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Key West In Three Easy Hops (Or Not)

When you’re traveling to the United States’ southernmost point during its snowiest month, there’s no shortage of potential pitfalls.

January 14, 2011

_When the 10 second gun sounds, it’s already too late. You’re too far from the line; and the boats around you are too far advanced and too close. Whose idea was it to start amongst this crowd? You pull the trigger, a high build, coaxing the maximum VMG out of your boat as you strive to attain target speed before the gun. It’s all in vain. A half-minute after the start, the boat below you is advanced by a full length. Occasionally one of the crew glances your way. Is that pity on his face? Meanwhile, the boat to windward is pressing down on your lane, squeezing the vice. You hang on as long as you can, but after a minute you’re officially out the back. You find a marginal lane through the second and third row starters and peel away on port. The fleet, all 75 of them, fly away on starboard. You take one transom after another. It’s another few minutes before you breathe clean air.

A few deep breaths, and you refocus. You work the right side of the course, getting bounced from one good lane after another. Before you know it, you’re two-thirds of the way up the beat and close to the starboard layline. In front and to leeward—and more of the former than the latter—is the fleet. But then a puff comes out of nowhere. Enough angle to put you just over the layline, enough pressure to get the boat rumbling. You steam into the windward mark, round with the top boats from the left side, set the spinnaker, and breathe a sigh of relief._

This is about the best analogy I could come up with for the moment in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport when I realized my seat on the second leg of my journey was indeed in first class. I have no idea how this happened. How airlines book and price fares is a mystery that ranks right up there with quantum physics and the female psychology. I simply chose the cheapest possible option. I was a little confused when the seating chart for the leg showed just four seats—seriously, a puddle jumper from Charlotte—but I gave it no further thought until I saw the plane, a sleek, mid-sized commercial jet, pull up to the gate.

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“I must be in the front row.” I said to myself. And, in fact, I was. A bottle of water waited on the armrest. As did acres of leg room and a smiling stewardess, who strolled by not long after takeoff. “Can I get you a drink?”

I wasn’t planning on it. But them “Rum and coke,” shot out of my mouth. “Actually, make it a diet.” Got that weigh-in thing to negotiate.

Round two? Don’t mind if I do.

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But I was barely able to finish that one when we were buckling seat belts and preparing for landing. The 41 minutes from Charlotte to Atlanta is hardly the proper flight plan to enjoy the comforts of the big chair.
_
On the run, things begin to go pear-shaped. Indecision makes a mess of your tactics, and an ill-timed hole drops you right back into the huddled masses of mid-fleet. You get stuck between the gates, with a pack on either side of your clamoring for room. You pick the lesser of two evils and sail a great circle route around the mark. In what seems like an arbitrary instant, podium dreams have been replaced by a tooth-and-nail fight for top half, for respectability.
_
Before I left Charlotte, the third and final leg of my journey—Atlanta to Key West—had already been delayed. But that was just the beginning. Not long after landing, my cell phone rang. A friendly automated voice told me of a gate change. She called back a little while later with another gate change. I was aimlessly tacking back and fourth through Terminal C of Hartsfield International Airport. Then she called with a further delay. An hour late the plane took off. Well, at least we’d get there.
_
The boats are passing you on both sides as you crawl up the run. The breeze is down to a zephyr, and the top boats have already finished. Now the race is as much against the clock as the other boats. Got to finish within the time limit to avoid the shame of a Time Limit Expired on the scoreline. The boat feels stuck to the water. The finish line seems further away than it was five minutes ago. Are you fighting current? Your own private anti-current? The crew only grunts. They’ve long since given up caring about this race. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock “I hope they don’t close the beer tent before we get in?” says one. You’re starting to agree with him. Simply leaving this race in your rearview mirror would be, at this point, a relief, regardless of the finish_

We were into our descent into Key West. Better late than never, I said to myself. The stewardess had warned us to be prepared for a hard landing due to the truncated runway. Then the nose rose. The stewardess came back on the intercom. “There’s been a problem with the slats, and because the runway at Key West is so short, we need everything we can get from our slats and flaps. We’re diverting to Miami.”
_
The race committee blows the horn. You’re inches from the finish. C’mon, you want to scream. We just need a few more seconds. But the time limit is the time limit. You can see the PRO. All he can do is shrug. He didn’t make the rules. You’re not alone; there are a handful of boats still crawling toward the finish. But there’s no comfort in this company. The resignation filters through what’s left of the fleet. Motors are started. It’s time to head for the dock.
_
As we taxied toward a gate in Miami, I called Delta. “You’re scheduled to depart Miami at 11:05,” she said. “Arriving Key West at 11:55 p.m.”

A ray of hope. “On this plane, or another?” I ask.

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“On the same plane,” she says. That’s not a good sign. This isn’t a flat tire.

The pilot confirms as much before he lets us go. We loiter around the gate for 20 minutes. Then they inform everyone the flight has been cancelled and busses are being arranged to carry us to Key West. Maybe we’ll get there before dawn.

I’m batting about 50 percent on my flights into Key West. In fact, I’m of the mind that the most reliable—and efficient, time-wise—way to get there is to fly directly to Fort Lauderdale (Southwest has a number of non-stops from Providence), then rent a car and drive down U.S. 1 until you run out of road. The drive is a little long, but there’s plenty of scenery to keep you occupied, and you avoid the two critical bottlenecks in a January trip to the end of U.S. 1: the routinely snowbound northeast airports like Newark, Philly, Baltimore, or Charlotte, and the flight to Key West itself.

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Maybe next year._ Or next race.
_

Complete coverage of 2011 Key West Race Week.

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