Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta: Inside the Fleets, J/70

Scattered amongst the J/70 fleet are the St. Petersburg YC's members, taking the easy road to racing.

High-rise condominiums are sprouting all around St. Petersburg YC and the nightlife in once sleepy downtown St. Pete is more alive than it’s ever been. The little city is growing up, with a hip new generation of working professionals, creating a fertile pool of potential new young members to pull through iconic pink clubhouse’s doors.

There’s change happening across the street, too, over at the yacht club’s sailing center who’s chainlink gate is a revolving door for one-designs class all winter long. This week it’s the Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta and in a few days it'll be the J/70 Midwinters, and out on Tampa Bay will be a handful of members racing the club’s new sportboats.

The club purchased 10 J/70s in 2016 as part of a scheduled replacement of its Sonar fleet. The process took more than three years says SPYC waterfront director Shawn Macking. “We’re not making money on them and we don’t intend to,” he says. “We spent $500,000 on boats, but it’s just an amenity of the club, like a pool, or a dock, or whatever.”

Club member Peter Davidson, who’s racing this weekend in the NOOD's 32-boat fleet, is the programs biggest cheerleader, says Macking.

Davidson, a longtime New England snowbird, has owned a Melges 32 and a Farr 40, but in this phase of his life he’s happy to have the staff deal with nagging boat maintenance. He prefers to show up, fill the boat with friends or college-age crews, and knock off a few winter regattas.

“It’s incredible that I can call, have it ready to go, and be racing the next morning,” says Davidson. “It’s the best program out there.”

Selection took more than three years, says Macking, because their search for the right boat for the club was comprehensive. "We literally started with every boat that's out there," he says. "We did spreadsheets, talked to other clubs and manufacturers. We also watched closely what the Gulf Yachting Association did with their selection trials [Ed.-GYA chose the Viper 640 as its official boat]"

SPYC’s sailors range from 7 to 80, says Macking, and the J/70, especially with institutional sails, suits everybody. Before members can use a boat they must go through orientation, regardless of their sailing resume. “Once they’re checked out on boats it’s only a 50-dollar drop free,” says Macking. “We just charge it to their club account. With 24-hours-notice, we drop it in, you rig it and go have a good time. Bring it back, we take it out, wash it down and put it away.”

With the average age of St. Pete's year round residents plummeting over the past decade, the club is aggressively chasing younger members. The J/70 has simplified that task tremendously, says Macking. “A lot of what we call intermediates are joining the club and being active in the sailing program, which is exactly what we wanted,” he says. “To join the club at a discounted rate, have access to a brand new fleet of boats and sail them for 50 bucks each time — that sure beats buying a boat.”

The boats are used for weekend and twilight racing, too, and recently for the J/70 winter series at nearby Davis Island YC. That’s where Davidson was last week. He says he gets in more than enough sailing, and he’s all the happier for it.

“Peter’s a perfect example of the program’s success," says Macking. "He was looking into getting a sportboat of some type, and he loves this fleet. He’s taken full advantage of the winter series in Davis Island and we delivered the boat for him and picked it up when he’s done racing. For 300 bucks he gets a boat three-day events and walks away at the end. That’s awesome for him. He’s telling everyone about it and trying to get people to join the club because of it.”