Led to Water

After taking a hit from Hurricane Irma, St. Thomas’s local racing scene is making a comeback—and Dave Franzel is at the center of it all

IC24 fleet
The St. Thomas YC’s IC24 fleet allows locals and visiting teams to charter and race in the annual St. Thomas International Regatta in March.Ingrid Abery

Dave Franzel looks out from beneath his faded ball cap at the gust coming down off Deck Point on the southeast side of St. Thomas, USVI.

"It likes to go left up here," he says, pulling on the backstay of his IC24 as we practice for the upcoming races of the St. Thomas International Regatta.

Below deck, empty beer ­bottles roll and clink in the bilge. Up top, Franzel’s trimmed white beard ruffles in the wind; the skin on his knuckles is tan and leathery, and his eyes are as blue as the Caribbean waters he now calls home. He looks as though he’s been in the islands for a lifetime, but the truth is it took him 30 years of running Boston’s premier adult sailing program before he realized St. Thomas’s climate better suited his lifestyle.

“I’d been coming down to the Caribbean for years,” Franzel says. “We would teach offshore passage making between Boston, Bermuda and Antigua. Once we got down to the Caribbean, we would run cruising and coastal passage courses between Antigua and Grenada, so I’ve had a long relationship with the region. It’s a great place to be, especially in the winter.”

Franzel ran the Boston Sailing Center from 1977 to 2007, serving more than 400 clients annually until he sold the business. After three decades of focusing on a single project, he went through a period of reinvention. “When you’ve been doing one thing for most of your life and you’ve built your identity around that, it’s hard to let it go,” he says. “You have to transition to the next thing.”

Franzel began stringing together various sailing gigs around the country, including coaching for North U. At one clinic held at the U.S. Virgin Island’s St. Thomas YC, Franzel ­discovered his next thing. “Some of the members were lamenting at their decrease in membership, and I told them about some of the things we had done in Boston to increase retention and grow participation in other ways,” he says. “One thing led to another, and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

In 2017, under his direction, St. Thomas YC started the St. Thomas Sailing Center, an adult sailing program focused on growing club membership through racing and social sailing activities.

“When I got back to work, I found out how much I missed it,” Franzel says. “It wasn’t just about being involved in a local sailing community, but about engaging the world in a ­meaningful way.”

Three years after ­opening the center, membership has increased and the island’s adult sailing scene is as vibrant as ever. One-third of new members who joined in 2019 came through the sailing center’s courses, boat access, racing programs or open-house events.

“A statistic I think is quite telling is that 75 percent of new members under the age of 36 joined as a result of STSC ­activities,” Franzel says.

He also attributes this ­success to the center’s popular weekend racing program for locals and visitors, meetups, barbecues and other fun ways of getting out on the water in a non-racing environment.

“Sailing doesn’t always have to be competitive,” he says. “Getting people to engage with the local community is the best way to make them lifelong sailors. Retention is easy when people have fun and make friends.”

When the St. Thomas International Regatta rolls into town each year, Franzel is keen to get out on the water and mix it up with the region’s best sailors. Eighteen IC24s raced in the 2019 STIR, with competitors traveling in from the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico.

St. Thomas Sailing Center owns 10 IC24 keelboats for its sailing activities. The IC24, a modified J/24 hull with a Sonar-style deck layout, is completely local to the Caribbean and is the only one-design action in the region. Having won two Sonar world championships himself, Franzel considers one-design racing to be the peak of the sport.

"One-design is where it's at," he says. "When all the boats are the same, there are no excuses for going slow. If someone is faster, you need to figure out why. You can't just blame your rating, like many people often do when sailing the ­handicapped format."

When the St. Thomas International Regatta rolls into town each year, Franzel is keen to get out on the water and mix it up with the region’s best sailors. Eighteen IC24s raced in the 2019 STIR, with competitors traveling in from the U.S. ­mainland and Puerto Rico.

“We can offer ­mainlanders short-term memberships, which allows people to come down and use the boats for the event. After the winter months, many of them are super-excited to get back sailing. And here, the water is blue and warm and beautiful,” he says. “There’s no better place to sail in the world. It’s perfect down here.”

An individual IC24 charter fee for St. Thomas’s winter regatta is $2,200 for a boat with decent sails and $2,700 for a boat with new sails, which includes a practice day before the event and a 30-day membership in the St. Thomas YC. Franzel recommends booking early because with only 10 boats, charters get snatched up quick.

With any blissful sailing ­location, however, there’s usually a tradeoff. For the Caribbean, it’s hurricanes—and the past few years have been especially brutal. In early September 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through St. Thomas, causing island-wide blackouts, tearing up roads and devastating boatyards.

"The boats that were on ­trailers were blown onto their side[s] and tossed around like dice,” Franzel says. “The [IC24] fleet was totaled, and afterward the yacht club was ready to give up. But I got my friend, Chris Small, to come down from New England and help with the rebuild.”

Small and his team rented a wedding tent big enough to store two boats at a time. They worked around the clock for a month straight, bringing in pallets of supplies and equipment. By the time they were finished, the IC24s were like new.

“It’s like the resurrection story. It really inspired the club, and a lot of people on the island as well,” Franzel says. “It became a symbol of recovery. The Caribbean is a hearty region. People here have seen hurricanes before, and they’ll see them again. The key is to keep pushing forward.”

As we pull up to our mooring in front of the yacht club after our preregatta practice session, the hurricane becomes a distant memory. The refurbished boats float lazily on their anchor lines, steel drum music echoes out over the water, and the palm trees lean in the breeze. “Unfortunately, I’m all out of beer,” Franzel says, plucking the empties from the bilge. “Good thing there’s plenty on shore.”