as "the usual suspects" of top contenders.

"Depending on the conditions we see, the leader board could play chutes and ladders very quickly," he said.

Charleston Race Week is one regatta Weisleder tries to never miss since he and wife Shannon both attended College of Charleston. The Richmond, Virginia resident is eager to defend his title here and has veteran professional Mark Mendelblatt aboard as tactician.

J/70 is once again loaded with talent with many professionals spread among the 33 boats, including 2019 champion Joel Ronning and his Catapult crew. Buddy Cribb (Victory), Peter Duncan (Relative Obscurity), John Heaton (Empeiria), Nelson Mills (Columbia) and Michael Goldfarb (War Canoe) - all of whom finished Top 10 two years ago - are also back.

"I absolutely love coming to this place. I think it is one of the most challenging racetracks on which I've ever sailed," said Ronning, a member of Wayzata Yacht Club and resident of Excelsior, Minnesota.

"I think it's one of the most interesting tracks in North American: Super complicated in terms of the currents, but boy is it fun!" Ronning added. "It makes everyone think extra hard and there are always opportunities out here."

Bacardi Cup marked one of the few times over the past year that many of the top J/70 teams got together. Ronning sailed Catapult to third place in the 10-race series. Surge, skippered by Ryan McKillen of Coral Reef Yacht Club, was runner-up and come to Charleston Race Week as an up-and-comer in the class.

"These are highly skilled sailors we're up against, and I'm honored to compete with them," Ronning said. "Everyone faces the same issue of: We just haven't seen enough of each other.

There is no clear number one team out there right now. I think it will be a coin toss."

One of the fastest-growing classes on the grand prix circuit is VX One, which returns to Charleston Race Week in full force. Michelle Warner returns to defend her 2019 title aboard Tudo Bem and will once again be challenged by Christopher Alexander and his Counterproductive crew, which placed second at the last Charleston Race Week.

"We were just discussing how competitive this will be," Warner said. "There are any one of 10 boats that can take this regatta. We just got done doing the Sarasota Series and there were seven different boats that got bullets."

Class newcomer Doug Clark, Director of Sailing at the Coast Guard Academy, captured the VX One Sarasota Series. That consisted of three regattas held in vastly different conditions during January, February and March. That performance certainly stamps Clark and his crew, Rod Favela and Emmi Triplett, as the boat to beat here in Charleston.

Warner will seek to defend her Charleston Race Week crown with the same crew with whom she sailed in 2019 - Austin Powers and Reed Baldridge.

"We are so excited to be back. It's a regatta we very much look forward to doing," said Warner, who resides in Boulder, Colorado. She cited Another Bad Idea (Mark Liebel), Blue Lobster (Ian Maccini) and Rosebud (John Morreale) as other boats to watch. North Sails pro Ched Proctor and Quantum pro Marty Kullman have jumped into the class and immediately become leading contenders.

Another large class is J/24, which has attracted 21 entries - double the number that attended Charleston Race Week 2019. They will race on Circle 4 along with the J/22 class, which consists almost entirely of junior teams.

McDonald was runner-up in J/24 class at Charleston Race Week 2019, finishing 12 points behind Carter White and the YouRegatta team. This year's fleet figures to be even more competitive coming off a Midwinter Championship that attracted 30 boats.

"There are a lot of really good teams here. I'm glad I got my hardware in 2019 because it's going to be tough to be on the podium this year," McDonald said. "There are nine new boats, and several are extremely strong."

Seattle resident Denny Vaughan has chartered Jesus Lizard, which won J/24 Midwinters with John Mollicone driving. Vaughan has owner Dan Borrer and Mike Ingham aboard as crew.

"Mike and Dan are world-class J/24 skippers in their own right," McDonald said.

Mental Floss (Aidan Glackin) finished seventh at Midwinters, while Velocidad (Chris Stone) placed third at J/24 Worlds two years ago. Meanwhile, Charleston Yacht Club member Don Hill steered Chicora to fourth place at Charleston Race Week 2019.

As has been the case for many editions of Charleston Race Week, there will be pursuit racing out on the Atlantic Ocean. There will be three classes - Spinnaker A (11 boats), Spinnaker B (9 boats) and Non-Spinnaker - participating in the Pursuit Race on the Offshore Circle 5.

More information at charlestonraceweek.com.

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