Business As Unusual

Overcoming the oddities of Key West helped the crew of the Melges 24 Uka Uka earn Boat of the Day honors.

January 19, 2011
Sailing World


Uka Uka’s Jonathan McKee and Stefano Ciampolini make themselves comfortable at Kelly’s Caribbean Bar and Grill, regatta headquarters for Key West 2011 presented by Nautica. Michael Lovett

“There’s no such thing as normal in Key West.”

Well said, waitress at Kelly’s Caribbean Bar and Grill. I had just sat down with Jonathan McKee and Stefano Ciampolini, tactician and trimmer, respectively, aboard Lorenzo Santini’s Melges 24 Uka Uka, which won Boat of the Day today after putting up a pair of third-place finishes and grabbing a share of the lead in the 22-boat division. Kelly’s is serving as regatta headquarters this week, and when the waitress came to our table, we asked her how the sailors compared to her normal clientelle.

Her reply, “There’s no such thing as normal in Key West,” seems to be a fairly accurate description of the racing, too. The X factor this week has been the mass of seaweed lurking throughout the racing area. Because a clump of weed stuck on a foil can send any boat to the back of the pack, crews are on constant lookout.


With less then two minutes before the start of today’s second race, the Uka Uka crew spotted a nefarious-looking black line wiggling in the water just in front of the boat. McKee thought they missed the hazard, but Ciampolini saw that they hadn’t. Without uttering a word, he dove overboard, swam down to the keel, removed the line—a length of polypropylene still anchored to the seafloor—and resurfaced. He pulled himself up onto the stern, and _Uka Uka _didn’t miss a beat.

“It was amazing,” says McKee. “I don’t think I could’ve done that. It just goes to show you how random it is down here. You have something like that happen, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how well you sail.”

Uka Uka‘s previous start wasn’t quite as wacky, but it was just as memorable. “It was one of those classic starts where you come off the line and everyone is right there,” says McKee. “Then you listen to the radio and it’s like, ‘Bow 44. Bow 45.’ We’re bow 46. You’re just waiting for your number. All the other guys keep peeling off to go back, and you get to keep going straight.”


As the crewmember in charge of calling the line, Ciampolini was especially grateful that Uka Uka avoided the OCS axe. “I was the one saying, ‘Go go go go go,'” he says. “Of course, I had no idea where the line was.”

There’s been nothing normal about this event—not the seaweed invasion, not Monday’s torrential downpour that set a new record for hourly rainfall in Key West, not the transposing of regatta headquarters from the big tent to the funky bar off Duval Street. But, then again, nobody comes to Key West for normal.


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