One For the Books in St. Petersburg

A big turnout, lively parties and great racing. It's what to expect at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg.

Twenty-six-year-old skipper Ed Lebens and his teammates on the J/70 Reggae Shark arrived at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club marina on Sunday morning with a clear plan for the final day of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series: to cover their rivals while carefully defending their lead in the ultra-competitive and pro-laden class.

The team’s primary focus was keeping tabs on Bruce Golison’s Midlife Crisis, 14 points in arrears. “We had a pretty healthy gap so we really just going to try not have a shocker and sail our own race,” says the young professional sailor from Oyster Bay, New York.

sailboats racing in florida, with crew action and focus
Ed Lebens (skipper) and his crew on Reggae Shark exit the leeward gate at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. After 8 races, the young team earned the win in particularly tough fleet. Walter Cooper

When the wind failed to materialize across Tampa Bay, however, race committees across all four of the race circles pulled the plug and sent competitors to shore. “We were OK with it,” Lebens said a grin as he and teammates packed the boat at the St. Petersburg YC Sailing Center.

Onboard with Lebens for the regatta were teammates Malcolm Lamphere, Scott Ewing and US Sailing Team 49er skipper Ian Barrows. Sailing together for the first time in their positions on the boat, they had a good start to the series with a ninth in the first race, but then logged top-five finishes over the next seven races, a streak that was highlighted by a surprise win in the last, and fourth, race of the day on Friday.

“We got a third in that race, but the two boats that finished in front of us were both UFD [disqualified for starting early], so out of a 50-boat fleet…the odds of that happening is pretty amazing. We were fired up about that and it was good way to end the first day.”

Lebens’ summary of his team’s success was straightforward: “Clean starts, being conservative and not committing to a side until the top of the beat, and just having fun with my friends.”

sailboats rounding a mark in florida with action on the foredeck
Tom and Mary Bryant’s Matros (No. 520) in the mix in the S2 7.9 action at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Matros would go on to win its class and the berth at the Caribbean Championship. Walter Cooper

The same was true for Tom and Mary Bryant on their S2 7.9 Matros. The team from Holland, Michigan, was only beat in one of eight races in the 13-boat fleet, and as the winner of their class they earned the S2 7.9 Midwinter Championship title and were later selected as the regatta’s overall winner, earning them a berth at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Caribbean Championship in the British Virgin Islands.

With Tom on the helm and Mary managing the middle of the boat, this close-knit crew was clearly the fastest S2 7.9 on the course all weekend. “Good sails, good crew work and knowing how to tune the boat and sails for the conditions,” was Tom Bryant’s assessment of his team’s win. “I’m not very good in the lighter winds, so the 8 to 15 knots of breeze we had this weekend was fantastic for me and the boat. When we can get out front and get clear air we’re faster.”

With the low-wind cancellation of races across all 14 classes, Saturday’s overall results stood firm, with skippers Michael Norris and Pete Merrifield winning the L30 and Weta North American championship titles, respectively and Steve Boho’s The 300 winning the Melges 24 Midwinter Championship title.

The St. Petersburg Regatta also featured an eclectic mix of one-design dinghy classes that included the classic doublehanded Flying Dutchman and Contender classes, both won by veteran sailmakers that have long been champions of these and other legacy classes. Lin Robson, with crew James Nunn, won five of seven races in the five-boat FD fleet, and after racing confirmed that St. Petersburg YC would be hosting the 2024 FD World Championships next March, the fourth time since 1962.

Kevin and Celeste Alcock, of Fontana, Wisconsin, enjoy fresh conditions on Saturday at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

While Robson was happy to walk away with the win, he’s a perfectionist, and the first of two second-place finishes over the weekend was still nagging at him as he derigged his FD on Sunday afternoon. “We were an inch off in our timing in releasing the pole,” he recounted, “When you’re pulling on the retriever, you want to wait until the head is in a certain proximity to the horizontal to keep the clews spread, but you have to have the [spinnaker] pole out of there at that time because another inch down, the tension locks it in the launcher. So, as the seconds were ticking by and the end of the runway was coming…we took that gate a little too wide.”

Ethan Bixby had no such misfortunes in his Contender singlehander and was one of only two entries to post a perfect scoreline over the weekend. The other was Michael and Christina Norris’ Morning Breeze in the L30 One Design fleet, which hosted its first-ever North American Championship. Most of the L30s were raced by teams chartering as a turnkey way to race in St. Petersburg, but the Norris family has owned theirs for a year and their team’s experience in the boat was notable, particularly in boathandling around the course.

“We had the advantage of knowing the boat and that paid off,” Michael Norris says. “We were able to do things in a manner we’d experienced before, unlike some of the other teams.”

The Norris’ also had professional sail designer and J/24 World Champion Mike Marshall onboard to in a coaching role to help refine the program. The Norris’ have sailed together for 43 years, says Christina, starting from Lightnings, and they’re continually learning with the new boat.

“Mike gave us crew discipline and showed us how to anticipate what we were going to do and making sure we were ready, to change sails, tack or whatever,” Michale says, “and it was a great opportunity for him to design some sails for us.”

J24s approaching a race mark with spinnakers flying.
Mike Quaid’s J/24 Ice Cube (No. 49) leads into the leeward mark at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

A new feature for the Regatta Series in St. Petersburg was addition of two days of weekend distance racing for the Tampa Bay’s strong and diverse PHRF fleet, and L30s participated in the distance race on Saturday, the windiest of day of the regatta, which provided the Norris’ with a memorable and long day of fast sailing. “That was really fun,” says Christina Norris. “And it was a good learning experience for the team, working together to bringing the spinnaker and main. We tried to focus on the boat and keeping the speed up for the duration and that was important.”

The other North American champion crowned over the weekend was Peter Merrifield in the 19-boat Weta Trimaran fleet. Merrifield, of St. Petersburg, won five of seven races, and with runner-up and rival Keith Rice winning the other two races, resulting in a 4-point delta.

catamarans racing in st. petersburg with crew hanging on trapeze wires off the sides of the high-performance cats
A Class Catamarans start a race on Saturday at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

On the same circle, the two divisions of A Class Catamarans—Classic and Foiling—sailed together but scored separately. In the Classics, Woody Cope led after the first day’s moderate-wind races, but in the small-craft-warning conditions on Saturday, it was all OH Rodgers who posted three race wins to take the series by a single point over Chris Brown who had strong first day (with two race wins). Of the Foilers, Larry Woods, of Ontario, Canada, was the top gun, edging out young Cam Farrah, the top female of the fleet.

In the 21-boat Lightning fleet, which featured a number all-stars and luminaries of sailing, as well as several youth teams, it was professional sailor and multiple class champion Jay Lutz with Jody Lutz and Christine Moloney, edging out world champion skipper David Starck (with crew Tom Starck and Jenna Probst) by slim 2 points. Third was Hall of Famer Augie Diaz.  

Lorie Stout and Sunrae Sturmer topped the 18-boat Melges 15 fleet by a single point over Fred Schroth and crew Abby Brown, and in the J/24s, Mike Quad’s Ice Cube won all but one race to close series with only 12 points after 8 races. In the two-boat Sonar fleet, Kevin Holmberg’s Fawkes went undefeated, and in the three-boat Waszp fleet, Izaak Beekman finished the series one point ahead of Maya Kwasniewski, of Sarasota, who won all three races on the windier of the two days.

The Melges 24s hosted their Midwinter Championships with Steve Boho’s “The 300” running away with the title with a 12-point delta, and in the Hobie 33s, Craig and Deborah Wilusz’s Hoof Hearted, from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, dominated the races by winning all but one of their eight races. After racing, Craig Wilusz shared that the class would use the 2024 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series St. Petersburg for its Midwinter Championship, which will draw more of these cult classics from across the country.

two sailboats racing side by side in strong winds in florida
Ira Vogel’s team on the J/88 Deviation charges upwind at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg, competing in the regatta’s ORC B division. Walter Cooper

The ORC circle had featured two divisions and it was a battle between to well-practiced J/111 programs in ORC A that went the way of Bill and Jackie Baxter’s team on Fireball, from Stamford, Connecticut. After finishing second to Seth and Kevin Young’s J/111 Black Seal in the regatta’s opening race, the Baxter’s laid down a perfect scoreline that remain untouched when the wind didn’t show on the final day. In ORC B, one point was the difference between Jeff Sampson’s Nelson/Marek 29 Peacemaker and William Purdy’s J/88 Whir­lwind.

The intent was to provide two days of action for the distance racing teams, and while the race committee attempted to get a race off in the remnants of an early morning breeze on Sunday morning, they abandoned it shortly thereafter, leaving the results from Saturday’s long courses as final: Michael Siedlecki’s winged Martin 243 revelled in the windy conditions to win the PHRF Spinnaker division while Charles Mixon’s Nightwind 35 Red Sky claimed PHRF Cruising A. Dave Roberts’ Catalina 310 Legacy won PHRF Cruising B and Gail Hausler’s Beneteau 40 Liquid Time was the top PHRF Cruiser/Racer.