race week

Charleston Race Week is the largest keelboat regatta in North and South America. 

When Marlene Plumley is spotted walking through the hotel lobby at 6 a.m. wearing a wetsuit, you know Race Week has arrived.

Plumley is well known along the East Coast as a professional diver specializing in bottom cleaning racing sailboats for major regattas. The Annapolis resident was on site at first light on Thursday morning at the Charleston Harbor Marina and Resort.

That’s because a large contingent of the 259 boats entered in Sperry Charleston Race Week 2019 were heading out on the water to practice for the prestigious three-day regatta. There was a flurry of activity on the docks throughout the morning as crew members delivered sails and performed boat setup.

“Charleston Race Week has really turned into a big-time event. I love coming here every year,” said Brian Keane, skipper of the J/70 Savasana. “I think Charleston is the most unique venue in the country because the combination of current and wind is very challenging. Every day, every race, is a little different.”

Action in the 24th edition of Sperry Charleston Race Week got underway on Friday with seven separate race courses being set on the Cooper River and out in the Atlantic Ocean. A new racing area located just south of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge has been created to accommodate the exciting M32 catamarans, which are making their debut at this iconic event.

There are eight of these spectacular high-performance multihulls competing here in Charleston and spectators watching from on land or water will marvel at the speeds they can achieve. Veteran professional Ian Williams, tactician for owner Rick DeVos aboard Rev, said the M32 can easily hit 25-30 knots downwind.

“They’re amazing machines and the racing can get pretty intense,” said Williams, who recently captured the Congressional Cup. “This race course is a bit more restricted than we’re used to. We may have boundary marks, which will make the tactics a bit different this week.”

Williams said the class utilizes the same type of course created for the America’s Cup catamarans – a reaching start followed by windward-leeward action. A six-leg course can be completed in 20 minutes and that is why the M32 will often hold six races per day.

“It’s a lot of action in a short span of time,” Williams admitted.

Rev captured the M32 Corinthian World Championship off Chicago last September while Convexity, skippered by Don Wilson, more recently claimed the Winter Series off Miami, winning two of four regattas in the process. Renowned match racing champion Taylor Canfield calls tactics for Wilson, a Chicago resident.

“Convexity is probably the boat to beat at the moment,” Williams said. “They have been starting really well and that is critical in this class.”

Sailors from all over the world have descended on this historic South Carolina seaport for Sperry Charleston Race Week, which combines one-design and handicap racing along with inshore and offshore courses. Sailors from 28 states and eight countries are represented in the fleet, which consists of 18 different classes.

Among the returning champions are the top two award winners from 2018. Skipper Peter Duncan and his Relative Obscurity team will be back to defend the Charleston Race Week Cup after capturing the highly-competitive J/70 class last year.

That prestigious perpetual trophy is presented for the best overall performance by a one-design entry. Winner of J/70 class, largest of the regatta with a whopping 56 entries, will certainly contend for the Charleston Race Week Cup as racing figures to be fierce.

“It’s a very tough fleet as always and we will need to sail very well in order to defend our title here,” said Duncan, who has John Kostecki aboard as tactician and ace trimmer Willem Van Waay as well.

Duncan recently won the J/70 Midwinter Championship while Joel Ronning and his Catapult team were victorious at the Bacardi Cup.

Meanwhile, skipper Mike Beasley and the Rattle-N-Rum team will be seeking to claim the Palmetto Trophy for third straight year. That is awarded to winner of the tightest class among handicap divisions. Beasley’s GP 26 is one of nine entries in ORC C, consisting of a wide variety of speedy sport-boats.

“Charleston really has the complete package when it comes to hosting a sailing event. The vicinity to the race track makes for plenty of racing during the course of the day and incredible shore side support,” Beasley said. “The post-race activities on the beach at the resort are exceptional with plenty of yachting karate being explained in various forms of laughter and discussion.”

Brian Porter and his Full Throttle team will be looking to repeat in Melges 24 class, which has attracted 34 boats. Porter has his two sons – RJ and Bri – aboard as tactician and spinnaker trimmer.

“It’s always hard to win in this fleet. There are at least 10 really good boats that are capable of coming out on top,” said Porter, a Wisconsin native. “I’m really looking forward to sailing with my two boys. I know we’re fast so we just have to go out and execute.”

Longtime friends David Guggenheim and John Potter are the two-time defending champs in Viper 640 class, but had to pull out of this year’s regatta due to business commitments. Mississippi skipper Chris Alexander and his crew on Isabelita Con Queso will look to improve upon their runner-up result a year ago. Charleston resident Greg Fisher, who placed third in 2018, is another top contender

“It’s another great fleet and the regatta should be a ton of fun. We’re really looking forward to some very competitive racing,” said Fisher, Chief Operating Officer of Olympic Sailing for US Sailing.

Another newcomer to Sperry Charleston Race Week is the RS21, which has eight entries. This is just the third regatta for the latest model from RS Sailing, the world’s largest small sailboat manufacturer with a mission to get more people out on the water.

Mark McNamara of KO Sailing is skippering Blackjack, an entry representing Lakewood Yacht Club in Seabrook, Texas. KO Sailing is a distributor for the RS21 and McNamara has spent considerable time testing the design.

“I’ve been extremely impressed by how the boat sails in a lot of different areas,” McNamara said. “It may be technical looking, but it is very user friendly. It’s a dry boat and very comfortable in terms of operating in the cockpit.”

Organizers of Sperry Charleston Race Week have introduced a Hybrid Pursuit Course this year and the ORC A, B and D classes will be the beneficiaries. This new course setup provides up to three individual races per day as conditions allow.

Competitors will begin the day with a pursuit race starting in the harbor and finishing in the ocean. That will be followed by a windward-leeward course for the second race. Race three will be pursuit style back into the harbor.

“This is a key innovation for Sperry Charleston Race Week because this format represents a growing trend in this country,” said Dobbs Davis, technical director for ORC. “A Hybrid Pursuit Course such as this will test other sailing skills such as seamanship, sail selection and navigation.”

There are three PHRF classes (Spinnaker A, Spinnaker B and Non-Spinnaker) doing a traditional Pursuit Race – starting and ending in the harbor after a healthy jaunt into the Atlantic Ocean. Moose Down, a J/120 owned by Charleston resident Rick Moore, is returning champion in Spinnaker PHRF A.

Supporting sponsor Quantum Racing has once again organized daily weather briefings in the mornings and race debriefing sessions in the evenings. Renowned British Olympian Shirley Robertson will deliver the briefings and debriefings.

Robertson will also provide commentary for the popular Pro-Am Regatta, being held on Saturday night aboard J/22 sloops donated by College of Charleston. Racing will be held off A Dock at the south end of the marina with a live stream of the action being aired on the Jumbotron inside the party.

David Loring, a Charleston resident who has captured multiple Sunfish world championships, will headline the Pro-Am with veteran professionals such as Chris Larson, Dave Perry and Zeke Horowitz also serving as skippers. US Sailing honored Loring during Thursday night’s party by recognizing the James Island Yacht Club member as part of the Sperry Local Ambassador program.