Block Island Race Week: Out of Towners

For those traveling from afar to Block Island, it’s as much about the racing as the destination.

Red-eye flights, containers full of sails and gear, housing rentals—these are just some of the seemingly overwhelming logistics that out-of-town racers contend with in preparation for faraway events. For those who make the pilgrimage to Race Week, however, the rewards far outweigh the challenges.

"It's the best part of our crew's summer," says Bill Liberty, tactician and program manager aboard the Mills 43 Cool Breeze. "Coming from Missouri in the middle of the summer, they're literally making up any excuse to get out of the brutal heat. You start talking about Block Island, with the cool air and good breeze, and their eyes get as big as saucers. It's literally a breath of fresh air."

Liberty has raced with Cool Breeze skipper John Cooper for more than 15 years, sailing their first Block Island Race Week on board a chartered Melges 32. They enjoyed the event so much that shortly after, Cooper commissioned a custom Mills 43.

“We built the boat specifically for this type of event,” says Liberty. “It was born out of John’s desire to compete at a higher level, and Block Island was always an inspiration for that.” Block Island Race Week falls perfectly into the sailing schedule in Missouri, too.

“They sail in such a beautiful place, but it’s 100 degrees half the summer, and they’ll take time off because it’s just too uncomfortable to sail,” says Liberty. “Events like this fall perfectly into the open schedules for crews in other parts of the country.”

The boat borrows its name from Cooper's father's J/29, inspired by the desire of Missouri sailors for relief from the Midwest summer heat. "Plus, we tend to perform better in a blow than in the light stuff," says Liberty. "If it steps up in Key West or Block Island, as it often does, Cool Breeze is the boat you want to be on."

Cool Breeze competes in numerous East Coast Events—Key West, Charleston, Annapolis—so they've established a routine.

“Picking these same specific events each year makes it easy for our crew to plan out their summers,” says Liberty. “It’s a lot of the same guys, year after year. They’re very loyal to John. Events like Block Island always have that ‘getting the band back together’ type of feeling.”

New to Race Week this year, but with a similar desire to escape the heat, Tom Sutton is bringing his J/35, Leading Edge, and his crew to the island from Houston.

“Block Island Race Week is one of the most competitive events in the country,” says Sutton. “We’re looking for the same feel that we get in Key West—the level of competition, the fresh venue, the good conditions. We’re looking forward to the challenge of sailing in a new and very competitive event.”

Sutton is managing the distance by hiring a driver to trailer the J/35 to Newport, R.I. Sutton and his family plan to tackle the drive as well, in order to have a “crew car” for the weeks they’ll be spending in both Newport and on Block Island. With house rentals secured in both venues—and what Sutton describes as a “huge bar” in the Newport digs—they’re looking forward to the perks of the trip.

“We’ll be flying a huge Texas flag from the dock at the Mooring [restaurant],” says Sutton. “You can’t miss us! Even our shirts have the flag, and underneath it has our slogan, ‘Where the party never stops.’”

Beyond the fun and games, Leading Edge is one of the most competitive programs on Galveston Bay, with more wins than any other program they compete against. The all-amateur crew includes Sutton's 14-year-old son, Jake, who works mast and foredeck. Sutton also enlisted the help of a crewmember, who is also a rigger, to help with maintenance, and purchased a new spinnaker and Heavy No.1 in preparation for Block Island Race Week.

“We’re not a bunch of rock stars, but we’re still hard-core racers,” says Sutton. “For a 30-year-old boat, we’re in good shape to be competitive in our class.”

Liberty calls on local services to maintain the boats when on the East Coast.

“There are so many industry guys in Connecticut and Rhode Island who can help with the logistics for away programs,” says Liberty. “I can say with certainty that anyone from the Midwest could have their boat put on a truck and in two or three weeks the boat would be turn-key ready for the event.”

Both programs plan to participate in the New York YC Annual Regatta before heading out to Block in order to get the most out of their trips.

“It’s the quaintness of the islands—Block Island, Newport, Jamestown—that really make these events what they are,” says Liberty. “Our crew enjoys the racing and the excellent sailing weather, but they also love to go out after dinner and enjoy the venues. Block Island is simply a great destination regatta for any away program to come into town for.”

The Lone Local

To those who live on "the Block," Race Week is an opportunity to show off the best of what their island has to offer. Greg Slamowitz, the only local sailor registered for the regatta, looks forward to the invasion every year.
"It never gets old," says Slamowitz. "To this date, one of my favorite sails is to 'Rock Around The Block.' I try to do it at least five times every summer; it's a classic, beautiful sail. It's the best part of Race Week."

He only lives on island four months of the year, but Slamowitz embodies all of the characteristics of a proper islander: He keeps his local knowledge close to the chest, but concedes that skippers should study their charts and navigational tools, as the waters around the island are tricky.

Slamowitz, who recently sold his C&C 110 in exchange for a new J/111 in time for the summer, makes sure to bring a few locals along for the ride during Block Island Race Week.

“There are some characteristics of the island and the waters around the island that those of us who have sailed here for years will be able to use to our advantage,” he says. “Still, in the end, the trick is reading the conditions and reading your charts.”

In addition to his local crew, Slamowitz imports friends from Washington, D.C., and the New York metro area. “It’s the highlight of their summer, coming to the Block and racing for the week,” he says. His crew rent bikes to get around the island all week—a practice Slamowitz highly recommends. “Biking is really the best way to see—and smell—the place,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you’re missing out.”

For the less exercise inclined, he recommends the classic sailor hangouts: the Oar, Mahogany Shoals, Eli’s and The Dock, to name a few. “There’s no shortage of good watering holes on BI,” he says. “You won’t have a hard time finding some good food and drink with a bunch of sailors around.”

Whether it’s your first time to the island or your fifteenth, Slamowitz guarantees the locals will welcome the racers with open arms, as they always do. “I’ve met people who raced in Block Island Race Week many, many years ago and everyone has a great memory of it,” he says. “The locals are very passionate about the place, and we enjoy sharing the island with sailors in particular.”

John Cooper’s Mills 43,* Cool Breeze*, was commissioned with the conditions off Block Island in mind. The Missouri native finished third in the IRC2 class at Race Week in 2013.Allen & Daniela Clark/ www.photoboat.com