Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Breathtaking seamanship at Bacardi Miami Sailing Week

A series of traffic jams spread across Biscayne Bay on Friday. But these were majestic, floating, bow-to-stern backups. Accompanied by shouting, yes, but no honking.

It’s Bacardi Miami Sailing Week in our beautiful blue backyard. Six classes are racing on courses arrayed on the water from Stiltsville to Coconut Grove. Plenty of wet highway until clumps form at the starting lines, where jockeying for position causes close calls. Action at the buoys creates more drama as boats charge four abreast toward the mark, then somehow avoid colliding as they make a hard left, sails cracking with the sound of a cacophonic drum solo.

The seamanship is awesome to behold, especially when the weather gets wild, as it did Thursday when a tornado watch socked Miami and the wind steadily increased from gentle to a pulsating 12 knots before a thunderstorm descended.

The world’s best sailors congregate here for the world’s best winter sailing. Light air early in the week was just a tease. The bay is expected to blow with gusto through the conclusion of the regatta on Saturday.

Conditions got so rough Thursday that the tiller on the Star of skipper Mark Reynolds and crew Magnus Liljedahl busted as they rounded the last weather mark. They had to sail the final leg without a rudder, and dropped from fourth place to 12th, but it was quite remarkable that they finished at all.

“We had no steering; we had to steer by balancing the boat,” said Liljedahl, who stood at the mast, leaning one way or another. On boats passing Liljedahl, crew members hiked over the edge, backsides skimming waves.

“The skeg gives you decent tracking,” he said. “We tried to minimize the damage. I’m proud that we crossed the line. I’ve never had an incident like that in my entire career.”

And Miami’s Liljedahl has seen it all in four decades of racing. In the Bacardi Star regatta — the Rolls-Royce of the classes — he has won five times with three different skippers. Reynolds, of San Diego, has won it seven times. They’ve won the cup three times together. The duo won the 2000 Olympic gold medal in Sydney.

“We decided to reunite the band for one more event,” said Liljedahl, who runs Team Paradise for Paralympic sailors. “We have a lot of fun together. We share a lot of good memories.”

Add Thursday’s salvage job, which kept Liljedahl and Reynolds in second place, sandwiched between Brazilian brothers Lars and Torben Grael.

During sailing week, you see hundreds of ruddy-faced sailors at the docks in the Grove, from the U.S. Sailing Center to Coral Reef Yacht Club to Shake-A-Leg Miami to the Coconut Grove Sailing Club. They’re wearing booties, hauling hoses, drinking beer.

Among them, the Kraken team of J-70 sailors from Youngstown, N.Y., who were happy to leave behind frozen Lake Ontario.

“It was 7 degrees this morning back home,” said Jason Suytor, who mans the foredeck as the “mud flap guy who blocks the waves.”

If they can go sailing in March in New York, they wear ski gear and have to watch out for ice chunks.

“It’s been so cold this year we may not get out until April,” said skipper Adam Burns, who named his boat after a sea monster.

The youngest skipper on the bay is 10-year-old Liam Kilroy of San Francisco, who guided his Audi Melges 20 Wild Man boat to 19th, 10th and 21st-place finishes on Thursday.

“We did good considering it’s our first regatta,” Kilroy said of his team, which includes three world-class adult sailors.

His father, John Kilroy, a multiple world and national champion, was leading the 42-boat fleet aboard the Samba Pa Ti (named after a Carlos Santana song).

“Liam is breaking new ground,” John said, explaining Liam’s “Wild Man” nickname. “He is such a conservative kid — the calmest of our six children — that my wife calls him ‘Wild Man.’ I’m hoping he won’t live up to it as a skipper.”

He has not so far, according to crew member Steve Hunt, a top pro tactician who has coached San Diego’s Point Loma High School to four straight national prep titles.

“Liam is very bright and seems older than his years,” Hunt said. “Even in tight situations with boats flying all over the place he stayed cool and confident.”

So many boats that Miami’s topography was transformed: On the horizon, a mountain range of triangular peaks.

When the lemon-yellow, neon-green, eggplant-purple and blood-red spinnakers were hoisted and filled with air, it looked like balloons were blooming on the water.

The sky, changing from fluffy white blotches to low-hanging gray swirls to muscular charcoal streaks, could have been painted by Van Gogh.

The six fleets churned home toward Miami’s skyline through deepening troughs and frothy whitecaps. The sailors steered toward their reward — dry clothes and all the Bacardi they could drink.