Hurricane Irma’s waterfront damage claimed another victim Thursday as organizers announced the cancellation of the Columbus Day Regatta, saying sacked docks and sunken sailboats made it impossible to hold the long-running race on Biscayne Bay.
The sailing regatta is best known as the official excuse for the weekend-long boat party off Elliott Key, where powerboats dominate the fleet and marine police patrol the anchorage. No one has the authority to cancel that informal raft-up. But what would have been the 63rd annual Columbus Day sailing regatta slated during the weekend of Oct. 7 has been scrapped for the first time since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, said organizer Chris Lanza.
“This year, we had five or six boats that normally race with us that actually sank,” Lanza said. “Honestly, not enough boats signed up because of the storm. We don’t have the money to run it.”
While the Columbus Day committee canceled the official weekend race, Lanza said a substitute event will be held Saturday, Oct. 7, to try and keep some of the sailing tradition alive. The one-day race will be about half of the normal 21-mile course, and won’t have the traditional second day of racing on Sunday. An email sent out to participants said the substitute event won’t be considered a true Columbus Day Regatta race.
“The official Columbus Day Regatta has been canceled,” the email read. “The perpetual trophies will not be given out this year.”
Lanza described a package of hardships for the race stemming from Irma. The biggest: damage sustained on docks throughout the waterfront in Coconut Grove, the launching base for the fall race. Coral Reef Yacht Club and Shake-a-Leg Miami, home to shore-side events for the regatta, suffered enough damage that they can’t host parties or provide slips for visiting sailors.
Early registration for the already struggling regatta was dismal. Lanza blamed the weak demand in part on the general disruption Irma caused for sailboat owners across South Florida since alarm about the storm first surfaced on Labor Day weekend. But some of the most severe damage from Irma occurred at marinas and anchorages across Miami, eliminating some would-be Columbus Day entrants. Sailboats continue to litter the Miami shore, while masts from sunken vessels remain as memorials to the damage done by Irma.
Lanza said he’s confident the Columbus Day Regatta will return in 2018, barring another storm. But he’s not convinced the sailing race will ultimately endure. The 2016 race saw anemic participation, which Lanza blamed on the false alarm Hurricane Matthew brought South Florida during a close path just ahead of the race. “Last year, we had 85 boats sign up,” he said, “but only 45 showed up.”
Storms aside, fewer sailors have signed up each year for a race that once attracted a flotilla unimaginable today. “I remember the days, back before Hurricane Andrew, they had 750 boats show up,” he said. “Now I have trouble getting 70.”
He blamed a broad decline in sailboat racing on Biscayne Bay, and Lanza worries Irma could help accelerate the end of Miami’s sailing tradition on Columbus Day.
“In the back of my mind, I am nervous that the combination of the natural decline of the event — combined with two punches in the gut from hurricanes — is putting the event in serious jeopardy,” Lanza said.
He said organizers debated whether to try and even muster a consolation fleet for the one-day race on Oct. 7 after Irma. In the end, the committee decided it was too risky to tell racers not to even bother coming out for Columbus Day weekend.
“If we cancel it this year, that might be the end of it,” he said. “If we can get 30 or 40 boats to show up this year, we can build on that.”