Photo: Karen Ryan
In my mind, I’m going to Carolina
It started as a little local event, run out of a dusty parking lot, with a handful of friends deciding that it was time for Charleston to have its own sailboat race. Twenty-three years later Sperry Charleston Race Week has transformed itself into the biggest multi-class event in the USA and one of the biggest gatherings of sportboats anywhere on the globe.
The consistent spring seabreeze and warm weather make it easier to attract sailors, but it takes a lot more than that to go from a 100-boat regatta to a 250+ boat behemoth in a few short years; so what is the one most important thing that organisers have done to keep the Charleston train chugging forward?
‘We have made “innovation” one of our buzzwords over the years,’ explains event chairman Randy Draftz. ‘While other regattas can get stuck in their ways, our organising committee, area yachts clubs, sponsors and even local government officials spend a lot of time trying to stay ahead of the curve.’
For the past decade in the USA that curve has seen some important trends; perhaps the sportboat explosion has driven Charleston’s growth the most. ‘Long before sportboats were really “a thing” in the USA, the Melges 24 was already Charleston’s biggest class, sometimes making up half our fleet,’ Draftz says. ‘We might just have the best harbour on the planet for fast inshore racers and our shoreside attitude is inclusive and fun-driven, so it was a natural fit when the Vipers, J/70s, VX-Ones and all the other sporties decided to come and play.’
Small one-designs make up the majority of Charleston’s big entry, and while bigger yachts have always been a big part of the event, the 2017 race week saw a healthy increase in these 26-35ft planing beasts along with the experimental use of the ORC rating rule.
While the ubiquitous college student sailors, all-you-can-drink Gosling’s Dark ’n Stormies, and huge J/70 and Melges 24 fleets may be the public face of Charleston Race Week, the offshore handicap and pursuit fleets provide tight racing for hundreds of the area’s top racers as well as a growing international charter fleet – a trend Draftz thinks is likely to continue.
‘We all know handicap buoy racing has been struggling in the US, and our organising committee and race officers responded quickly to the changing desires of competitors. Our changes last year, to course format and to bringing in ORC, were popular – we continue to draw on South American as well as some European sailors, for whom this has become a bit of a bucket list regatta,’ says Draftz, who has also seen a continuing increase in both first-time racers and race week veterans in the more informal but highly enthusiastic pursuit class.
2018 will see a pile of new innovations, including the all-new ‘open course format’ for at least some races in the offshore classes. The OCF combines the best of distance and buoy racing, expanding the typical course to reward navigation and weather routeing as much as it does boathandling, rules knowledge and tactics. Draftz has long hoped to see the ocean course fleets racing neck and neck down the channel to finish in front of the beachfront hotel that plays regatta week HQ, and 2018 could be the year for it!
Organisers have also been working closely with local boatyards to help make launching much easier for 2018. Free to use, wide launch ramps continue to be the economical way to launch and recover many of the smaller boats and local yacht clubs are also available for launch/haul services. Draftz says it’s essential to keeping that accessible ‘vibe’ to the Charleston event. ‘We’ve all seen regattas where competitors get priced out, and we want this event to remain affordable to teams on tight budgets,’ he said.
Speaking of budgets, Sperry Charleston Race Week is offering a $100 early discount if you register before 31 January. The live music and full-noise, open bar beach parties are booked, plus daily video briefings by top racers, a livecommentary Pro/Am race with the College of Charleston off the beach, and reasonably priced rooms metres from the dock at Charleston Harbor Resort, regatta HQ.
Another crowd-pleaser returns from 2017: a fourth inshore course just to the north of the Ravenel Bridge. ‘The offshore fleets were blown out for two straight days in 2016 and we desperately needed somewhere to put them, so we stuck them under the bridge just hoping it wouldn’t be too terrible,’ Draftz explains. ‘Competitors loved the tight racing, omnipresent porpoises and challenging river conditions; it could serve as a backup course for the other offshore boats – so it’s back for 2018.’
Fleets are now among the most competitive to be found at any US regatta, with multiple world champ - ions and star professionals from all disciplines. But Charleston’s not where they go for long, perfectly square race tracks and headlandfree courses. On the contrary, whether inshore or offshore, the waters around this historic town feature big breeze, challenging seas and currents swirling every which way. It’s intense racing against the backdrop of a town just awarded ‘Most Desirable Travel Destination’ by Travel + Leisure magazine for a fifth straight year… Enjoy.
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