Regattas: Abracadabra, they’re gone but…

If I’m not mistaken, more than one of the rock-star boats that were supposed to be making news are not. If I’m not further mistaken, quite a few of the usual suspects are missing from the ranks of the regulars.

It’s a sign, but a sign of what? New boats are being built—in lesser numbers. Races are being sailed—with fewer boats at the higher end. And high-profile boats disappear for a variety of reasons. Where whole chunks of a fleet are missing, figure we “live in interesting times.”

Jim Swartz’s much-anticipated STP 65, Moneypenny, disappeared so rapidly after its 2008 debut that the boat’s predecessor, a Swan, nets more Google returns. The second Moneypenny came from the wrong “model year” at Reichel-Pugh. Switching metaphors, we note that most of that litter has quietly disappeared, but the R-P team looks to be back in the hunt with Titan XV, Tom Hill’s new 75-footer. Titan waltzed away from the fleet in the 2009 Block Island Race, and Hill, noting how many boats of a certain generation “have been donated or rebuilt,” said, “Ours was being built at that time. We sweated it out for a year.” Moneypenny, long since donated to the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, leaves Swartz “having a great time with my Melges 32.”

Then there’s Speedboat, sitting on the hard in Florida. Alex Jackson’s 98-foot, all-carbon, canting-keel design from Juan K is not for sale (at least, not officially) but not for sail, either, though it’s ready to go, save for the main that blew out on a transatlantic record attempt last year. A line honors win in the 2008 Newport-Bermuda proved her capability, but skipper Mike Sanderson says, “We never scratched the surface of the potential.” The transatlantic shot flubbed, but that was a charter to charismatic adventurer Richard Branson and family. From my distance, it appeared to share the shortcomings of many race-charter situations.

And what’s to see in the trumpeted 98-foot Maximus except a case of overreaching to the max, with a 130-foot, rotating wing mast that came down in mild conditions in the 2006 Sydney-Hobart and injured five crewmen. With a retractable canting keel that cracked en route to the 2007 Sydney-Hobart. With a trumpet-trail of press releases parked in the Delete-Delete-Delete file of every sailing writer on the planet.

Yep, they overreached there too, and when I woke up next to Maximus — three days into the centennial Newport-Bermuda, in a boat half the size — I thought, “Break… my… heart, baby.” Maximus last year was shipped home to New Zealand, where the trail goes dark. No updates on the web site. No response to email.

So there. A few cherry-picked examples of high-end boats, each with a different story to tell. Farther down the food chain, it’s all numbers. Entries in the 2009 Marion-Bermuda race showed 48 boats, down 32 percent from 2007. The biennial 2009 Transpac was showing 51 entries, down 38 percent. That’s nothing compared to the one-year downturn at Key West Race Week last January, from 261 boats to 109.

But wait? What about the just-having-fun stuff? That’s a backbone of the sport. That’s us. So I asked two local clubs that hold “beer can” races and the comeback was:

“No decrease at all.”

“Actually, our numbers are up.”

And somewhere, a little kid is sailing a little boat. In fact, lots of kids are. This is kinda sorta a good-news story, and I’d say something schmaltzy and probably true right here, right now, about how we’re all going to be fine, if only it weren’t so hard to breathe underwater, while typing with my fingers crossed.

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