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A Q&A with Tom Bowler on the Wirth M. Munroe Miami to Palm Beach race

by David Schmidt 28 Nov 00:00 PST 1 December 2017

When it comes to racing sailboats on continental U.S. waters in the winter months, the State of Florida is tough to beat, both for its flat-water venues and for its just-right-there access to the Gulf Stream, which regularly kicks up high adventure for keelboat sailors who enjoy stepping offshore a bit. The annual Wirth M. Munroe Miami to Palm Beach Yacht Race falls in the later category as it takes sailors out into full-on Gulf Stream conditions, but its relatively short, 60-nautical-mile course ensures that they still have plenty of time to spend onshore with their friends.

The 61st annual Wirth M. Munroe race is being hosted by the Sailfish Club of Florida (as well as their partner, the Storm Trysail Club) and is set to unfurl on Friday, December 1, 2017 with a starting line set near Miami’s Government Cut. The race will take the fleet to a finishing line that’s set outside of Palm Beach Inlet. En route, sailors can expect to be tested in a wide range of conditions that can range from contained to boisterous, depending on the Gulf Stream’s ever-changing mood.

While the Wirth M. Munroe race is a worthy racecourse objective in and of itself (especially for sailors living in the frigid north country), it’s also part of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference’s (SORC) greater “Islands in the Stream” race series, which also includes the Nassau Cup (Miami to Nassau), the Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race and the Miami to Cuba Race, thus placing in it great company.

I caught up with Tom Bowler, who serves as the event chairman of the Wirth M. Munroe race and as chairman of the Yachting Committee at the Sailfish Club of Florida, via email, to learn more about this exciting and historic race.

How are entry numbers looking this year compared to the last five years? Also, are the boats physically getting bigger or smaller? The number of entrants is looking favorable-the Wirth Munroe Race had typical participation of around 24-25 boats and then a decline last year, with 16 boats on the line.

We seem to have bounced back a bit [this year] and are approaching 20 as I answer this. Last year’s dip likely reflected some folks waiting to see how the return to our traditional Miami start would work out, which indeed it did. We clearly hope to get back to our more typical numbers, which seems doable.

Viewed over a long-time horizon, the boats in this race have probably gotten bigger and have certainly gotten faster.

What kinds of competition levels can teams expect to encounter when they hit the starting line? Competition in this year’s race will be very solid and quite varied. We really like the fact that we’ve got Grand Prix racers, as well as a host of very solid racer/cruisers all hopefully making for a friendly, welcoming race that is really quite approachable.

We are particularly gratified to see the early sign-ups and great support after the tough South Florida hurricane season-that had us worried but everything is coming back strong.

From strategic and tactical perspectives, can you please describe the racecourse? The Wirth Munroe Race gives each boat a lot to think about; certainly how to play the Gulf Stream, and dealing with often volatile, early winter weather. We often see weather changes across the day that can include the presence of a cold front approaching, or-alternately-a warm balmy spell.

Planning the race may seem simple-cross the line and go north-but it’s anything but.

Is there a reason that the racing is held on a Friday and not over the weekend? Is there a tradition or an interesting backstory here? Tradition: I’m told that in the ‘50s and ‘60s this was likely viewed as a pretty tough race. Boats would leave Miami, go out and race in whatever conditions nature served up, and often make it to Palm Beach at night, in the dark. Thus, Saturday was needed as a recovery day, and then the great Sailfish Club event would occur on Saturday night, and boats would then sail home on Sunday.

Today’s boats typically arrive at the finish line in daylight, and are off to the club for our Friday night awards ceremony and famous buffet. So, while the overall race weekend schedule changed, the Friday race-day tradition stuck. It’s important to note that we’ve added a provision to the [sailing instructions] allowing for a starting-line move north if there’s no wind in the morning.

Do you tend to get a consistent fleet of boats year to year, or do you get a lot of newcomers? Also, are there any boats that readers should keep their eyes on for podium-level finishes? The PHRF contingent is quite consistent although does see a few new entrants each year. Certainly, in each class, we’ve got some very accomplished racers. No doubt, there will be great interest in how the well-known IRC “names” perform.

It is wonderful to have both the quality and variety of boats racing that we have. We added the ECRCA (East Coast Racer Cruiser Association) class this year, and are quite pleased with the results of having done so. This adds an additional dimension to our race, and that’s a good thing.

Has the race done anything to “green up” the regatta or reduce its environmental footprint in recent years? The Wirth Munroe Race became involved in Sailors for the Sea and their Clean-Regattas Initiative, which we are proud of. It is a terrific program, and we hope it forms a foundation for other events to follow suit.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record? I am really fortunate in my first year as the Wirth Munroe event chair to have had the support and guidance of my predecessor, Dr. Paul Gingras. Paul played this role with grace and determination for over 30 years. All of us associated with the race are direct beneficiaries of his many contributions.

We are also fortunate to have our wonderful partner, the Storm Trysail Club, whose leadership has been simply terrific to work with. We’ve also been joined in the organizing authority by the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club and the [corresponding] great sense of history given the long Munroe family history there, and support for our event.

Needless to say, my hat is off to Carol Ewing and [the] SORC for all they are doing to build the “Islands in the Stream” Series of races, of which the Wirth Munroe is a proud member. They have contributed in many ways, including joining with those of us at the Sailfish Club of Florida in managing the race itself.

So here we are about to run the 61st Wirth Munroe Race and kick off our 7th decade! Pretty exciting I’d say.

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