Detroit Racing On the Rise With Regatta Series

The Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series returns to Detroit as the city and the local sailing scene is on the rise.
Detroit NOOD 2007 Day 2
Melges 24s race at the 2007 NOOD Regatta in Detroit. Tony Bessinger

There are two hot items off the Detroit news wire this year. Let’s start with the big one: the reversal of six decades of population decline. Resurget cineribus, indeed. Then came word that America’s biggest and longest running regatta series was returning to the Motor City. What was once the National Offshore One Design Regatta when last held in 2010 is now the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series Detroit.

Like Detroit’s population, sailboat racing on Lake St. Claire is also on the rise. Resurgent navigare, if you will. That’s according to Charlie Hess, an avid one-design sailor and treasurer of the all-seeing Detroit Regional Yacht Racing Association. Hess is one of ten J/120 owners who will be racing the Detroit edition of the Regatta Series over the last weekend in May.

“Participation in all of our events was dropping dramatically,” Hess says. He himself was once in the mix of the nearly 200 boats that would gather to race on any given Saturday during the short season. “It was huge in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it just started going down and down and down.”

Just before the COVID pandemic struck, he says, they were lucky to get 30 boats to show up, and even those were spread across six different types of classes.The Association has been tackling the decline through a number of initiatives, however, and Hess is now bullish on the region’s resurgence.

“Detroit is lucky to have 12 events that are run well and have good infrastructure,” he says. “We’ve got robotic marks, we’ve streamlined our courses and classes. A year ago, we bought in ORC as a standalone class and now we have three ORC classes; A B and C. That was what the sailors wanted and we’re seeing a real and positive trajectory for sailboat racing in Detroit. It’s all on the up.”

Mix of Classes For Regatta Series in Detroit

The Regatta Series’ reunion with its former hosts at the Bayview Yacht Club and its storied clubhouse on the Detroit River, is a long time coming. In the heydays of the nine-event NOOD Regatta Series, this Great Lakes stop was remarkable—and memorable—for its eclectic mix of larger keelboats and level-rated classes, its “warhorses,” emerging one-design sportboats and the classic plastics, the likes of the C&C 35s, Cal25s and Crescents, to name a few. The bigger boats of the era came with sizable crews and their thirst ashore was unquenchable. It was a good run until the club brought the regatta in-house in 2011 with the creation of its own weekend event, the Bayview One Design Regatta, locally referred to as the “BOD.”

The event management team of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series (SWRS) is going all in to bolster Detroit’s season-starting regatta, with Bayview hosting three nights of post-race parties and awards and working with other area yacht clubs for race committee resources on the water. Three race circles spread out across Lake St. Clair will accommodate nine one-design classes (J/111, J/120, J/70, J/35, Tartan 10, Santana 35, Melges 24, Melges 15, Cal 25) and one ORC fleet for buoy racing. Nearly 30 ORC and PHRF distance-race entries will sail long courses over the weekend, with many of these teams honing skills and sails for this summer’s monumental 100th running of the Bayview to Mackinac Race.

J-111 class on Lake St. Clair
The J/111 fleet is one of the emergent one-design classes on Lake St. Clair. Martin Chumiecki

The J/111 fleet, with seven entries at press time, is considered the grand-prix set of the regatta, and longtime local racer and class champion Ed Kriese, says he’s looking forward to mixing it with top-level visiting teams from Cleveland, especially Jeff Davis’ Shamrock, the benchmark team of the class these days. “We will be tuning with them,” Kriese says. “Our challenge is to be as fast as them, and it’s going to be fun.”

In preparing for the task ahead, Kriese’s team on Wildcat has been tutored by professional sailor and coach, Wally Cross, who’s name comes up often round the lakefront. He has a reputation for turning upstart teams into winning programs. With Cross onboard Wildcat in 2023, Kriese says, they were the team to beat, but this time, Cross is onboard Shamrock so they have their work cut out for them. Still, Kriese is excited to see—and be part of—the Detroit sailing scene’s turnaround and expects a renewed enthusiasm for the regatta with Bayview’s partnership with the Regatta Series.

Ted Pinkerton's Tartan 10 team on Perfect was the Detroit NOOD's Overall winner in 2009.
Overall winners from the 2009 Sperry Top-Sider Sailing World Archives

“Detroit sailing is definitely stronger today than it was a couple of years ago,” he says. “People are psyched that Helly is here as a sponsor and bringing the good schwag. The more focused teams like ours won’t be pounding the drinks like we used to, but we’ll cut loose on Sunday.”

Resurgent cupiditas