Miami to Key Largo Race
Saturday, April 14, 2012
Miami, Florida
By John McKnight

Thunderstorms with evil black clouds looming on the horizon were rapidly approaching from the east waiting to pounce like a panther on its prey.

This was the 57th annual running of Miami Yacht Clubís Miami to Key Largo distance race. The race is a 43 mile drag race going south down Biscayne Bay from Miami to Key Largo. There were a total of 121 boats of all types entered in the race. The boats were divided into 17 classes. There were ten monohull classes, three large boat multihull classes, and four beach cat classes. This report focuses on the beach cats in the race.

This race will long be remembered as one of the most exciting and challenging in its long history. The story of this race was the big winds; I mean really big winds for beach cats. For three days prior to the race the winds were forecast to be 20 to 30 knots out of the east. There were also forecasts for heavy rain showers and small craft advisories. This extreme forecast gave all of the beach cat sailors second thoughts about even attempting the race, but everyone wanted to race. We had waited a year since last yearís race. We had all paid our $80 entry fee. We already had the T-shirt. We had all fine-tuned our boats. Crews were lined up. Car and trailer drivers had been arranged for weeks. We had all attended the skipperís meeting the Thursday night before the race. Everything was a go except for the really, really scary forecast. Half the beach cat sailors, including myself, elected not to sail in these extreme conditions. It was a tough disappointing decision for all of us who elected not to attempt the race. Many of those who did launch their boats wished they hadnít. No one who did not sail said they wished they had. It turned into a treacherous costly day on the bay. Fortunately, the cost was only in broken masts, shredded sails, and split crossbeams, not lives.

On race day the winds were exactly as forecast, 20 to 30 knots with some gusts exceeding 30 knots. There were multiple heavy rains showers with gale force winds at times; creating what was described as total whiteout conditions with visibility down to about a boat length at times. Beach cats are way overpowered in these conditions. Most beach cat sail plans are designed for maximum winds of 20 to 25 knots. Anything over those wind speeds can create survival conditions. A beach cat can blow over with the sails completely let out. Just the windage of the mast and luffing sails can tip it over in a second. It takes incredible skill and strength to keep a beach cat upright in 30 plus knots of wind. It takes some real courage and guts to even attempt to sail in those conditions. Only the very strong and highly skilled sailors will succeed in these conditions.

The statistics from this race tell the story. There were 31 beach cats registered in this yearís race ranging in length from a 13 foot Hobie Wave to the 30 foot Aquarius. The beach cats were divided into four classes. In the Spinnaker Cats Class there were 11 boats registered. In the Fast Cats Class there were 10 boats. In the Stray Cat Class there were 5 boats. In the Hobie 16 Class there were 5 boats. As close as I can figure, only 17 of the 31 registered beach cats went to the start line to attempt the race. A third of the skippers decided not to even leave home based on the ominous forecast. Some others brought their boats to the launch beach and decided not to set their boats up when they saw the forecast coming to fruition. Some crews attempted to get to the start line, but turned around and called it quits when they found the conditions untenable. Several boats flipped just trying to get to the start line. The weather could best be described as very nasty! The skies were overcast with an eerie low ceiling. The clouds were battleship gray and foreboding. The scene was set for the myriad calamities that would follow.

With furiously flapping flags the race started as scheduled at 8:00 AM. The winds were strong, very strong. It didnít take long for the first mishap. Mike Phillips and Taylor Palmer were sailing the powerful, all carbon fiber, Marstrom 20. They jumped out on the trapeze wires and sheeted in. Moments later they got hit with one of those nuclear gusts, and despite there combined weight for counter balance leverage, the leeward hull began to bury. Before Mike could release enough mainsheet, they stuffed the leeward bow and did the infamous catamaran death roll. Their bodies went flying into the rigging. The power of the pitchpole slapped their mast into the water with such force that it instantly exploded into three pieces. John Casey saw the whole thing and said they hit the water so hard, the water said Ouch! Mike and Taylorís race was over. Professional photographer, Mike Hannau, captured the entire 12 frame sequence with his high speed camera. The images are dramatic. One powerful shot is of one of the crew flying through the air with the bows buried and the hulls at a 45 degree angle up in the air. Another telling shot shows a forlorn Mike Phillips sitting on the hull of his overturned orange Marstrom 20. The unrelenting storms had claimed their first victims. The links to all the pictures are below.

In the Fast Cat Class Kenny Pierce and his crew won first place on their Stiletto 23. They also won the spoof Coyote Chew Racing Team duct tape trophy. He was awarded this trophy because of all the tribulations endured during the race. The Stiletto had a leaking hatch. Kenny said they probably had a hundred pounds of water in the starboard hull by the time they finished the race. In the middle of the race the winds got so powerful, that Kenny had to drop the mainsail completely. They cruised on the jib alone for a while. When the winds abated they laboriously raised the mainsail again while underway; not an easy task. They put a reef in the sail to tame the beast and appease the wind gods. They had many more scary moments. But with superior sailing skill and strength, Kenny and his all women crew were miraculously able to finish the race.

The only other crew in the Fast Cat Class to finish was Dick and Linda Macdonald on a venerable Nacra 5.8. They had numerous flips during the race. But they were real troopers and finished the race with no outside help. You had to be tough to do that. They said they were exhausted when they got to Gilbertís. Dick wrote an exciting story of their adventure.

Chris Stater and Katie Flood were also sailing a Blade F-16 in the Fast Cat Class. They were having difficulties with weed accumulating on the leeward rudder. In process of clearing the rudder, they too flipped when they got hit with a big gust. Chris slammed into the mainsail and ripped a large hole in it. I wonít belabor the details because Chris has written about their adventure in a separate story.

Likewise Mauricio Mendez has recounted his story. They flipped over twice and tore their jib. They also discovered a crack in the front crossbeam of their Nacra 5.8. They were done for the day. There was a couple of other F-16s that evidently started the race, but abandoned after some capsizes. I never could get an account from them. I also saw pictures of a Dart 20 that had capsized. These F-16s and the Dart 20 didnít finish the race.

The Hobie 16 Class had three entrants who actually sailed the race. The biggest news was Mark Jones and Pam Moss winning the H-16 class and also winning the much coveted Mark Albury Trophy. This trophy is for the first to finish beach cat on corrected time. This was a huge accomplishment for them. They never flipped the entire race. They were one of only 6 beach cats to actually finish the race. Congratulations to Mark and Pam. The other H-16s were not so lucky. Doug Russell was sailing with his sister Debbie Russell. They flipped several times. During one capsize Debbie got separated from the boat. The Hobie 16 was on its side and getting push away from her faster than she could swim. Doug was unable to right the boat by himself. Debbie bobbed around in the middle of the bay for what she felt was an eternity. She said she had thoughts of sharks as her legs dangled precariously below the surface. Finally a large monohull saw her waving and stopped to pick her up. She was ever so thankful to be back on a boat. They got a Seatow boat to transfer her back to the overturned H-16. She was separated from the boat for 45 minutes. Doug and Debbie righted the boat and made it to the finish line. They both were glad to be back on dry land. Doug gave a heartwarming thank you to the crew of the rescue monohull at the trophy presentation ceremony a week later. The third Hobie 16 was sailed by Scot Corson and Charon Beaumal. Tracee, Scotís wife, and usual crew, did not want to sail the race in these crazy conditions. So Scot teamed up with Charon, another H-16 skipper. Scot and Charon had many difficulties. They capsized four times. They were exhausted by the time they got to Gilbertís. But they finished the race and took second place in the H-16 Class. They finished over an hour after the first place H-16. Scot said he had never flipped even once in his previous 25 Miami Key Largo Races, much less four times.

In the five boat Stray Cats Class only one boat managed to finish. That was Richard Schulman sailing his Hobie 17. Richard evidently flipped numerous times, but I donít think he needed outside help. He won the class. Another boat in the Stray Cat class was Jack Wolfeís Hobie Wave. His was the only Hobie Wave in the race. Jack hit a submerged object and capsized his boat. Somehow the mast fell down. He was able to re-step the mast and limp into Matheson Hammock Marina. He was done for the day.

The premier Spinnaker Cat Class was won by Bret Moss and John Casey sailing Bretís all white Marstrom 20. They not only won the spinnaker class, but they also were the first boat to cross the finish line. They were awarded the perpetual First to Finish Trophy. They finished the 43 mile course in 2:13:19. Bret said they never pushed the boat that hard and stayed in the safety survival mode for most of the race. They only single trapezed to give the boat some stability in the confused seas. Bret estimated some gusts were in the 40 knot range. These two guys are the epitome of strength, skill, and stamina when it comes to sailing a beach cat. They not only sailed fast, they sailed conservatively and won their race.

The only other boat to finish in the 11 boat Spinnaker Cat Class was the father and son team, Jay and Jared Sonnenklar. They were sailing their powerful Inter 20 named Royal Yellow. Son, Jared, skippered and Jay worked the front of the boat. They had lots of problems. The jib track ripped out of the front crossbar. The roar of the flogging jib was so deafening that Jay finally literally cut the jib off the rigging with his knife. They also flipped once in a huge gust. Jared wrote an excellent account of their race.

Clive Mayo was also in the Spinnaker Cat Class. He had big time troubles with his A-Cat. In the vicinity of the Arsenicker Islands Clive got hit with one of those over 30 knot gusts. He and his boat went flying. Clive said the boat cart wheeled end over end numerous times across the bay. The light weight carbon fiber A-Cat was like a leaf being tossed in the wind. Unfortunately Clive could not stay with the boat. It got away from him. He sadly watched the wind push his craft away from him faster than he could swim after it. The boat was on its side drifting away at a rapid pace. Clive estimated the boat got pushed a couple of miles from where he went over. The boat stopped when it snagged in the mangroves on the west side of Biscayne Bay. Clive said it took him almost three hours to swim and wade back to his boat. No one evidently saw him nor picked him up. Clive said it was extremely difficult to wade through the calf deep mud on the bottom. When he finally got to his boat he located his cell phone and was able to make one phone call to Cheryl, his ground crew. After that one call the phone would no longer work. Clive said his mast was full of water and he could not right the boat by himself even though the tough A-Cat was still intact. Cheryl got Ed Cabassa to take his motorboat out to search for Clive among the tangle of mangrove islands. Cheryl and Ed finally found Clive and helped him right the boat. They towed the boat to Gilbertís. The rescue took until 4 PM. Clive had been on or in the water for over 8 hours.

It was a rough day. Everyone had amazing stories of their ordeals. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. Only half the beach cats registered for the race even attempted to race. Only half of those that started made it all the way to the finish line. Only six out of the 31 registered beach cats actually finished the race. Of those, only three made it to the finish line without flipping. Those three were Mark Jones with Pam Moss on a Hobie 16, Bret Moss and John Casey on the Marstrom 20, and Kenny Pierce with Dana Powers and Becky Mandrell on the Stiletto 23. Most of the participants had lots of bumps, scrapes, and bruises to show for their battles with their boats and the elements. Everyone has a tale they will tell and retell about the infamous 2012 Miami Key Largo Race.

John McKnight