June 17, 2019

Race Week Done Right

Take it from these Block Island Race Week veterans, you can do no wrong on Block Island—as long as you’re having fun
Written by Dave Reed, Sailing World, Photos by Photoboat.com

Whether you enter through the cut into Great Salt Pond, get off a ferry in New Harbor or on a private bird into BID, the arrival on Block Island is always magical. The journey from the mainland might be short, but the place still feels a thousand miles away. Block Island Race Week awaits you. Your teammates are trickling in, the crew house is open, there’s boat work to be done, mudslides to sling and friends to meet and make. You’ve made it. Congratulations. Now what? As a first-timer or 10th--timer to Race Week, there’s much to do and more to see, so a few veterans share their advice on making the most of it.

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HAVE A ROUTINE, says Andrew Weiss, who will be racing the new-to-him Jason Ker-designed Fast40+ at Block Island Race Week with his wife Linda. It’s taken Weiss 20 or so Block Island Race Weeks—too many to recall—to appreciate the importance of repetition when it comes to winning and having a good time.

“Block Island has fog, so even if the day starts out sunny, don’t be surprised if it fills in,” he says. “We’ve won more races by having all the waypoints of all the marks every day, every race. There have been times where we’re going around the mark and it’s foggy and people are going all sorts of directions.”

Weiss first sailed Race Week with his father on the family’s Ericson 39 in 1975, so he has fond memories of the regatta’s freewheeling early days, an era when competitors and teams didn’t take themselves as seriously as they do today. While his Christopher Dragon is a serious little grand-prix machine, his team’s modus is to race hard but have fun doing so.

“The biggest thing to having fun in Block is planning the week out and making sure it’s not all about the sailing,” he says. “Leave time for biking, going around the island, splitting the meals between eating out and the eating in, always as a team.”

One challenge, he adds, is bringing -everything they could need to the island, especially food, spares and especially spinnakers. “You need to have at least a couple of extra spinnakers for the week,” Weiss says. “In 2015, we were leading the Around the Island Race, and during a jibe we blew out our A3. I was reminded of it every night because it was always on the highlights video playing -under the tent.”

Christopher Dragon crew-members don’t bring a trailer to the island with spares and parts, but they do have a Sprinter van and a few cars to shuffle wet crew and gear throughout the week. They always dock at Champlin’s Marina, “because it’s quieter, easier to get in and out in a southwesterly and because their mudslides are better.”

While his annual preparation is routine, so too is the daily schedule, and in this regard, Weiss knows one critical facet that’s easy to overlook: “We have 11 people sailing with us, plus a few others, and it’s better to have everyone in one house, so the thing to remember when booking is finding a place that has more than one bathroom, especially if you have a coed crew.”

Crewmembers rotate dinner duties, as well as breakfast, with the goal of getting everyone to the boat by 0845. The typical team routine, which starts the night before, goes something like this: If any sails are wet, they bring them to the house, repacking spinnakers before dark. They go over the weather forecast in the evening and again in the morning, and if all goes well with boat call, everyone has sufficient time to check their areas. They then head straight to their race circle, sail the -weather leg for about 35 to 45 minutes, setting their waypoints along the way.

“It really matters what circle you’re on,” Weiss says, “because there’s a lot more current than you think, and you have to watch for the sea breeze filling. We’re -constant with watching the current.”

After knocking off a few good races, it is time debrief and head to the marina for traditional mudslides. The first round, he says, is normally on the crewmember with the day’s best mulligan. The goal then is to get the boat put away as efficiently as possible and seek fun or relaxation.

“If you want to come back year after year, you have to have fun,” Weiss says, so whatever your Block Island routine might be, make sure it’s more about -having fun than winning.

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BRING A BIKE, says Brandon Flack, who’s been doing Block since before he was old enough to drive a car. “You can rent a bike for the week; it’s not that expensive,” he says. You want to be able to see more of the island than what you’ll get from the taxi ride to and from the boat.” You can also rent a moped, if you want to reach the far corners of the island, but you can’t take them on the dirt side roads that lead to hidden gems. The bike is the way to go, -especially for the -morning commute.

“Usually, a few of the crew pile into the truck and they go off to the boat to load stuff, so by the time you get there it’s all done,” Flack says.

A bike also comes in handy if the crew house is closer to town, or the late night gets later than expected and the cabs are busy making runs to the south side. Flack brings a beater mountain bike, so he doesn’t bother locking it. “If anyone needs a bike bad enough to steal, I’ll chalk it up to a good experience.”

The bike is the ultimate freedom should racing be canceled or delayed, and he recommends hitting the regular tourist spots, including breakfast at the airport. “It’s a huff getting up there, but it’s nice downhill ride back to town with [a full] belly.”

His best bike memory, Flack says, was chronicled in a story in the Block Island Race Week newspaper a decade or so ago.

“We convinced one of our crew -members that he was Evil Knievel, and talked him into jumping off the porch, over these two steps at the house,” he says. “Well, he didn’t pull up enough and ended up face planting and breaking his collar bone. We had to take him to the hospital, and the next day was the Around the Island Race. He was our navigator and he sailed with his arm in a sling. It was really foggy that day and we did well and won our class. It was either the painkillers he was on or the fog, but he was slow making decisions, which worked in our favor.”

So, Flack’s final words of advice for bikes on Block Island: “Keep both wheels on the ground at all times.”

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PAINT THE TOWN, is Chris Fesenmeyer’s advice. It’s what he and his merry band of tie-dyed Race Week -diehards have been doing since 1995.

“We go out every night,” says the skipper of the Beneteau 36.7 Sunshine Daydream. “And that means, everyone. No one stays home.”

They’ve been at it long enough to know the lay of the island and where to be and when, so the Race Week routine is a proven one, which starts with their arrival Saturday night at Yellow Kittens Tavern on Corn Neck Road. Sunday night is either Kittens again or Captain Nick’s around the corner, whichever happens to be hosting a reggae band. With a day of racing under the bottom, it’s time to take the -revelry up a notch with disco night at Captain Nick’s. “This is one of the best nights of the whole week,” Fesenmeyer says. “It’s a mix of locals and racers, there’s always a crowd, and everyone is there to dance. We all used to pan disco, but it’s the best for partying.”

The team’s Tuesday night tradition is Club Soda, up the hill on Connecticut Avenue, for karaoke night. “We show up by 10; that’s when things get going,” he says. “There’s no reason to start late when you can start early and be there longer.”

Fesenmeyer’s advice is to sign up right away, and come with a few group songs or duets. “We usually have two or three people doing a song and work the crowd a bit,” he says. “It’s good to have some crowd pleasers like Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier,’ John Denver’s ‘Country Road,’ or Garth Brook’s ‘Friends in Low Places.’”

Wednesday night is left open for spontaneity, but Thursday is always martini night at the Spring House. “Martinis are probably the last thing I need after a bunch of rum drinks at the tent,” Fesenmeyer admits, “but the location is just so great, the ambience is cool, and the band is always excellent. There’s a lot of racers and weekend newcomers out starting their vacation, so there’s a nice mix of people too.”

Friday night, after a long week of -banging around the cans, is reserved for a return to where they started: good old Yellow Kittens. The band is always rocking, he says, there’s usually a beer promotion night with T-shirts and koozies, and with the races done and dusted, serious race crews beholden to curfews for five nights show up ready to go big before they go home. “It’s always a fun night, with dancing and craziness,” he adds. “It’s how we always end Race Week.”

Fesenmeyer shares some practical -advice for those who will join him on the team’s weeklong tour-de-bars: Don’t drive. “The police are usually sitting right there outside [the] bar waiting, so make friends with the taxi drivers early, -especially those with the big vans.”

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GET ’EM HOME FROM THE TENT is the advice from Tom Rich, captain of the mighty Settler and lifelong Race Week competitor, when it comes to herding a boatload of thirsty crew for a week. Mrs. Rich does the cooking at the team house—breakfast, lunch and dinners—so when the crew doesn’t make it back for evening chow, “She goes nuts.”

The Race Week tent is an early-evening honey pot, and with its mile-long bar and free-flowing spirits, it can be the start of a big night for some—but if you can entice them back to the team house with a guarantee of a good meal, Rich says, they’re less likely to venture back into town for another late-night round.

“We’ve found that feeding them dinner and getting them home, they tend not to go back out,” he says. “We don’t discourage them from going back out—sometimes we actually encourage them—but nowadays, once they’re fed and relaxing, everyone seems to stay home. When I did Race Week as a kid, we’d stay on the boat, so there wasn’t a lot of room to hang out, so we wanted to get off the boat as soon as we could, but with everyone staying in houses these days, things are different, I guess.”

While the housing and after-race -shenanigans are different than those of Race Week’s early days, there’s one thing Rich is adamant is the same. “The only thing I can share with the first timers is to never go back inshore from IB1 going to the finish.”

Why is that? “I can’t tell you why, but people think they’re going to get something special by going to the beach right way, maybe they think they’re getting out of current,” he says, “but I think the seaway is worse there. We’ve tried it and it never works out. We stay offshore and head back in somewhere around The Dump.”

Also, his advice for the first few miles of the traditional Around the Island Race: “Short tacking the beach seems to work, but it doesn’t always. You need to know when to get off and usually that’s past that first point and then work the outside a bit.”

That’s good advice. Use it or lose it.