Acura Key West gets underway

Acura Key West gets underway - News from Key West on day 1 is that it is overcast and windy, current winds have been recorded at 18-21 knots with sea state variable from 2 1/2 -3 feet and some reports of 3-6 feet. The AP flag has been lowered, first gun will not be before 13:00H (USA) and the Consair 28Rs will not be racing today.

For the past six months, Ernesto Bertarelli, Brad Butterworth and other key figures with the Alinghi Racing syndicate have been locked in a bitter dispute over the future of the America’s Cup. For one week at least, the leaders of the Swiss syndicate are putting aside the controversy in order to compete in Acura Key West 2008. With Bertarelli on the helm and Butterworth aboard as tactician, Alinghi will attempt to defend its title in Farr 40 class at North America’s most prestigious winter regatta.

“We love coming here. This is one of the finest regattas in the world,” Butterworth said Saturday following a practice session on the Atlantic Ocean. “You’ve got great weather, great wind and great competition while the event management is as good as it gets. That is why we come back every year.”

Alinghi captured class honors at Acura Key West 2007 in impressive fashion, clinching victory with one race to spare. That feat will be tough to duplicate in a star-studded fleet of 25 boats that includes two-time defending world champion Mascalzone Latino, skippered by Vincenzo Onorato of Napoli, Italy.

Adrian Stead, British-born tactician for Mascalzone Latino, believes no less than a dozen teams are capable of winning this week. Barking Mad (Jim Richardson, Newport, R.I.) and Nerone (Massimo Mezzaroma, Punta Ala, Italy) are past world champions while class newcomers such as Joe Fly (Giovanni Maspero, Como, Italy) and Plenty (Alexander Roepers, Stonington, CT) have come on strong in recent events.

Acura Key West 2008 represents the first of three major regattas leading up to the 11th Farr 40 World Championships, being held off Miami in mid April.
Getting ready at Acura Key West 2008
“We are three months away from the next worlds so all the teams are ramping up in terms of preparation.

Key West kicks off the New Year so everyone is looking to put their best foot forward here. An awful lot of the owners have put together very strong crews for this regatta,” Stead said.

One of the more interesting entries in Farr 40 class is Nanoq, skippered by Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. This marks the second straight season the popular Prince has competed in Key West and he is looking to improve upon a 13th place finish in 2007.

Prince Frederik arrived at event headquarters in Historic Seaport on Sunday morning and was in good spirits as he attended to formalities such as registration and weigh-in.

Volvo Ocean Race veteran Bouwe Bekking is serving as tactician for Prince Frederik, who braved gale-force winds that gusted to 35 knots in order to take Nanoq out for a practice session yesterday.

As usual, Acura Key West has attracted a strong fleet with 262 boats in 16 classes. Organizer Premiere Racing plans to conduct as many as 10 races over five days on the azure waters off the southernmost point of the United States. Forecasts call for steady 25-30 knot winds on Monday morning and event director Peter Craig said racing could be delayed or postponed.

“We will have race committee boats on the water first thing in the morning to gauge the conditions. Hopefully, the wind will lay down a bit and we can get in a race,” he said.

Acura Key West has always served as proving ground for new designs and this year is no different. Three of the most prominent – Highland Fling, Numbers and Rima 2 – will square off in IRC 1. Newport resident Dan Meyers captured that class last year aboard his previous Numbers and will try to defend with a recently-launched Judel/Vrolijk 66.

“We are very anxious to test the boat against top-flight competition from around the world. The scratch sheet is very impressive and we will certainly be challenged,” Meyers said.

Highland Fling, a swing-keel Wally 80, is owned by Irvine Laidlaw of Great Britain. Laidlaw is a two-time winner of Boat of the Week honors at Key West. Rima 2 is a Reichel-Pugh 55 owned by John Brim.

Farr 40 and IRC 1 are among six grand prix classes that will compete at Acura Key West 2008. Melges 24, Melges 32, M30 and Swan 42 are also loaded with professional talent.

Italian skipper Riccardo Simoneschi has returned to defend his crown in Melges 24, largest class in the regatta with 46 boats. Simoneschi and his crew on Giacomel Audi Racing vaulted from fourth to first on the final day of racing last year to snatch the title and earn the Acura Trophy as Boat of the Week.

California sailmaker Dave Ullman, a four-time winner of Melges 24 class at Key West, expects the competition to cutthroat as usual. Other top contenders include Full Throttle (Brian Porter, Lake Geneva, WI), Blu Moon (Franco Rossini, Lugano, Switzerland) and Excellent (John Pollard, Torquay, Great Britain) are other top contenders.

“In a fleet the caliber of this, a top five finish would be great,” Ullman said. “It’s another strong group of boats and there is no telling how it will all shake out in the end. You just have to sail consistently and hope you’re still in contention come Friday.”

No class has ratcheted up more than the Melges 32, which will have 27 entries and several notable new owners on the water this week. Michael Illbruck (Munich, Germany) and Philippe Kahn (Honolulu, HI) have enjoyed success in a slew of different designs and will now try their hand at the Melges 32.

Claudio Recchi dominated the Florida circuit in 2007 – winning both Acura Key West and Acura Miami Grand Prix in convincing fashion. The Italian skipper won five of nine races last January, but knows it will be more difficult this year.

“A lot of good teams, a lot of good sailors, have come into the class. That is good because every sportsman wants better competition,” Recchi said. “We know it will be tougher to win this year and we are excited about that. We are here to fight, not to go cruising.”

Owners in the M30 class are encouraged by the fact entries at Acura Key West have increased to 15 this year and that several promising new owners have bought boats. Ian Burman of Stagg Yachts confirmed the class is on the verge of awarding naming rights to a different sponsor and said orders for new boats are being taken by U.S. Watercraft.

Turbo Duck, sailed by the Annapolis father-son team of Bodo and Nick von der Wense, will have 2007 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Jeff Linton aboard as a trimmer. Turbo Duck is only boat to win this sport boat class twice in Key West.

“I think the outlook for the class is very promising. We have four or five new owners here this year and there are several other positive signs for the future,” Bodo von der Wense said.

Groovederci (Deneen Demourkas, Santa Barbara, Cal.) and TeamBOLD (Nelson Stephenson, Southport, CT) are also past winners in Key West. Black Seal (Kevin Young, Cleveland, Ohio) is the 2007 North American Circuit champ.