CORUM WORLDS ROUND UP REPORT FROM KEITH TAYLOR
KEY LARGO, Fla. – It was the battle of the Italians and the Not-so-Italians, the Corinthians and the professionals, the newcomers and the old salts. After six intense days of demanding racing in the 2005 Corum Melges 24 World Championship, James Spithill's Italian Luna Rossa team held on to a diminished margin to take the top trophies with just an eight point margin.
If Spithill's polished international crew represented the peak of professionalism, Gabriele Benussi's Italian sailors Marrachech Express were almost entirely amateurs –as well as newcomers to the class – as they surprised everyone, including themselves, with a second place overall.
Between them, Spithill and Benussi forced into third place the seasoned veteran small boat champion Dave Ullman from Newport Beach, Calif., aboard his Pegasus 505.. They left in their wakes a host of America's Cup and Olympic caliber sailors including most of the past champions in the 12-year-old sport boat class.
In the Corinthian Division for non-professionals, Martin Kullman, from St. Petersburg, Fla., sailing New Wave, barely squeezed ahead on points over Bruce Ayres, Newport Beach, Calif., sailing Monsoon. Kullman finished the week 23rd overall after maintaining a 10th overall against some of the world's top sailors earlier in the series. A Henderson 30 veteran, he only began racing Melges 24s this year, winning Melbourne Race Week in Melbourne, Fla. in late October. The third Corinthian was Germany's Alba Batzill steering Courage X, just three points behind Ayres. Long-time Melges 24 Corinthian Mike Dow aboard Flying Toaster from Traverse City, Mich., was fourth.
The fleet of 99 boats competing in the Corum Melges 24 Worlds encountered a variety of light wind conditions, with one day of gusty breezes touching 18 knots, as they raced on relatively flat tropical waters in the lee of John Pennekamp Reef, off Key Largo's renowned Ocean Reef Club. The club, host for the championship, is situated on the northern tip of Key Largo, 50 miles south of Miami.
Spithill, the 26-year-old Australian skipper of Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge for the America’s Cup, was sailing with three other members of his America's Cup crew, with additional help from 11-year-old Mac Agnese, their 80-pound "secret weapon" from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. There was only one Italian passport holder on the sleek white 24-foot sportboat and that belonged to Manuel Modena, a 49er sailor from Italy's Lake Garda. The other two crew members were American brothers Jonathan and Charlie McKee, from Seattle, Washington. Both McKees are double Olympic sailing medalists
Over 600 sailors and guests accorded Spithill and his crew a prolonged standing ovation at the prize-giving dinner in Ocean Reef Club's Town Hall as the Luna Rossa crew accepted their championship trophy. Michael Wunderman, president of Montres Corum Sàrl, and Stacie Orloff, president of Corum USA, presented each of the five sailors with $2,400 Admiral's Cup Trophy 41 watches.
The race week started with two taxing light air races in shifty winds with flat water. The Kahn family from San Francisco, Calif., featured in the front running as Philippe Kahn claimed second place overall, with three-time America's Cup winner Russell Coutts calling tactics for his Pegasus 575, while his 16-year-old son Shark finished in fourth place, sailing Pegasus 492. First place standing after Day One with a 2-8 record went to three-time U.S. Melges National Champion and Olympic silver medalist Morgan Reeser, from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., sailing Neil Sullivan's Mfatic, from Annapolis, Maryland. Spithill was fourth on points.
Benussi's crew were still getting the feel of their brand new boat but doing it quickly. They had only sailed together during two preceding days of practice races and two of the Italian sailors had never raced Melges 24s before. In the first race they logged a 35th place that would ultimately become their throwout. Then, in the second, they served notice on the well-practiced and well-tuned pros with a convincing first to finish. While his crew could claim amateur status, Benussi, a former sailmaker, has won a total of nine Italian Championships, two European Championships and three Worlds. He was third in the J/24 Worlds in 2003 and has featured prominently in a number of ocean racing campaigns in IMS boats.
After the second day of racing, Reeser was still jazzed. He had won the first race of the day, then got hemmed in on the starting line of the second race in cool sparkling and sunny conditions with a puffy 10-knot breeze
"We were trapped," Reeser recalled. "The only thing to do was go over on the port tack before the starting gun sounded and sail against the oncoming boats, all of which had right of way. We ducked and dodged through 40 boats, just like driving head-on into oncoming traffic. It was kinda exciting."
The tactic worked and he finished 17th to give Mfatic a 13-point cushion over Marrachech Express which seemingly had come from nowhere to wrap up overall second place with a 3-2 record. John Pollard from Torquay, England, and one of the strongest performers in the ten boat-strong British contingent, was third, sailing Xcellent. Brian Porter from Winnetka, Ill., a perennially successful and consistent contestant in the Melges 24 Class, posted an 11th and a fourth finish to move his Full Throttle team up into the fourth overall spot while Spithill dropped to fifth.
The best performance on Day Three came from Spithill who logged two masterful first places in fresh northerly breezes aboard his Luna Rossa, winning comfortably in the first, and running away from the pack in the second. At day's end, with six races completed, competitors could discard their worst performance and the standings got a sharp shakeup. Bernussi jumped into the points lead, after posting a 4-9 record for the day. The throwout rule also favored Ullman with a 5-3, who was able to discard a 41st place to jump from seventh place overall to second.
On Day Four, under a sunny sky in a ten-knot easterly that chopped up the inshore waters, Spithill posted an 8-1 record to boost his Luna Rossa team into the overall lead behind Marrachech Express.
By now, everyone knew about Agnese, the fifth man on Luna Rossa –an Optimist sailor from Ft. Lauderdale’s Lauderdale Yacht Club, drafted because he weighed only 80 pounds, and was a nimble and knowledgeable sailor to bring their crew weight up to the maximum allowed 793 pounds.
The crew first sailed together in Key West last winter when they took a second place in the Melges 24 Class. This time, Agnese got a week and a half off school in sixth grade at the Sunrise Middle School near Ft. Lauderdale, substituting the class room for on-the-water sailing lessons with some of the world's best.
"Mac's a great little kid," said Spithill, who is only 14 years older than his youngest crew man. "He trims the mainsail traveler and is an extra hand to speed up all of our manoeuvres. He's just as committed and as involved as the rest of us. I think we're learning more from him than he's learning from us."
The next morning Ullman and Spithill turned in blistering performances in the opening race in a 16 to 18-knot southeasterly breeze that chopped up the shallow water north of the reef into two to three-foot waves. Ullman, the engaging sailmaker whose list of championship victories fills pages, has never won a Melges 24 championship. Now the third boat in the Pegasus Team of father-and-son Philippe and Shark Kahn from San Francisco, Calif., the time Ullman had invested in sail development and tuning for the team was apparent.
Pegasus 505 broke clear of the leaders on the first weather leg, as several collisions and gear breakdowns took their toll. Spithill was pushing hard behind Ullman but could never get within striking distance of the Californian boat. Ullman finished the first race one and a half minutes ahead of Spithill and two and a half minutes ahead John Bertrand, from Annapolis, Md., at the helm of Fusion M.
Conditions moderated in the second race to five to eight knots of breeze and small choppy waves. Ullman and Spithill were four or five places back at first weather mark but the next time around were back in their now-standard one-two position with Ullman 30 seconds in front.
Disaster struck for Spithill before the last downwind run as the head of his billowing white spinnaker exploded right after the hoist. The Luna Rossa crew struggled with the luff tapes to retrieve the sail and hoist another, as boat after boat sped by. Quick crew work saw a new sail up and drawing to keep Spithill in the top group of seven boats.
Ullman won again, lifting him to second from the previous day's third overall placing, but remained 20 points behind Spithill who finished the last race in sixth place. Bertrand had another good race to add a second place to his record for the week.
The 11th and final race, on flat water with a puffy six to eight knot northeaster, saw Spithill post his worst score of the week, a 27th place caused when he and other boats in the middle of the course were disadvantaged by a 30 degree wind shift that reshuffled the deck for all the competitors.
"With one race today, all we had to do was stay close to Dave Ullman," said Spithill. The Californian sailmaker had started the day in second place but dropped to third at the finish. "We had a 20-boat cushion," Spithill continued, "but the conditions were extremely tough. We got off the start line in good shape but in these light conditions everyone does the same speed, so we stayed in close contact with Dave."
Amazingly, Benussi took the gun again. It was a devastating performance. "We made a bad start with a 35th place but after that we had a very positive result," Benussi said. "Before we started, I'd have said that getting in the top ten results would be a fantastic result for us. To be second in this company has made us very, very happy."
Ullman, a 59-year-old veteran with numerous world and national championships to his credit, dropped to third on points. "This was by far the best Melges Worlds ever sailed," Ullman said. "We had entries like James Spithill who hadn't been in the class before and who sail at the top, top level. They did a really nice job. The Luna Rossa guys were pretty much in control. They are good!"