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Launching a new event - Charlotte Harbor Regatta 2010
By Brian Gleason - Chairman, Charlotte Harbor Regatta


In February 2009 at a meeting of the Punta Gorda Boaters Alliance in Florida, two questions were posed to members of boating and sailing organizations from all around Charlotte Harbor: Could and should Charlotte Harbor host a national one-design sailboat regatta?

The answer was a resounding, "Yes!" and the Charlotte Harbor Regatta was born. Word spread of this audacious idea - starting a new regatta with no money, no host site, a thin one-design tradition and no strong local fleets amid the worst global economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Rather than shy away from the daunting challenge, one club after another rallied around it. The Charlotte Harbor Yacht Club, the Punta Gorda Sailing Club, the Charlotte Harbor Community Sailing Center, the Isles Yacht Club, the Punta Gorda Boat Club, the Port Charlotte Yacht Club all jumped on board, their members and many of their officers joining an ad hoc organizing committee.

Charlotte Harbor, which lies between Tampa Bay and Key West on Florida’s Gulf Coast, had reason to believe it could hang with the big boys. It had been named by SAIL magazine as "one of the 10 greatest places to sail in the United States" in June 2004, just before Hurricane Charley devastated the area. Area clubs had played host to a number of well-attended regattas, including the Conquistador Cup, the Golden Conch Regatta, the Leukemia Cup, the Valentine's Day Massacre, the U.S. Olympic Soling trials, the U.S. Olympic windsurfer trials and a number of one-design midwinter events for Sunfish and other small boats. Charlotte County has repeatedly been cited by national magazines, such as "Money," as one of the best places to live in the country, due to its affordability, natural beauty, small-town charm and laid-back atmosphere.

Even before dates had been set or classes targeted, officials from Fishermen's Village Resort & Marina offered their award-winning facility as regatta host site and the Charlotte County Visitor & Convention Bureau threw its support behind the venture. Local businesses jumped on board from the beginning, especially the Sun newspapers, where I work as editorial page editor. The Sun provided staff time, Web site hosting, back-office support and extensive publicity. Sponsors included Fishermen's Village, Mosaic, PG Insure, Microtel, Kitson & Partners, West Marine, the boaters alliance, Knighton Sailmakers, the Charlotte County Parks Department, Peace River Distributing, Winn-Dixie, Centennial Bank and Everglades Farm Equipment. All told, the regatta raised more than $25,000 in cash, services and in-kind contributions even before the first registration was received. The outpouring of support allowed the board to brand itself as the "fun, affordable regatta." Hotel rooms under $100 (some under $65) even at the height of the tourist season, reinforced that reality.

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One of the unique fund-raising methods employed was a "Founding Patron" hat and shirt sale, which raised $4,000 at $50 a pop from individuals who believed Charlotte Harbor should take its rightful place in the sailboat racing world.

On May 29, days after a meeting of the newly elected board of directors, the state of Florida recognized the Charlotte Harbor Regatta, Inc. as a Florida not-for-profit corporation. The corporate mission was simple: promote youth and adult sailing on Charlotte Harbor. The next steps were not so simple.

The regatta organizers initially set a goal of targeting a half-dozen classes and drawing a few dozen boats. Start small, get it right and build on that foundation. A call for fleets went out, employing what I called a guerrilla marketing campaign. Posting on class Web sites and forums, emailing and cold-calling fleet representatives, submitting regatta items to online, print and multimedia publications such as Scuttlebutt caught the attention of sailors eager to give a new venue and a new event a chance. By fall, the number of classes expressing strong interest in participating had ballooned to 11 and the regatta committee was planning to man three race circles across three miles of Charlotte Harbor.

Staffing those circles and securing vessels to serve as signal, mark set, safety and back-up boats for each of those would prove to be one of the most surprising and gratifying challenges for organizers. The Punta Gorda Boat Club, one of the harbor's oldest maritime organizations, stepped up in a big way, with more than 20 skippers volunteering their boats and their time. Additional offers came in from members of the Isles Yacht Club, Punta Gorda Sailing Club and Charlotte Harbor Yacht Club. In all more than 75 people volunteered for on-water or off-water duty, including the 14 board members and half dozen race committee members.

As the new year dawned, the regatta received its federal 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status and the class picture saw some promising and unsettling developments. While sailors and crew from the exciting Viper 640, Flying Scot and Hobie 16 classes were registering early and in strong numbers, other classes failed to materialize or did so in numbers that were failing to draw additional competitors. Events close to the weekend of the Charlotte Harbor Regatta on other South Florida harbors were siphoning away boats and whole classes. An entire class was eliminated when half of its skippers - which included a number of Navy or Naval Reservists - were called up to active duty or shipped out to Haiti to provide earthquake relief. A few weeks earlier, three-quarters of the registrants from another class withdrew and a third class had shrunk down to three local boats determined to put a fleet on the water for the inaugural event.

By race week, registrations had topped 50, well below the 100 earlier indications had foretold. But a late call to the Hobie Wave class, which had just wrapped up its Tradewinds event in Islamorada, paid off and provided a healthy boost of boats. Rick White rallied a fleet of nine Waves to Charlotte Harbor on short notice to share a circle with the Hobie 16s. A local fleet of Precision 15s and race day registrations from Sunfish and Waves sent the scratch sheet to 65 and the number of sailors to 120. Not too shabby for a first-year event.

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A Monday forecast for Friday and Saturday from regatta sponsor Weather Routing Inc., delivered some foreboding news - 20-knot winds with 35-knot gusts in squalls. Though subsequent forecasts from WRI and other sources offered less alarming predictions, the original WRI forecast proved spot on. Wild winds, high waves and chilly temperatures tested the skills and resolve of racers and race committee members on Friday. Despite it all, the three fleets scheduled to race all three days, the S2 7.9s, Viper 640s and Hobie 16s, completed at least one race apiece. Exhausted, cold, but exhilarated sailors came ashore buzzing about the conditions and looking forward to more of the same on Saturday.

They got it. A line of storms rolled through Friday night, forcing onshore activities indoors to a hastily arranged refuge inside Harpoon Harry's restaurant at Fishermen's Village. As Saturday dawned, six of the eight classes made it onto the water, including a hardy group of Sunfish and Laser racers and the game Waves, some of whom had just arrived and were running on coffee and Friday war stories from their Hobie 16 brethren. Broken Viper 640 masts, backflipping cats, and at least one sinking Laser were among the tales making their way ashore as the day wore on. By 2 p.m., with a couple of races in the books, race officials on all three circles called it a day.

After two days of heavy winds and high waves, Mother Nature delivered Chamber of Commerce weather for the final day of the regatta.

More than 60 boats in eight classes, including two of the three Viper 640 vessels that broke masts on Saturday, started the day in picture-perfect sailing conditions. Shifting winds, not damaging gusts challenged skippers Sunday.

In the Viper 640 class, Brad Boston continued his winning ways to capture the overall victory ahead of Dan Gorman. Bill Abbott took advantage of his competitors' misfortunes on Saturday to slip into third overall and held on Sunday to stay there.

Fred and Reid Hutchinson went 1-2 in the Sunfish class, while Rita Steele took third. The trio traded spaces in the Top 3 all weekend, but Fred Hutchinson's consistency - a first, two seconds and two thirds - prevailed.

With two wins in the Hobie 16 class Sunday, Mike Montague vaulted past Day Two leader Kenneth Hilk, who dropped to third behind Randy Payne.

Rick White had started strong Saturday with a win and finished the regatta the same way to take the overall title in the Hobie Wave class. Dave White and Stan Woodruff finished second and third, respectively, separated by a point after six races.

In the S2 7.9 race, Paul Robbins made a strong run at Alan Konegsberg with two wins Sunday, but fell two points short in the overall standings after nine often grueling races over the three days. Peter New took third.

Donna Steele bounced back from a second place finish on Saturday to win all three races Sunday to top Alden Spencer in the Laser class.

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Forced to stay shoreside on Saturday with his fellow Flying Scot skippers, famed Scot builder Harry Carpenter capped off four seconds with a win in the day's last race to capture the title. He was followed by John Selldorff and Jeff Penfield, who took third over Ira Perry with a tiebreaker win in the third race. Selldorff and Perry had come down from Massachusetts for the event and took home news of a harbor on the Gulf Coast that is sure to bring more racers down next year.

Even before the racing ended photos from committee boats were pouring in via email and hand-delivered CDs. The images bolstered the stories being shared by racers at the Sunday award ceremony at Fishermen’s Village. A Web site slide show of the pictures drew thousands of hits from across the country, as racers from 13 states and three countries logged on to get a look at the show they had put on.

A few weeks after the regatta, the board reconvened for a debriefing and critique of the event. Plenty had gone wrong, much of it behind the scenes and unnoticed by competitors, but enough in plain view to warrant corrective action for next year's event. Multiple sites created logistical problems that would have been exposed if racers had been of the mind to file protests. Infrastructure improvements and additional lift and launch facilities will be needed going forward. Lessons were learned the hard way by many volunteers and regatta officials, but all vowed to return and talk has already turned to adding more classes, another race circle and topping 100 boats in 2011.

None of the missteps and miscues could overshadow the prevailing view that the regatta had been a tremendous success. Class forums and emails from participants featured positive reviews and an obvious eagerness to return. "What a way to start off the year. All of the rest of our regattas for this season will seem like floaters," wrote Jim Sajdak, who had flown in from California to race in the Hobie 16 fleet. Noted Jeff Jones from the Viper Class in Texas, "What stood out to me was how wonderful the locals were. We were constantly being asked if we needed any help, etc. During haulout they were serving hot dogs, hamburgers and beer at the club." One national judge serving on the protest committee told regatta officials he would be nominating the regatta for the United States Sailing Association's prestigious St. Petersburg Trophy, a heady compliment for a first-year event.

With the books about to close on the inaugural regatta, the board learned the event had earned enough money to contribute thousands of dollars to youth sailing programs on Charlotte Harbor in the coming months. As its last order of business, the board voted to keep the 2011 event on the same weekend, Feb. 3-6, 2011. For those who missed this year’s event, you won’t want to make the same mistake twice.

For information, photos and results, go to www.charlotteharborregatta.com.
For class or participant inquiries, email briangleason@charlotteharborregatta.com or call 941-206-1133.

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