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Spaceman Spiff two-peats as J/111 North American Champion

by J/Boats 9 May 10:12 PDT April 30 - May 2, 2021
2021 J/111 North American Championship © Christopher Howell

Sailing their 2021 J/111 North American Championship concurrent with the Annapolis NOOD Regatta, the seven teams were truly put to the challenge on Chesapeake Bay.

The first day of the regatta was canceled due to gale-force winds and massive chop. After getting blown off the water the first day, "challenging, puffy conditions" is how Skeleton Key's skipper Peter Wagner described the second day. "We had to keep our eyes out of the boat and change gears frequently, but it was really good racing."

With three races in winds that started near 20 knots and faded and shifted through the day, Wagner and his crew on Skeleton Key, emerged as the top boat, winning the first two races and finishing fourth in the third. The outcome, he says, was better than he expected having not raced the boat since August 2019.

"It's been a long time," Wagner says. "We got out to do some boat handling work in San Francisco before we brought the boat here, but no racing, it was just putting ourselves through our paces and making sure the boat was still functional."

For the day's first two races, Wagner says, they were able to get off the starting line clean and control their own race, sailing the course as efficiently as possible.

"That was pretty important because things were changing quickly and we had to be able to react to the changes as they happened. In the third race, we ended up on the wrong side of one windshift and the result showed, but that will happen sometimes.

"In that race, you had to be on the right [side of the course]. We got stuck a little too far left and couldn't quite find a shift to come back. We almost did, but our friends on [Rob Ruhlman's] Spaceman Spiff face planted us at a critical moment, bouncing us back left and sealing our doom. That was a good move by them."

Wagner says his team did a great job settling into their roles after a long absence and their boat handling and speed work were as good as could be expected. For tomorrow, the third and final day of racing, Wagner's goal is to continue sailing well and not worry about the rest of the fleet, which are not far behind on the scoreboard.

"It's about incremental improvements," he says, "and for me, I guess the one area to improve getting back in sync with my mainsail trimmer, so we'll continue to focus on that."

Stumbling out of the blocks with a 6th place on the first racing day, Rob Ruhlman's Spaceman Spiff crew regained focus to win two of the six races on Sunday to capture the title by one point over Andrew and Sedgwick Ward's BRACO with Rod Jabin's Ramrod a point further back in third.

Ruhlman was the defending champion from 2019, as the 2020 event was cancelled due to the pandemic. The Ruhlman "family" crew consisted of Mike Case, Martin Kullman, Doug Moose, Abby Ruhlman, Ryan Ruhlman, Maegan Ruhlman and Mark Wiss.

J/111 Class Director Chris Howell interviewed Rob after the event for perspectives on what it took for his family team to win.

How does it feel?

Ruhlman: How does it feel? Fantastic! Particularly because of the way it all came together on the last day. Trust me, none of us left the house on Sunday morning with winning even on our mind. This is a really tight, competitive class; top three was our goal. And as always, doing this with my family is incredibly special.

What was the key to the victory?

Ruhlman: From our side, it took perseverance and a belief in ourselves. In all honesty, when our good friends on Skeleton Key pulled the trigger a bit early at the start of Race 4, that opened the door to the possibility of a step up. This Class is so competitive and the boats so even that one misstep at any point in the race is very difficult to recover from.

What is it you like about the boat and the Class?

Ruhlman: Our family has grown up in Lightnings (and by "grown up," I mean since birth), with the exception of my wife Abby, but she may has well have since she was introduced to it at 19 years old. The one-design aspect of it, with the boats as even as they are, and the lack of an "arms race", is great. Maybe more importantly is the camaraderie. After several years (a lot of these guys know each other from racing all kinds of other big boat classes), I've gotten to know a lot of really neat people and look forward to seeing them onshore as much as I do offshore. For me, it's the Lightning Class of big boats.

What's next for the team?

Ruhlman: We'll likely spend most of the summer in the Great Lakes where the J/111 Class is growing very nicely. There are three boats in Detroit now. We have three 111s in Cleveland already and a fourth on the way with the impending delivery of Jeff Davis' new 111. It is quite possible we will have six, maybe seven J/111s at both Cleveland Race Week and Put-in-Bay Race Week. Might be time to start a Great Lakes Championship!

We do also have our Lightning North American Championship in Cleveland this summer, which is a qualifier for our Worlds in May of '22 and the Lightning Women's, Junior's and Master's Championships are being held at our home (Lightning) club, Pymatuning, where we will all be competing as well as helping conduct the event. After that, it will be back to J/111 World's prep and then the main event in Hampton, Virginia.

In the end, with Spaceman Spiff winning with a 6-3-2-1-1-4 tally for 17 pts, the Ward's Bravo posting a 3-6-1-3-4-1 record for 18 pts, and Jabin's Ramrod (top local boat) driving to a 4-2-3-2-3-5 for 19 pts, it's readily apparent that Ruhlman's commentary was prophetic... nothing comes easy in the J/111 class they are so well-sailed and so close in speed and tactics. Rounding out the top five was Wagner's Skeleton Key with a 1-1-4-7-5-3 record for 21 pts and Martie Roesch's Velocity scoring 2-5-7-4-2-2 for 22 pts, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively. Tough racing, indeed, when the winner has a near "middle of fleet" average of 2.85 and fifth place had a 3.66 average...not much difference!

More J/111 North American Championship sailing information here.

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