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An interview with Peter Fischel on the 2023 J/24 Midwinter Championship

by David Schmidt 22 Feb 2023 08:00 PST February 24-26, 2023
2022 J/24 Midwinter Championship © Christopher Howell

While it became pretty clear, pretty quick, that Rod Johnstone’s 1977 design for a 24-foot keelboat was going to be an international success, it’s doubtful that anyone expected the boat (and class) to still be delivering high-level One Design racing almost 50 years after Ragtime—Johnstone’s prototype—first found saline. But, with thousands of these can-do keelboats sailing and racing in dozens of countries, the result is a talent-riven class that consistently delivers competitive, high-level events, such as the 2023 J/24 Midwinter Championship (February 24-26).

The event is being organized by the Melbourne Yacht Club, the Eau Gallie Yacht Club (EGYC), and the U.S. J/24 Class Association, and it’s being hosted by the EGYC, in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida.

Hard-fought racing is expected to unfurl on the waters off of Melbourne Beach from Friday through Sunday, and while crews need to clear one pre-regatta weigh-in once (maximum combined crew ballast is 882 pounds), they can relax a bit once the numbers have been recorded.

I checked in with Peter Fischel, regatta chair of the 2023 J/24 Midwinter Championship (as well as a fellow competitor), via email, about this exciting midwinter keelboat regatta.

The J/24 has served as a hotbed for One Design racing for almost 50 years. Can you please give us a quick update on the class, its culture, and the kinds of sailors one can expect to encounter at this year’s Midwinter Championship?

From my perspective, chairing this regatta is a chance to stand on the shoulders of giants. So many great sailors have competed in this class over the years, and not just the podium finishers. There have been, and still are, many, many very capable and accomplished sailors that race this boat. It's awesome to know that we still have a chance to go out on the water and compete at the highest level of sailing.

The culture has definitely changed from the ‘80s and ‘90s but in a good way. It's more collegial now but no less competitive. You still have to have a well-prepared boat and team, sail flawlessly, call solid tactics, and get a little luck to win. No one is handing out participation trophies in this class.

That said, the relative low cost of entry, wide availability of solid boats, strong class regulation and well-known speed requirements continue to attract newcomers and returnees. It's not too hard for sailors new to the J/24 to come up to speed quickly and find success at the local, regional and national level. It's not easy, but it's also not an arms race nor a requirement to hire a pro team to be competitive. I think that still makes this a very attractive class to competitive-minded sailors.

As for who is going to make the trek to Melbourne, it will be a great mixture of pros, road-worn top amateur teams, competitive regional teams, and local teams out to represent Central Florida. Most will be here to challenge themselves as well as the other teams. But all will be looking for a fun, competitive regatta raced in a great venue.

How many boats are you expecting on this year’s starting line?

I am expecting 25-30 [boats], give or take a few.

The numbers have trended up over the last few years because of strong interest in the Florida State Series, the coordination between other J/24 winter regattas in the state and Miami having hosted the 2019 Worlds.

Our District Governor, Rick Jarchow, has done a great job supporting all of these events. There is an attractive scenario for Northern sailors to trailer a boat south to Jacksonville in November for the King's Day Regatta and then race it through the winter series of regattas in Florida. They can then work their way north with the NOR Easter Regatta and Charleston Race Week.

That's a whole lotta competitive sailing and sunshine for a reasonable amount of time and resources.

How would you describe competition levels at this year’s Midwinters?

Very competitive, world-class. Everyone brings their A-game. That said, there are always some newer [teams] that don't score as well but learn a lot and have a good time.

Generally speaking, what kinds of conditions can sailors expect on the waters off of Melbourne Beach in late February?

It is usually very nice with sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s-80s. If we don't have a cold front coming through, then we usually have some light to moderate gradient winds or a sea breeze so we can almost always sail.

But if a cold front does show up with the boats, then we can easily see winds in the 20-30 knot range and temperatures in the ‘40s. You definitely have to think about both heat stroke and hypothermia when packing for this regatta. And don't forget to pack the sun screen.

I realize that these are still early days, but do you have any entries that you’re eyeing for podium finishes? What about any dark horses who you think could prove to be fast, once the starting guns begin sounding?

As regatta chair and a competitor, I'd rather not say where I think boats may end up. But I do know that there are probably 15-20 boats that can definitely grab a podium finish.

My dark horses are some of the battle-tested amateur teams. They're really fast and consistent nowadays, and can give everyone a run for their money.

In the ideal world, how many races do you and the other event organizers hope to score each day and over the regatta?

We're planning three days of racing and hoping to get three-to-four races scored a day. I'd love to see ten races [total] scored.

What kind of onshore entertainment can sailors look forward to once the finishing guns have gone silent each day?

There is a Fleet 87 Welcome Party at the local Intracoastal Brewery where one of the competitors is an owner. Their hospitality and quality offerings always start the regatta out well.

Usually, the weather is nice and there is generally a very communal and friendly atmosphere on the docks when the sailors get in. We support that with refreshments and Q&A sessions lead by the top sailors. It's informative and fun for everyone; a great way to wind down a day of racing.

Away from the docks, the Eau Gallie Yacht Club does a great job of welcoming the sailors and their families into their beautiful club. They host the Saturday evening "Shrimp and Suds" dinner, and allow the competitors to access their pool and deck area. They also support efforts for spectator boats so non-racers can experience some of the action.

The Melbourne Yacht Club hosts a dinner most years and many of the sailors enjoy following that up with an evening in the Downtown Melbourne with its wide variety of shops, bars, and music venues.

For friends and families of the competitors, there is a wide variety of fun and interesting things to do in the area. Melbourne has great beaches, restaurants, spas, museums, and the Eau Gallie Arts District literally overlooks the venue.

There are some great natural gems too - a national seashore and wildlife refuges, world class fishing, great kayaking, nature trails and a chance to see an alligator. Everyone knows about the local theme parks, but I've found that the Brevard Zoo and the Space Center prove to be the real crowd pleasers.

Lots to do around the area and usually great weather to enjoy it.

Can you please tell us about any efforts that the club has made to green-up the regatta and generally lower its environmental wake?

Both MYC and EGYC are very environmentally conscientious, especially in relation to the Indian River Lagoon. There is definitely a culture of preservation and minimal impact among the clubs' leadership and members.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

We are keeping the registration open until the last minute to encourage more participation. Please let us know via the Regatta Network site if you need any help.

Also, the class has been rotating the Midwinter Championship between Melbourne, Miami, and Tampa so sailors get a different venue every year. This is a great series and I hope sailors from other parts of the country come down and compete. I lived in Seattle for four years and understand how great it is to jump on one of the big, silver tubes and land in the Florida sunshine.

But mostly, I want to remind everyone of how important our sponsors are to making this whole thing happen. We couldn’t get out there and sail without them. Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi of Melbourne has once again stepped up as our title sponsor and we can’t thank them enough. Relentless Builders continues to be a major supporter of so many great things in Melbourne, including the Midwinter Championship, and we are really grateful for them. Long Doggers, one of the best restaurant and bar chains in Melbourne, also came through for us big time.

Three other local sponsors, Century Express, the 5 Ws Writing & PR Service, and my company, Little Fisch Farms, also contributed with direct and in-kind donations, and a whole lot of volunteer time. Intercoastal Brewery is hosting our Welcome Party before the racing starts, and North Sails contributed our bow numbers at no cost. That’s a lot of love! We consider all of them partners and we hope they know they are appreciated.

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