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Key West Race Week draws royalty, rock stars

For two decades, sailors from around the world have flocked to the southernmost point of the United States in January for warm weather, strong winds and stiff competition.

For two decades, sailors from around the world have flocked to the southernmost point of the United States in January for warm weather, strong winds and stiff competition.

Key West Race Week, now known as Acura Key West 2007, delivered on all counts, serving up five straight days’ worth of the conditions for which the annual regatta has become famous.

Race Week is about enjoying the sun, fun and social scene as much as the on-water competition. Premiere Racing, which organizes the event, set up bases at a public parking lot at Historic Seaport and the nightly awards parties underneath the “Big Top” once again attracted a huge crowd.

Skippers keep their boats in a variety of locations around the ConchRepublic. Most of the boats are berthed at Historic Seaport at the docks in front of the Galleon, Turtle Kraal’s or Half Shell Raw Bar. Many of the larger IRC entries found deeper water in front of The Westin or along the sea wall at Truman Annex. Almost all of the Division 4 boats base out of StockIsland, docking at Robby’s Marina.

Of course large numbers of sailors hit Duval Street hard at night, making the circuit among such favorite establishments as The Green Parrott, Hog’s Breath, Irish Kevin’s and Sloppy Joe’s.

Many of the regatta regulars will tell you it’s the funky, eclectic side of Key West that has kept them coming back for 20 years.

Sunny skies and temperatures that hovered around 80 degrees combined with steady 10- to 14-knot winds and flat water to provide 260 boats with spectacular racing. As usual, competition among some of the best sailors in the world was tight, as nine of 17 classes came down to the final race.

It was a fitting way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the renowned regatta.

“This was the perfect Key West. We had terrific weather, wonderful conditions, fantastic race management and tremendous competition,” says Dan Meyers, skipper of IRC 1 champion Numbers.

Meyers and his high-level crew won a weeklong battle with Edgar Cato and Hissar. The two Farr-designed 60-footers from Newport, R.I., traded first- and second-place finishes throughout the week and entered the ninth and final race separated by just 2 points.

Predictably, a match race duel ensued and Hissar led until the second downwind leg before Numbers rolled over its rival and held the lead during the upwind finish. “It basically took until the last leeward mark rounding to decide the regatta,” Meyers says.

Hamish Pepper, an America’s Cup winner with Team New Zealand, called tactics aboard Numbers. Meyers had high praise for his entire crew, which also included such Volvo Ocean Race and America’s Cup veterans as John Barnett, Tim Dawson, Jerry Kirby, John MacGowan and Erle Williams.

“I cannot express how grateful I am to the crew. We had one guy fly in from Dubai, another from Spain. Guys came from New Zealand and California,” Meyers says.

Meyers, who made millions in the student loan business, spent the week living the lap of luxury aboard a 230-foot motoryacht that was berthed in front of the Westin Hotel. After each day’s racing, he and several crew took an inflatable tender to a reef to go swimming.

Meyers was among numerous wealthy, high-profile owners at the regatta. None was more notable than Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, head of the Alinghi syndicate that currently holds the America’s Cup.

Bertarelli, who made his fortune in the biotech industry, took a break from Cup preparations to skipper his Farr 40 in arguably the most talent-laden and competitive class at Key West.

Bertarelli steered Alinghi to its fourth victory of the series to clinch overall victory with one race remaining. The team from Geneva built an insurmountable 20-point lead over Flash Gordon 5 in the 17-boat class and thus did not need to leave the dock on the final day.

Bertarelli came to Key West with five members of his America’s Cup crew, figuring warm and sunny Florida would provide a nice break from preparations to defend the Auld Mug. Kiwi tactician Brad Butterworth showed why he’s one of the world’s bests, calling the shifts brilliantly all week. Six members of the crew were not professionals — per class rules — and had to blend in with the Cup sailors. “This crew had never sailed as a group so we weren’t sure how it would go. It turns out we worked very well together,” Butterworth says.

Spend time in the media trailer listening to the many languages being spoken and you get a feel for the international flavor of the event. Among the more than two dozen photographers and journalists in attendance were those from Australia, Denmark, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia and Spain.

No sailor attracted more media interest than Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, who made his Key West debut as skipper of the Farr 40 entry, Nanoq. It was believed to be the first time in 20 years that visiting royalty had attended Key West.

Prince Frederik, 38, has been involved with competitive sailing for six years, mostly in the Dragon one-design class. This is his second season in the ultra-competitive Farr 40 class, which always attracts some of the world’s top professionals. Dutch sailor Bouwe Bekking, skipper of Movistar in the last Volvo Ocean Race, served as tactician aboard Nanoq.

“The fact I can sail only a few weeks out of the year and still have an opportunity to compete against the real rock stars of the sailing world is very exciting, a real adrenaline rush,” says Prince Frederik.

A television crew came from Moscow to document the performance of Rusal Synergy, a TP52 owned by Alexey Nikolaev, the first Russian entry in Key West history. Japanese photographers were most interested in Esmeralda, the newly launched Club Swan 42 that Tokyo-based industrialist Makoto Uematsu skippered to an impressive victory in IRC 3.

The Italian media had plenty to get excited about thanks to the winning performances of Riccardo Simoneschi in Melges 24 and Claudio Recchi in Melges 32.

Simoneschi and his crew aboard Giacomel Audi Racing captured the highly competitive Melges 24 class in dramatic fashion. Simoneschi got the gun in Race 9 to vault from fourth to first in the 47-boat fleet, largest of the regatta.

“We got a great start and our tactics were almost perfect,” says Simoneschi.

Simoneschi’s decisive move in the standings — going from eight points down to a five-point victory — also earned Giacomel Audi Racing the prestigious Acura Trophy as Boat of the Week. Officials with Premiere Racing determined that the Melges 24 class featured the closest, most competitive racing over the course of the week.

IRC 2 class also came down to the last race with skipper Colm Barrington steering Magic Glove to a second-place finish in Race 9 to secure overall victory. The good-natured Irishman was making his Key West debut with a recently launched Ker 50 and placed first or second in six of nine races against a loaded fleet.

“We made a lot of changes to the boat over the last few months,” Barrington says. “We tweaked the rig and got some different sails and it all seemed to work out.”

Robert Greenhalgh, a member of the victorious ABN AMRO crew in the last Volvo Ocean Race, called tactics aboard Magic Glove, which opened the regatta with a sixth then reeled off three straight bullets. SambaPa Ti and Windquest, a pair of TP 52s, placed second and third, respectively.

Mumm 30 was another grand prix class decided on the final day. Southern Sun, the Australian entry skippered by Bruce Eddington, held onto its lead by the skin of its teeth. Dutchman Peter De Ridder and the Mean Machine crew did all they could to put the pressure on the Aussies by winning Race 9.

Southern Sun was in sixth place with 100 meters remaining on the last leg, but picked off a boat and placed fifth — good enough to finished tied with Mean Machine on points. Eddington won the tiebreaker by virtue of posting more first-place results in the regatta.

“We have a new team with three young guys who are first-timers to the Mumm 30. They all did a great job and we improved throughout the week,” says De Ridder, who has announced his intention to mount a Volvo Ocean Race campaign.

NKE Electronics, a Beneteau 10R skippered by Bobby Oberg of Annapolis, Md., placed first or second in seven of nine races to clinch the 13-boat PHRF 3 class with one day remaining in the regatta. However, Oberg and Annapolis tactician Matt Beck decided to compete in the last race in order to secure the inaugural PHRF National Championship.

That decision proved wise as NKE Electronics wrapped up the championship by the narrowest of margins over Rhumb Punch, a J/29 owned by Marylanders John and Linda Edwards of Solomon’s Island. NKE Electronics had similar boat speed as PHRF 5 winner Rhumb Punch throughout the week, but benefited from a smaller time disparity between the first and fifth place finishers in PHRF 3.

Bruce Bingman, chairman of the PHRF consortium at Acura Key West 2007, determined the championship through a complicated formula that emphasized average corrected speed and class competitiveness. Winners of all six PHRF classes at Acura Key West were eligible for the national championship and four were still in contention for the title with ties for first and third going into the final day of racing.

“It was an interesting competition and an extremely close competition,” Bingman says. “Both ties were broken on the water by the tiniest margin.”

Oberg, a 35-year-old New Jersey native who sailed at St. Mary’s College, was thrilled to pick up the inaugural PHRF National Championship.

“It’s pretty exciting because 20 years from now, somebody is going to win this award and our name is going to be on there first,” Oberg says.

Rhumb Punch reeled off eight straight first-place finishes to dethrone seven-time class champion Liquor Box, a Tartan 10 co-owned by Chuck Simon and Bill Buckles. Simon, a Key West resident, expressed admiration for Edwards and crew.

“They wanted it badly and came here prepared,” says Simon, who indicated that Liquor Box will end its dominating 10-year run at Key West in 2008.

The J/105 class was still in doubt going into the last race, but San Francisco sailor Thomas Coates and his team aboard Masquerade shut down any thoughts of a come-from-behind victory. Tactician Chris Perkins made all the right calls as Masquerade got the gun in Race 9 to seal its third straight title in J/105 class at Key West.

“We were talking on the way back to the dock and everyone agreed the competition here this year was better than it’s ever been,” says Coates, a San Francisco resident. “All the teams are further along on the learning curve. That makes this win even more special than the previous two.”

Another hotly contested class was J/109 with Gary Mozer’s Current Obsession winning a tiebreaker with Stephen Tedeschi’s Tastes Like Chicken. Mozer, from Long Beach, Ca., notched a third on the final day and thus was able to throw out a seventh from Race 8 and deadlock Tedeschi (Newport, R.I.) with 20 points. Current Obsession, which was making its Key West debut, was lifted to victory by back-to-back bullets in the sixth and seventh races.

One of the more impressive performances came in the Corsair 28 fleet as Steve Marsh and Todd Hudgins teamed to sail Dealer’s Choice to first-place finishes in all eight races that counted. The entry from Stuart, Fla., finished a whopping 22 points ahead of longtime rival Bad Boys, skippered by Bob Harkrider of Augusta,