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An interview with Talbot Wilson on the 2021 Melges 24 Bushwacker Cup

by David Schmidt 9 Nov 08:00 PST November 12-14, 2021
Bora Gulari (820) leads downwind on Day 1 of the Melges 24 2019 Bushwhacker Cup Atlantic and Gulf Coast Championship at Pensacola Yacht Club © Talbot Wilson

The Melges 24's lines, which were drawn by Reichel/Pugh in 1993, might not be the newest afloat, but the competition is always hot in this storied One Design class. The first Melges 24 Worlds unfurled off of Torbay, in the southwest of England, and since then the class has been a proven launching pad for countless world-class sailors, many of whom can still be found on the starting lines of regional, national, and international Melges 24 regattas.

Take, for example, the 2021 Bushwacker Cup, which will serve as the Melges 24 Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast Championship (November 12-14), and which is being hosted by the Pensacola Yacht Club, in Pensacola, Florida.

A glance at the regatta's entry list reveals many top Melges 24 teams from areas as diverse as Alabama, California, Georgia, Missouri, Michigan, Louisiana, Florida, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, as well as Canada (Ontario) and Germany (Mainz).

While the chance to sail in warm-weather conditions in Florida in November is clearly part of the Bushwacker Cup's draw, so too is the high level of competition that this class still continues to enjoy.

I checked in with Talbot Wilson, who is serving as the regatta's marketing and publicity officer, via email, to learn more about this exciting event.

Can you please tell us a bit about the Bushwhacker Cup, it's history and culture, and the kinds of teams and sailors that one can expect to find here?

The Pensacola Yacht Club's Melges 24 Bushwhacker Cup was the brainchild of Hal Smith who is a respected PRO and NRO and past future Fleet Captain. Hal moved to Pensacola from Charleston, SC after discovering Pensacola Bay... which he calls a perfect sailboat racing (and cruising) venue.

Hal had a close association with the US Melges 24 Class Association through his management of their race circle at Charleston Race Week and discussed the idea of an annual regatta in Pensacola with class leader Tony Stanley. This was 2018, but it was too late to organize a viable regatta, which we were then calling the "Pre-winter" Series.

We refocused on November 2019 for our Melges 24 regatta. Our then VC Tom Pace took over as race chairman. The regatta team at Pensacola YC moved ahead with the idea. We looked for some fun branding and focused on our famous Bushwhacker cocktail, which was the drink that helped Pensacola YC win our Wight Vodka World's Best Yachting Bar title.

So, the culture of the Bushwhacker is Race Hard, up to five races per day, and party on.

As Tom Pace said, "We planned a party and a regatta broke out."

This is the second Bushwhacker Cup for Pensacola. We hosted the first in 2019. With planning well along the way, the second Atlantic and Gulf Coast Championship-not a real Bushwhacker Cup- was moved to Mobile because the Pensacola YC marina, particularly the hoist for launching M24s was devastated by Hurricane Sally in September 2020.

PRO Smith went to Mobile Bay and ran the regatta again for continuity.

The teams that raced our first Bushwhacker Cup were an amazing mixture of pro stars and top Corinthian sailors... Bruce Ayres with Mike Buckley took first over Bora Gulari and Terry Hutchinson. Corinthian Kelly Shannon, a Lake Lanier Sailing Club sailor from the Atlanta GA area, sailed Shaka (USA 801) to third place. We had 21 teams with six Melges 24 champion skippers.

So, what are the kinds of teams and sailors that one can expect to find here in 2021? More of the same depth and quality.

The Pensacola YC Bushwhacker Cup is set in a strategic position... November 12-14... to feed the winter Melges 24 series in South Florida starting in mid-December. The Bushwhacker Cup is also the 10th and final event in the 2021 Melges 24 National Ranking Series.

If that isn't enough, the Bushwhacker Cup is the first step to the 2022 Worlds, [which are] set [for] Fort Lauderdale in May. Then we will move on to host the 2022 Melges 24 National Championship back at the next edition of the Bushwhacker Cup.

The answer is that once again we will attract top teams, pros and Corinthians. At one month before the regatta, entries are ahead of the 2019 final numbers. Bora Gulari who leads the National Ranking Series will be back. Teams from Rhode Island to California, the Midwest, the Atlantic Region and of course the South are early entries.

We are also on [the] international radar. Team Nefeli from Germany and Team Zingara from Ontario have entered. They are coming for winter racing in the South in spite of complicated travel restrictions that require personal invitations for each team member from the host club and the class.

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter off of Pensacola, Florida in mid-November? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

November is a great sailing month in Pensacola, and that is why we chose our dates. Fronts will be passing through the southeast then, actually we had some frontal passages in mid-October. Wind can range from fresh northeast gradient pressure to an sunny seabreeze. Often early northerly switches to mid-day and afternoon southeasterly as the sun warms the land.

The worst case is no wind.

In 2019 Friday's practice was 12-15. Saturday racing was 9-12 but Sunday was a flat prediction. PRO Smith got off five tight back-to-back races. The boats went out for Sunday morning and got one start but no finishes. Five fair races was still a successful regatta.

What's the reason that the regatta is only open to Melges 24s, and not other Melges (or similar) designs? Is there a big M24 fleet in Pensacola?

We have the space in Pensacola Bay to run three or four One Design circles. We've discussed adding other classes and may do so in the future, but right now our focus is on great racing for the Melges 24 in 2021 and then the nationals in 2022 should be only one type of boat, one class.

The 2021 Bushwhacker Cup was originally scheduled to be just the Atlantic Coast Championship. The Gulf Coast Championship was moving to New Orleans in a regional decision. But because of a conflict with rescheduling the GYA Lipton Cup 100th Anniversary Regatta to a pre-published postponement date, the Melges Gulf Coast regional championship relocated to Pensacola and rejoins the Bushwhacker Cup.

We expect about 30 boats for our 2021 Bushwhacker Cup. We want to focus on quality afloat and ashore.

In 2019 Pensacola YC served 40 gallons of Bushwhackers and had to rent an extra machine to make them. Think about adding 30 or so J/70's and the number doubles.

Do you see local knowledge playing a big or small role in the regatta's outcome? Can you please explain?

Local knowledge will play a pretty small role in the regatta's outcome. Pensacola has one tide a day and only a small one at that. Saturday the range will be 1.15 feet. High tide at 4:38AM and low at 2:36PM. Unless we've had a lot of rain, tidal current will be mild going to slack in the race areas.

Wind direction and force will be a factor but there are no mountains or big buildings here so just some minor land effects depending on direction. The bay is deep and steady. We get whitecaps and a chop, but no major wave action to contend with because the whole bay is protected.

If you could offer one piece of advice to visiting (and local) teams, what would it be?

Be wary of [the] Bushwhackers. They taste like a chocolate milkshake but they come with a surprise. Race Hard and Have Fun.

How many teams are you expecting? Do you have any teams that you are eyeing for podium finishes? What about any dark horses who you think could prove to be fast, once the starting guns begin sounding?

We are expecting (hoping for) about 30 teams. Who are we eying for the podium? Long-time class competitors tell who to watch—Bora Gulari in New England Ropes, Peter Karrie in Nefeli, and Richard Reid in Zingara should be the big battle for the top three in the pros.

Steve Suddath in 3 half Men, KC Shannon in Shaka and Brent McKenzie in Ex-Kahn look good in the Corinthian field.

All bets could be off once the first race gun goes off. There are some very strong sailors on the start line.

We are hoping that our new home town Melges 24 owned by Pensacola YC members Nathan and Jennifer Simonson's Phoeniceus will be on the Corinthian podium... a dark horse.

Obviously organizing and running a big regatta amidst a still-churning pandemic isn't easy. Can you tell us about the biggest logistical and organizational hurdles that you've had to clear to make this happen?

Pensacola YC has a Covid policy that is Attachment C of the event NOR. "All events will be conducted in compliance with all Covid-19 protocols in place at the time of each event based on current state and Escambia County and City of Pensacola information. The Bushwhacker Cup will take place in Pensacola, Florida, USA on the dates scheduled..."

We were approached by both the US Melges 24 class association and Melges 24 international on behalf of Team Nefeli from Germany. We immediately helped them by writing the necessary invitations listing the sailors and team members coming for sport competition to attain an their NIE and other documents required by Homeland Security. They are doing the series leading up to the Melges 24 Worlds in May.

"Due to the Covid pandemic, a far-reaching entry ban has been in place for months. In the meantime, the U.S. authorities have introduced National Interest Exceptions (NIE), which allow travel to the U.S. for persons whose entry is of national interest."

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

Pensacola YC's Bushwhacker Cup and all of our regattas are 'Green'. The Bushwhacker Cup Atlantic and Gulf Coast Championships is a Sailors for the Sea "Clean Regatta" which means that any document used by the Organizing Authority, Race Committee, Protest Committee, Measurement Committee and Competitors as a way of communication between them will be online.

We modify RRS47 "Trash Disposal" to say "at all times on the water and ashore". All competitors from Opti kids to full professionals are encouraged to use multi-use bottles and recycle appropriate items.

For large regattas and special events Pensacola YC provides hydration stations, so competitors can refresh their single use bottles. We also try to arrange local sponsorship from our regional water authority. They supply a fresh water truck they call the "Quench Buggy".

Pensacola YC's marina is designated as a "Clean Marina".

The club conducted a testing event for "Plastic Free July" during our July PYC Board of Directors Meeting. The Board examined several alternatives to plastic straws including paper, metal, and glass. The "Paper Colossal Straw Bushwhacker Challenge" pitted paper straws against our adult chocolate milkshake beverage to determine which straw responded without collapse.

Plastics are a ubiquitous and increasing threat to the marine environment. The PYC has already converted to paper to-go boxes and compostable-plastic cold beverage cups.

We ask all competitors and guests to please help us Refuse, Reduce, Recycle, and Reuse plastics and forgo a straw or bring your own re-usable straw, or request one of our alternative paper straws.

Pensacola YC undertook an 'Air Quality Project' in the clubhouse. The old house had a damp basement crawl space. Humidity was exceeding 80%. That area was cleaned and sealed.

So, the 'Air Quality Project' is producing great results. With over two months of data, we have demonstrable improvements showing consistent humidity levels below 60 percent in the Clubhouse, and a 20 percent decrease in humidity in the basement. This has two benefits: controlling mold and making the air more comfortable with less air conditioning. Maybe you won't need that sweater inside during summer?

General Manager Jim Warwick and Commodore Tom Pace have also seen to the installation of commercial dehumidification which serves to stop the opportunity for mold to grow inside our walls, which in turn will provide not only better air to breathe, but also a much better smell inside the Main Clubhouse.

After cleaning our air ducts and crawl spaces beneath the clubhouse, SCS has also installed multiple arrays of UVC lights inside our duct work, which has been proven to kill 99.9% of airborne pathogens...

The result will be cleaner, slightly drier air to breath inside the club and a healthier environment inside our clubhouse and adjacent Ballrooms that will benefit members and guests alike. The goal is to keep our employees and members better protected from the kind of bugs and low air quality that could cause trouble for any of us.

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