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An interview with Keith Whittemore about winning the 2019 J/24 Worlds

by David Schmidt 6 Nov 2019 08:00 PST November 6, 20129
Furio struts their downwind skills © Ron Rosenberg

Winning any World Championship title is a serious accomplishment, but when the class in question is the venerable J/24, which is literally the single most successful keelboat design in the sailing’s rich history, all players understand that the stakes are as high as the class’ talent is deep. And while there are newer and shinier One Design classes afloat, a quick look at the registration list of the 2019 J/24 Worlds reveals that competition levels on the waters off of Miami, Florida, were about as tough as they get, anywhere.

Impressively, Seattle-based skipper and owner Keith Whittemore and his Furio (USA 5325) crew of Shelby Milne, Willem Van Waay, Mark Rodgers and Brian Thomas dominated the 79-boat fleet from the first gun almost all the way to the last gun (there was a 33rd finish in the fifth race, but this ultimately served as the team’s discard), taking two bullets, a second, two thirds and a fourth as their best results.

Ultimately, Furio finished with a total score of 41 points, which put them 16 points ahead of Rossi Milev’s Clear Air (CAN 5362), who finished in second place, and 25 points ahead of Christopher Stone’s Velocidad (USA 5476), who claimed third place.

While Whittemore has been competitive on the international J/24 scene for years, one of his secret weapons is his zip code, as Seattle has quietly been amassing the country’s biggest and most competitive J/24 class for years. Not surprisingly, Furio can almost always be seen topping the leaderboard at local races.

But rather than just collecting easily won pickle dishes, Whittemore and several other competitive skippers have worked long and hard to consistently send the elevator car back down to the ground floor for up-and-coming sailors. In addition to freely sharing rig-tuning and boat-setup beta with their competition, Whittemore has developed a reputation for finding good homes for his used sails and equipment. While these incredibly generous acts have won him plenty of friends, these friends in turn have become competitive and help keep Furio’s skills sharp on the international circuit.

I checked in with Whittemore, via email, to learn more about his team’s proud win in this highly competitive class.

When you think back on your proud win, what do you se as the three most important factors in taking top honors at the 2019 J/24 Worlds? Choosing the right team to sail with.

Enough time to prepare for the regatta. (Practice, Coaching, Testing, etc)

Choosing and working well with the right training partners. Some 40 years sailing the boat has helped me feel when the boat is setup right. And if not, what to tweak next. I think I’ve raced in every condition imaginable and switching gears on the water is so important to consistent speed.

My strength is in switching gears on the water as conditions change. Knowing/feeling what the boat needs to go fast. We are fast in every condition. Light air lake sailing to heavy winds and big chop or seas. We’re strong in all of it. I’ve seen so much and learned so much from many different sources including my competitors, coaches, teammates.

It adds up to being fast in every condition. And Biscayne Bay threw every condition at us this year!

How long have you been working towards the goal of being the J/24 World Champion?

Including Miami, I have participated in nine J-24 Worlds, starting as a crewmember in 1982. We felt we had a shot in the last four Worlds we did (Cannigione, Howth, Garda and Miami); that said, in reality the firm goal of winning a Worlds started one year before the Lago di Garda Worlds in the Summer of 2018.

How many years have you been sailing with your core team? Also, did you make any crew changes going into this season or this championship regatta?

I have been sailing on and off with parts of the core team for over forty years. (Brian [Thomas] and Mark [Rodgers] and I have been friends, teammates and competitors for decades.)

Specifically, for my J/24 program, Brian joined me in 2011, Mark in 2014 and Shelby [Milne] joined the team right before we won the US Nationals in 2017. Willem [van Waay’s] first regatta with us was this year’s Kiel week.

What was a bigger element of your win—managing the physical demands of the racecourse or the psychological demands of being so close to winning a long-standing personal goal? Which of these cruxes required more active management on your part and your team’s part?

Both were very tough. The competition in Miami was the best it has been in a long time and the conditions were challenging with a very full range of conditions. You needed to be fast and smart in all.

The “getting close” to “tasting the goal” was also tough, this was especially true of the last day. We pretty much led the regatta from wire to wire and that was not good for our sleep. Over the years we have done fine, but [having] been very “close” to winning some other significant regattas, we did not want to be “close” this time.

We were very lucky to have [Coach] Ron Rosenberg assist to keep our heads straight and have Willem van Waay on board for this regatta, Willem knows how to win the big ones and this helped keep us calmed down (some)

Some of us are in our 60s, and staying fit enough to race these boats is no small challenge but the physical element was probably easiest to manage. We all showed up in pretty good shape. On our numbers and ready to go physically.

The mental challenge is tougher. Staying focused, sharp and ready to play at this level every day, every race is not a given. We made sure we got our rest every day, drank lots of fluids, stayed light on the adult beverages, ate healthy meals (thanks to our chef Vicki) and generally stayed chill up to race time.

We understand that last year’s J/24 Worlds awards ceremony didn’t go as expected thanks to an alleged measurements infraction—what, if any, role did last year’s near-win at the J/24 Worlds fuel your desire to come back this year and clean house?

Last year in an early race of the Lago di Garda Worlds we were inspected by the head J/24 Class measurer and after two windy, grueling races, he found our lifelines were drooping a couple of millimeters more than allowed. The measure[r] decided to make an example to the fleet out of us. We don’t believe it was right, or in the best interest of our class/sport, but that is life and [it’s now] behind us. We ended up third in that regatta and yes, very disappointed.

I am sure our lifelines in Miami were the tightest in the fleet.

I understand that you’ve earned a strong and super positive reputation as Santa Claus to the Seattle J/24 fleet—can you tell us about how you have helped this fleet grow into the largest and one of the most competitive J/24 fleets in the country?

[It’s] not just me and [I’m] not “Santa Claus”. We have a great fleet in Seattle where all members work hard to mentor, teach, coach and share to improve the competition and enjoyment for all.

I do believe this has made our fleet currently the most competitive J/24 fleet in the country (maybe the world), and for sure the most fun. The rewards for this effort are just uncountable and it is our fleet that has pushed my team to be capable to perform at the level we showed in Miami.

Moving forward, can you think of any ways that you can defend your proud world-championship title while also reducing your team’s environmental footprint?

Wow, tough one here. We do work hard to be good stewards of the environment from reusable water bottles to trash and recycling management. There is nothing really special in this, but we try.

We have been at regattas where the organizing committee provides refillable water bottles and bans single-use [plastic water bottles] on the boats. We are 100% in support of these types of actions. Flying less is a tough one, we need to go where the competition is and with the J/24 class, it’s all over the world.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

I have been lucky enough to sail with an awesome team of people that I care much for. This part makes it all worthwhile.

I think the sailboat-racing community is very lucky to have a racing class like the J/24 available. The boat is fun to sail, very cost effective and has great worldwide competition.

Our fleet sails about 60 weekly races a year (plus some weekend regattas) on Lake Washington. We all keep our boats in the water, we do barbeques and socialize, if there is no wind, we “socialize” even more. If you want the best “sailing bang for the buck”, buy a J/24 and join our fleet or one close to you.

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