North of Twenty

“This thing is like a Volvo Open 70 except it doesn’t have a canting keel and its systems are more refined,” says veteran bowman Jerry Kirby as Numbers, Dan Meyers’s newly splashed Judel/Vrolijk 66, hits a big wave and jostles the crew, most of whom are stationed near the stern to keep the bow up. All around us are choppy seas; the true-wind instrument reads 18 to 21 knots, and our
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“This thing is like a Volvo Open 70 except it doesn’t have a canting keel and its systems are more refined,” says veteran bowman Jerry Kirby as Numbers, Dan Meyers’s newly splashed Judel/Vrolijk 66, hits a big wave and jostles the crew, most of whom are stationed near the stern to keep the bow up. All around us are choppy seas; the true-wind instrument reads 18 to 21 knots, and our boatspeed hovers in the high teens. Light-gray clouds cast a milky light on the 50 boats gathered in the Division 2 circle at the 2008 Acura Key West Race Week. Numbers accelerates with each puff, her massive asymmetric spinnaker flying in tandem with her semi-square-topped carbon-fiber mainsail and a large staysail.

I look around for our competition, but all I see is the distant spinnakers on the nine other boats in our class, IRC 1. We’ll owe time, but it will be tough for them to correct-out this much distance. Standing around me are some of the biggest names in America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race circles, including Mascalzone Latino’s Hamish Pepper (tactician) and Alinghi’s Juan Vila (navigator), Curtis Blewett (bow), and Josh Belsky (pit). Meyers has known these guys as friends for years, enabling him to build a team capable of sailing a boat as sophisticated as Numbers. The design wizards at the Judel/Vrolijk office and many others worked hard to create what is arguably the world’s fastest fixed-keel pocket maxi. Numbers’s systems come straight from the Cup boats (see Innovation, page 72), and it shows. The TP52s barely have their kites set as we come screaming into the leeward gate.

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“We shoot for ten races each year, but I’ll take eight high-quality races over ten where a few are marginal,” says Peter Craig, event director/race chairman for Premiere Racing, the organizing body of Key West Race Week, as we sit in an air-conditioned trailer near the sprawling beer-and-rum tent that houses postsailing festivities. This year has been challenging. On day one of the late-January event, Key West was besieged by stiff winds and steep seas. The boats headed out to their respective racecourses, but the rough conditions forced the race committee to send them back. Come evening, riggers were working hard on broken masts, shrouds, sheets, and blocks.

“If it had been the middle of the week, when all the crews were dialed in, we probably would have raced,” says Craig. “But on day one, racing in 25-plus knots spells breakage and maybe injuries.” Day two, fortunately, brought excellent conditions, and three races were held in each of four racing divisions, but day three was breathless. According to Craig, there have been only two other years in Key West Race Week’s storied 21-year history in which two race days were canceled. “There’s no controversy when there’s no wind,” said Craig. “We take the race/no race decision very seriously, so this has been a really tough week.”

The gods relented on day four and a gentle breeze filled-in by midafternoon, allowing two good races. To compensate for the forced laydays, the RC organized an extra-early first starting gun on day five and got in three races under azure skies. “Everyone realizes that the weather is the one thing that we can’t control,” said Premiere Racing’s volunteer jury secretary, Jo Bowker. “Yet.”

If you’re from points north, the Conch Republic isn’t a bad place to hang out and wait for wind. The southernmost town in the United States is roughly 2 miles wide by 4 miles long. Palm and ficus trees dot the landscape; salamanders scale white-picket fences and scurry across sidewalks, and roosters run amok in the streets. Duval Street, Key West’s cultural heartland, has an air of perpetual Mardi Gras, attracting artists, musicians, sculptors, hippies, sailors, and vagabonds. Art galleries, tacky t-shirt shops, and cigar stands attract tourists. Ernest Hemingway maintained a stately home a block from Duval Street from 1931 to 1940, and descendants of his six-toed cats still rid the mansion of mice today.

Come nightfall, weekday or weekend, the town kicks off its shoes and parties. For northern sailors, this sun-soaked venue is the perfect escape from winter. What makes Key West Race Week unique is that 60 boats—almost a quarter of the fleet—from 18 different countries are in attendance, perhaps thanks to a weak U.S. dollar and a strong euro, but certainly because of the event’s legendary premiere-level racing.

“When I first came and raced in this event in 1993, there were 112 boats, all racing in one division, with seven classes and one race per day—all handicap racing,” says Craig. Since then, it has grown to 261 boats, with only 30 percent racing handicap; the rest are in one-design classes. “Because of this, you get guys coming from all over the world to participate,” he continues. Walking the docks on that windy first morning, I overheard snippets of Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, French, as well as English spoken with Australian, Kiwi, Irish, and British accents.

And judging by the numbers of hot one-design classes—Farr 40s (25), Club Swan 42s (12), J/105s (34), Melges 32s (27), Mumm 30s (15), Melges 24s (46), J/80s (18)—there’s good reason that sailors take this event seriously. Legions of pros are here, and it’s not uncommon to glimpse Paul Cayard crossing the street, Peter “Pedro” Isler out jogging, or Peter Holmberg strolling the docks. There are also plenty of talented amateur teams here who can hold their own at the evening’s pickle-dish ceremonies.

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“There are several other grand-prix boats in build now,” says Meyers as we sail out to the starting line on day two, “so there’s not a lot of competition for us this year. The trick will be sailing fast, because we still need to correct-out over the other guys, even if they’re not around us on the course.” Our division comprises a canting-keel Wally 80, a Reichel/Pugh 55, a Judel/Vrolijk 52, a Ker 50, and five TP52s. I consider Meyers’s words and realize that, for us on Numbers, it will feel much like a distance race in that we won’t have competitors nearby to keep concentration levels high. This likely won’t be a problem for Meyers’s star-studded crew.

The race committee posts our first course: three windward-leeward laps, with each leg roughly 2 nautical miles. The warning gun sounds and the warhorses circle. Meyers and Hamish Pepper masterfully orchestrate the starting-line samba, ducking and covering boats. When the starting gun fires, Numbers hits the line exactly on time, powering through the choppy seas. The hull is so stiff and light that each smack resonates through my bones, and the seas try to push her around more than I was expecting. “Try” is the operative verb; her sailplan is so powerful that she simply mashes the seas.

I’m situated on the windward rail, abaft of the traveler on the last ten feet of boat, which the crew affectionately dubs the “tennis court.” It’s appropriate, since with each tack the human tennis balls rapidly volley from side to side to weight the new windward rail. Soon, we reach the windward mark, Meyers bears off, and the crew lights up the A-sail afterburners. From my perch, I spy the “truth display,” its numbers quickly flickering as Meyers bears off. Our boatspeed spikes into the high teens, and I wonder if today I’ll join the 20-knot club—a goal I’ve chased for 31 years.

But it’s not to be in the first race. While we handily win line honors, we correct-out 11 seconds behind the J/V 52 Flash Glove, giving us a second-place finish. Silence. I feel the collective temperature rising. As in Cup circles, here there is no second.

The second warning gun fires, and the stiff rustle of luffing carbon-fiber sails drowns out the screech of loaded sheets running over winch drums. “You’re two seconds early,” Pepper advises. We’re less than three boatlengths from the line, and Meyers unexpectedly bears off 15 degrees before nosing up and hitting the line at speed, precisely as the firing pin strikes the bullet’s casing.

The winds hold steady, but the sea state is slowly abating, making for a faster course. Meyers spins the wheel, the trimmers do their thing, and the human tennis balls ricochet, struggling to keep their footing as Numbers slices through the lingering chop. Soon the first windward mark is two boatlengths away and closing fast. Winches groan. The linked-pedestal system powers the halyard of the enormous masthead-A-sail. The bowman rifles off hand signals, and Meyers carves a wide-and-tight mark rounding. WHOMP! The massive A-sail fills, the racing blade drops, and the rudder returns to centerline. A puff hits and Numbers surges, practically tossing crewmembers astern as her bow lifts. The truth display flickers, its processing chips barely keeping pace with Numbers’s climbing speed: 12.3, 14.7, 16.8, 18.3, 19.5. I hold my breath. Then, in a moment of pure magic, a puff coincides perfectly with a big stern wave and my own long-pursued number—20.28—flickers briefly.

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The leg, which took roughly 30 minutes to climb, takes less than 10 minutes to surf. Curtis Blewett, perched on the bow, readies the spinnaker-retrieval system, which is configured like a Cup boat’s with a thin-diameter line running vertically up the sail’s mid-girth section, terminating at its head. This line is hooked up to the linked-winch system, so that when the call comes to drop the kite, the halyard is blown and the grinders madly power-suck the behemoth sail through the forward hatch. Except…

Something goes awry—perhaps a fouled lead—and the massive white sail splashes into the water, sinking our SOG. The crew’s reaction is immediate, instinctive, and the sodden mammoth is quickly belowdeck. Luckily for us, our nearest rival in terms of waterline, the Wally 80 Highland Fling, blew up her kite. Ours may have gotten wet, but at least it’s in one piece.

We round our gate and aim for the weather mark. Unlike a fiberglass hull, which has some natural give in a seaway, a high-modulus carbon-fiber hull is 100 percent static, so each wave translates into a thorough isometric workout for the crew. Another downhill run commences. Our boatspeed hovers in the 19-knot range, and again we nab line honors. The mood is somber as we wait for the fleet to finish. We correct-out in first place by 12 seconds over Flash Glove. Deep sighs resonate: our “shrimping” exercise cost us only style points.

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“Second and first—let’s win this last one, boys,” Meyers cheerleads as the race committee signals the day’s last course: five windward-leeward legs with an uphill finish. BAM! The final starting gun fires, Numbers scorches across the line, and we’re in clear air as the 50-footers scrap for lanes.

All around us are the brightly colored spinnakers of the hotly contested Club Swan 42 class, and the skies are crisscrossed with air traffic, some commercial, some military. The shrill of an F-16 muffles the drone of the winches as sheets are eased and the kite is set. Again the crew moves its weight astern for the sleigh ride, which ends far sooner than I would have liked. The takedown is textbook perfect, and Meyers nails another wide-and-tight rounding. We blaze back and forth for another full lap until we again round the same gate, sailing a solitary last leg. We round out the day with a trifecta of bullets. Calculators and stopwatches hum as the afterguard computes the results. We soon learn that we’re a whopping 5+ minutes (on corrected time) ahead of the well-sailed, IRC-optimized TP52 Samba Pa Ti.

For the Numbers crew, our daily finishes total up to the sweetest whole number of all: One.

Many thanks to Dan Meyers and the Numbers crew for helping me join the 20-plus-knot club.

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