Cosmic forces were at work around the Carolina Lowcountry in late April as the planets seemed to align perfectly for the 22nd edition of Sperry Charleston Race Week. The largest keelboat regatta in the Americas experienced three back-to-back days of ideal racing conditions much to the satisfaction of nearly 2,000 racing sailors who had traveled from 24 U.S. states and nine foreign countries for this annual spring event.
This year, racing sailors from 24 U.S. states and nine foreign countries gravitated to the Palmetto State to celebrate the 22nd edition of this homegrown regatta. Over 200 boats competed in 15 different classes on six separate race courses scattered across Charleston Harbor and its offshore waters. Among the fleet were all manner of sportboats, all-out racing machines and a healthy dose of racer-cruisers.
The weather gods must have conspired to throw a perfect party because competitors enjoyed three back-to-back days of ideal racing conditions as 80-degree temperatures and southerly winds from 8 to 22 knots graced the Carolina Lowcountry.
Inshore, where over 150 of the boats competed on Charleston’s world-famous harbor, summer-like temperatures, flat water and nearly sedate winds set the stage early on Day 1. But offshore, where 46 other boats were racing, steep, three-to-five-foot seas and a solid 12-16 knots of southerly wind made for perfect if somewhat challenging conditions.
The event’s marquee entry – Tony Langley’s TP 52 Gladiator sailing with a part-family, part-professional crew – was tearing up the brine out there. Langley’s debut at Race Week coincided with the event’s near-wholesale adoption of the ORC rating system and the early results vindicated this move on the part of the organizers.
In ORC Class A, Gladiator was battling against a J/122, two XP 44s, a Beneteau 47.7 and a Custom Mills 43. Despite those design disparities, the fastest and the slowest rated boats – Gladiator and Robin Team’s J/122 Teamwork – were tied on overall points after three races.
Also racing in the offshore waters were the spinnaker and non-spinnaker classes of the popular Pursuit Division. Though many of the entries in these classes were from South Carolina, this division has become so popular in recent years that there were several entries from afar, including Ryan Walsh’s Baltic 52 out of Weston, Mass., John Streiker’s NY 40 Defiant out of Milford, Conn., and Metolius, the Frers 84 that is part of the fleet owned by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s Sailing Foundation and mothership to the Warrior Sailing Program.
Despite these outside influences, local boats dominated the awards ceremony after three days of competition. Steve Lesniak’s always boisterous crew on board his Beneteau 510 Celadon took home top honors among the Pursuit Class Spinnaker racers and Wayne Burdick’s cadre of longtime friends racing aboard his Beneteau 411 Marion Maid hung on to win the non-spinnaker class.
Inshore, there was almost too much action to recount. Entries in the 73-boat J/70 Class battled it out in typically aggressive fashion. The race committee wisely split this class into two alternating groups and among the crews were top professionals such as John Kostecki (the only sailor on the planet ever to have won the America’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race and an Olympic medal), Alan Terhune (Global One-Design Director for Quantum Sails), and Cameron Appleton (one of the world’s leading tacticians).
When the dust settled after three tough days and 10 windward-leeward races sailed in choppy waters with irascible tidal currents, Joel Ronning’s 2016 world championship team aboard Catapult (including Kostecki, Patrick Wilson and Chris Stocke as crew) emerged victorious. They didn’t lead until the final day when they posted a six-point overall victory to defeat 15-year-old Gannon Troutman, who had to settle for second at the event for the second year in a row. Ronning and crew not only won their class, but went home with the Charleston Race Week Trophy, which is awarded each year to the best performing boat in the most competitive one-design class.
Elsewhere inshore, a number of pivotal battles were taking place. Mike Beasley’s crack crew on board his GP 26 Rattle ‘n Rum sailed efficiently enough to crush their class among the ORC Divisions by a convincing 16-point margin, faltering only once in 10 races. Beasley noted after the races that none of it was easy.
“We have always loved racing here in Charleston,” Beasley said, “and this year was especially fun with more boats, great breeze, and tough competition. We sailed well, but we were pushed all the time, and with the ratings giving everyone a fair shot, we could not relax in any race.”
Beasley and company’s prowess on the racecourse was recognized when they also won the Palmetto Cup, the award that annually honors the best performing entry in the most competitive handicap class.
But Sperry Charleston Race Week wasn’t just about winning trophies, it was also about enhancing your skills on the racecourse and enjoying your time on shore. The organizers worked closely with corporate sponsor Quantum Sails to import sailing luminary Ed Baird, who arrive in Charleston and delivered a series of weather briefings for several of the one-design classes. Aided by videos and graphics projected on the event’s jumbotron, Baird engaged his audiences with savvy analyses of the impending weather and the on the water action.
A particular highlight of the event was the inaugural Pro-Am Regatta, which took place in 12 knots of wind late Saturday afternoon as most of the competitors were enjoying libations courtesy of Goslings Rum at the event’s beachside party venue. Ten top-tier racers had been invited to join crews made up of College of Charleston varsity sailors, high school racers and a handful of paying participants. (This event was also a fundraiser for the College of Charleston’s Sailing Program.)
The pros and their crews put on a fun spectacle for the hundreds of onlookers who cheered as the teams chased each other around a short, windward-leeward course on board their respective J/22s. It was a raucous sight that Raceweekers had never seen before, but one they’ll see again next year for sure.
In the end, the College’s own Christophe Killian – a sophomore who is one of the country’s top-ranked match racers – prevailed. He beat a roster of former America’s Cup winners, world, national, North American and Olympic champions, and was given a winner’s reception back on shore at the luxurious Sperry tent where all the pros and their crews congregated.
In the comfort of that tent, with a beautiful spring evening settling over Charleston, there was lots of banter about the Pro-Am and the regatta in general. Perhaps the most poignant remarks came not from any of the pros, but from a newcomer to the sport.
Josh Ryan was one of over 300 volunteers at the event. He had driven all night from Indiana two evenings before in order to be there. He had also ponied up $250 to crew in the Pro-Am Regatta even though he’s a non-sailor. Still, he was thrilled. “This regatta has been great. I got to race with Paris Henken. She’s an Olympic sailor,” he gushed. “It was an amazing experience. I loved it. And I’m going to keep doing it and learn as much as I can about this sport. I can’t wait to start taking lessons.” And that’s when you know it’s true. Sperry Charleston Race Week really does offer something for every kind of sailor.
For full scores, reports, photos and videos, check out the event’s website. Next year, Sperry Charleston Race Week will take place April 12-15, 2018.
Looking for more? Watch recaps and videos from the 2017 event below.