On the eve of the 11th edition of Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex, J/109 skipper Bill Sweetser was faced with a tough decision. It wasn’t about how to tune his rig or organize his crew. But it nonetheless would have a huge impact on his regatta. He’d entered his boat, a popular one-design in the Northeast, to race under IRC. But he also had the option of racing one-design in class built by class president Bill Kneller.
“I’ve come to at least six or seven Race Weeks since I’ve had the 109 and I’ve mostly raced IRC and we’ve done pretty darn well,” he says, “[NYYC sailing director] Lynn Lynch mentioned to me a day or two before the race that I should consider changing [to a one-design class]. I’m so glad that we did class racing because we had some of the best competition we’ve ever had in the J/109 fleet. The people out there know how to sail the boat and they kept us on our toes.”
The New York Yacht Club’s Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex was first run in 1998, and took place this year from July 17 to 21 out of the New York Yacht Club Harbour Court, in Newport. R.I. The biennial summer classic has established itself as one of the premier summer race weeks in the Northeast thanks to its attractive combination of great racing conditions off Newport and the superlative shoreside hospitality at the Club’s waterfront Clubhouse overlooking Newport Harbor. Partners for the 2018 edition of Race Week at Newport include presenting sponsor Rolex, regatta sponsor BMW and regatta supporter Helly Hansen.
In fact, the competition in the J/109 class was so tough that halfway through the regatta, Sweetser’s team on Rush was looking like they’d be lucky to break into the top three. They’d won the first race, but also had two sixths, in an eight-boat fleet, in the first four races.
“It was a lot of little things,” he said. “We had a lot of discussion about it. Sometimes we didn’t catch the wind shifts our competitors caught. Sometimes we weren’t sure our rig tune was where it should’ve been, so we made some adjustments. Sometimes I didn’t drive as effectively as I could have.
“By the middle of the third day we were feeling that if we put ourselves in the right place [we could do well]. We knew we had the boat speed.”
Sweetser and his crew won all three races on the third day of the event to move into contention. But they still needed to make up four points in the final two races to overtake Albrecht Goethe’s Hamburg, which had displayed remarkable consistency to that point in the regatta, finishing eight of 10 races in either second or third. Rush picked up one point in Race 11, then went on to a comfortable win in Race 12. When Hamburgstruggled to its worst score of the regatta, a sixth, Sweetser and his crew earned the overall victory and one of three Rolex timepieces being awarded at the regatta.
“After the first couple of days, we weren’t sure we’d even end up in the top three,” he says. “Winning the three races on Friday gave us a lot of confidence. With the winds today, we had a lot more confidence. It’s just like any sport, luck has something to do with it. I’d like to say it was all skill. But we did happen to be in the right place at the right time today.”
Points were even harder to find in the Modern 12 Metre class. With the 12 Metre World Championship set for next summer in Newport, the class has become increasingly competitive. Each of the four boats in this division have undergone extensive modification and renovation to prepare. For this regatta, Jack LeFort’s Challenge 12 was the class of the group, winning five of seven races for a 6-point victory over Dennis Williams’ Defender.
“It was a fabulous regatta, terrific racing,” says LeFort. “There’s not a lot of difference between the boats. We’re all finishing within a minute of each other and sometimes just a few seconds. It could be a shift here or there, a little boat speed here or there. It’s a toss-up.”
LeFort recalls one race on Friday that was particularly critical to the win.
“Defender did a wonderful job closing us out on the starting line,” he says. “We worked our way back into the race and that ended up being a really important race to us. There’s not a lot of room for error. It’s hard to separate.”
LeFort bought Challenge 12 last year and put a lot of effort into getting the boat into better-than-new condition. But he’d yet to experience 12 Metre sailing in all its glory until this week.
“This is the first time we had great sailing conditions since I’ve been involved with the class. To get out in the ocean is great, that’s a first for us on Challenge 12. They’re very cool boats. They go upwind like there’s no tomorrow and the crew work is so important because they’re complicated boats. For me it’s a real combo platter: there’s some complexity, and there are very few boats that are more fun to sail when it blows 12 knots on the ocean.”
As the 12 Metre with the most impressive performance in the regatta—four boats raced in the Traditional Division and one in the Grand Prix—LeFort also earned himself a Rolex timepiece.
The third timepiece was designated for the most impressive yacht among the boats racing in the four IRC classes. There were worthy winners across all four. Paul Zabetakis’ Impetuous won IRC 3 in the final race, nipping Chris Culver’s Blazer by a single point and Edward Whitmore’s Ticket to Ride by 3 points. In IRC 2, Austin and Gwen’s Fragomen was nearly perfect, winning seven of nine races en route to an 8-point victory in a very competitive rating band. Ultimately, however, the Rolex timepiece for the best performance in IRC went to Steve and Heidi Benjamin’s Spookie, which won IRC 1 after a nine-round slug fest with Victor Wild’s Fox. The two boats entered the final race tied on points. Before they could start the race, however, Benjamin and his team needed to solve a rather crucial problem.
“We had a few mishaps in the first race today and we had to get the morale back together and correct what was going on,” he says. “We went right to the source of the problem. There were a couple of tacks where the winches weren’t working quite perfectly, so the starboard primary came apart between races.”
No small task on a TP52, but his team got the winch rebuilt and then got the better of rival Fox in the pre-start maneuvers and pulled out a solid lead around the first mark.
“It was all positioning,” he says. “It’s just fantastic competition with the TP52 class. All are good including the Naval Academy team, who have really improved this week. What happened on that last start was Fox was a little bit on the late side, pushing really hard, and we tacked on top of them and sort of ran them into Hooligan, and they ended up tacking away. It’s extremely tight racing, and it’s all down to crew work and tactics and where you go. The racing is absolutely fantastic and I don’t think the race committee could’ve done a better job.”
Photos: ROLEX/Daniel Forster