Walkin’ the Dock at Key West

By David Schmidt

Getting here isn’t easy. For some, it involves a multi-leg prop-job hop from a major airport to a local airport to the tiny airstrip known as Key West. For me, it involved a hair-raising journey on a jet-powered CRJ that managed to land on a very short runway, one rear wheel in contact with Planet Earth before the side winds relented, full contact was made, and all systems were a go to slow us down fast (there’s not a lot of runway here). But now I’m here, the weather is warm (although the locals are wearing ear muffs and fleece jackets; my taxi driver insisted on cranking the heat all the way up), the winds strong (more on that later), the rain clouds threaten their liquid offspring, and the races are on and the sailors are stoked.

If you’re like me, seeing a tricked-out raceboat is better than most sights; here, there are hundreds of “Mo-Chines”, their war paint fresh, their sails fresher, and their crews dressed to the nines in embroidered crew wear. Black masts stretch skyward, the odd white-painted aluminum mast standing in stark contrast to its newer-model brethren. Bows are plumb, sprit poles are everywhere, and the collective psyche is high.

But the war machines aside, the interesting part of my first four hours of walking the docks was realizing that there are more foreign languages spoken per square mile here than in my hometown of Cambridge, Mass. (no easy feat considering the powerhouse academia that populates that particular New England locale): English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German. While Key West prides itself on being an offbeat cultural kaleidoscope, when the sailors arrive bearing passports of all varieties, the town transforms into something different, some quirky cosmopolitan outpost that happens to include some of the biggest and brightest names in competitive sailing.

Walk the docks and you’ll see numerous America’s Cup teams racing in the hyper-competitive Farr 40 class. The Melges 32 fleet is here in force, as are the J/105’s, the Melges 24’s, a scattering of TP52’s, and a few mouth-watering one-off IRC weapons. But what really strikes the visitor is the upbeat psyche of everyone associated with the event: Gone are the piles of snow dogging New England and the Mid West, here are the palm trees, salamanders, and carbon-fiber “skyscrapers”. Not a bad place to be!

Sadly, Mother Nature decided to prove uncooperative for the first morning: The same low-pressure system that made for a hair-raising landing last night delayed the harbor start by 90 minutes. The steady pressure is roughly in the vicinity of 25 knots, with peak puffs tickling the 30-knot (if not 35) range. As a result, the race committee wisely decided to run a single race today, with the hope that the weather will lay down in the days to come. For the crews out on the water, hold on tight; for those of you ashore in colder climates, stand by for more reports as the week rolls on.

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