It's January: cold weather, long nights, uncertain markets -- the perfect time to head south for one of America's premier amateur sailboat racing regattas: Key West Race Week, Jan. 21 through Jan. 25, in beautiful, warm Key West, Fla. Spend one minute watching the blazing eye of the setting sun, and you'll know why Ernest Hemingway spent enough time here to rate his own museum.

This year, close to 300 yachts are expected to compete in four divisions and 16 classes at Key West. Among them will be many of the major American racing designs: the Melges 24, the lovely Farr 40, the stately and brutally expensive Swan 42 and many others.

Creeping in among these established classes is a new generation of sailing speedsters: boats that derive much of their design and technology from the recent America's Cup campaign, held in Valencia, Spain.

This new generation of pocket America's Cup boats is using advancements in composite material construction, computer-aided design and improved sails to create a new generation of ultra-thin, ultra-stiff craft that can be sailed with smaller crews and in more flexible conditions. Better yet, these boats cost way less than the billions that, say, Oracle top dog Larry Ellison, or Ernesto Bertarelli, former head of biotech firm Serono (since sold to Merck), spent on a full-fledged America's Cup campaign.

"Sailors are looking to go fast on the water without spending a lot of money or fuss with hard-to-sail boats," says Rick Hamilton, co-owner of Annapolis (Md.) Performance Yachts, a racing yacht importer and former officer in the Coast Guard.

Hamilton and partner Dave Sliom import one of the leading new pocket America's Cup boats: the Esse 850, a European boat designed by Emberto Felci and built by Josef Schuchter in Switzerland. The Esse 850 is about 28 feet long and a razor-thin seven-ish feet wide; it floats in roughly seven feet of water. It weighs a little more than a small car, at about 2,500 pounds. And -- get this -- the whole package can reach top speeds of roughly 20 miles per hour.

That's faster than many power boats.

I had a chance to take the Esse for a sail in August, and jumped right in.

The Esse is striking from the get-go. Not only is it amazingly thin, along the lines of classic racing boats from the 1940s, it also is remarkably hard to tip. The secret is that similar to the latest generation of America's Cup Boats, the 850 uses super-light material in the hull, mast and rigging, mixed with advanced engineering to place all that saved weight in a carefully designed bulb way out at the end of a very thin appendage jutting out of the bottom of the boat.

With all that weight a full six feet away from most of the boat, the Esse can stand up to an enormous amount of wind or water power. And this leverage can be captured by the Esse's very large sails and the results are -- how shall I say it? -- dramatic forward progress. The boat flies.

We took the Esse out on a Wednesday night race in the old Annapolis harbor. Mostly I pulled lines and kept quiet, but I drove the boat in the pre-start and found it to be amazingly maneuverable for a craft with so much power. Amateurs can definitely control and enjoy this boat.

That leads to the major caveat with the Esse 850: Yes, it is lovely to look at, stable and remarkably easy to drive for such a race-ready boat -- but it is still very powerful, and while a dedicated amateur can certainly sail and enjoy the Esse 850, this is not a beginner's craft.

The sails are large. The rigging is small. And in the wrong hands -- particularly in heavy air or offshore -- bad things can happen. Not only can you sink it, you're going as fast as a car in this boat, so collisions are not trivial. If you are considering moving up to an Esse, which I recommend, be sure to work with your yacht broker to get training from a pro on how to operate the craft safely.

But I have saved the best for last; the cost. This top-quality, international class-worthy racing rocket, that could easily run several million dollars, can be had for around $90,000.

In the world of sailing, that's a bargain.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.