St. Pete is Going to Sizzle

All indications are the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series' kick off in St. Petersburg is going to be hot. And we're not just talking about the weather.

Buckle up sailors. When the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series kicks off its 2023 national tour in St. Pete it’s going to be a wild one. What’s on tap, other than Mount Gay Rum? Well, a lot, so let’s get to it.

Fifty J/70s will go for glory. That’s right: 50 teams, and most of them are laden with day-rate talent as the professional programs dial-in their St. Pete local knowledge for the J/70 World Championship in October. Yes, the Worlds are a long way off, but that’s the commitment these teams have to win what is arguably the most difficult one-design keelboat title of modern times.

How tough will it be? We put the question to Quantum Sails’ Scott Nixon, who tells us there’s always been two distinct camps in the J/70 class, especially in Florida during the winter. Nowadays you’ll find highly skilled amateurs racing the Davis Island YC Winter Series while down south in Miami the top-shelf pro teams put their elbows out. What will make this particular St. Pete regatta “interesting,” Nixon says, is the merging of the two worlds.

J/70 fleet in St. Petersburg
J/70s, as always, enjoy close racing as teams battle for lanes and clear air off the starting line at the 2022 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg. Paul Todd/Outside Images

Sure, it’ll be tough for everyone with a J/70 insignia on their sail, especially given the Tampa Bay racecourse is relatively compact, and plenty busy with other classes.

Of course, “clear air is the priority,” Nixon says. A good start gets you to the first shift. Simple as that.

Another winning tip, he shares, is the 2.0 move with the wing-on-wing technique: The good guys, he says, will immediately and temporarily go to wing after rounding the offset in order to set up in a more open lane and separate from the reach parade (if they’re buried). It’s very effective in the right conditions, especially on a busy course.

Speaking of action-packed racecourses, let’s next move our attention to the multihulls—more specifically the A Cats and Weta Trimarans. The As have two divisions—classic and foiling—and will share the same waters with the Wetas. These colorful and nimble trimarans swarmed to the regatta last year for the first time and have returned to contest their 2023 North American Championship. There are 23 of them registered at the time of this writing. There was no 2022 championship because Hurricane Ian destroyed their planned venue in Port Charlotte, so the last time these three-hull fanatics gathered was in 2021 on Michigan’s Muskegon Lake. Keith Rice, of Ithaca, New York, was third, and with the national champion absent from this year’s championship regatta, he’s got a good shot at laying claim to the throne.

Weta Trimaran class
The Weta Trimaran class will host its North American Championship at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series St. Petersburg. Paul Todd/Outside Images

The Wetas and A Cats will be staging from the grassy knoll of North Beach Park, which is like a streetcar meetup before and after racing. Anyone looking to check out the latest foiling hardware and talk shop with the tweakers of solo-cat sailing, this is the place to go. Ben Hall, our 2022 regatta’s overall winner and silver fox of the class is MIA in the scratch sheet, but there are plenty of others willing to take his place at the front of the classic fleet, including the legendary Woody Cope, who won a handful of races last year, but had to eat too much alphabet soup.

Who will be the hottest foiler among the lot of them? Impossible to say. Rolex Yachtsman of the Year and A Cat world champ Ravi Parent will be making a brief appearance in the park ahead of the action on Thursday, but he has commitments elsewhere, so all is for the taking for Mike Christensen on the Ronstan yacht. Or perhaps young Cam Farrah, who’s been foiling all winter long on her A Cat and the 69Fs in Miami.

St. Petersburg YC marina
The docks at the St. Petersburg YC marina are quiet only after hours. Paul Todd/Outside Images

Leaving our multihulls, we continue the fleet tour with the dinghies: namely the Melges 15s, Lightnings, Waszps, Flying Dutchman and Contenders. How’s that for a slice of the small-boat sailing scene? The Dutchman and Contender harken from yesteryear, classic plastics that continue to attract the diehards of old-school one-designs. These boats were once super cool and remain so today, as do the Lightnings from all over the continent and ever present in Florida as they transverse the state for their midwinter series. The Melges 15s, sailing’s latest doublehanded phenom, have been enjoying massive gatherings in Jensen Beach, and as a boat perfectly built for fun coed and family racing, in St. Pete may well win the award for the best Mixed-Plus turnout.

The rebirth of the Melges 24 class to its Corinthian happy place continues, and for St. Pete, 10 teams will line up for the Midwinter Championship. It’s a smaller gathering than years past, but like many other classes, the Melges 24s, have been active in Miami so many boats are staying put for their next regatta in March. Plus, the pros only have so many days available. Nonetheless, past St. Pete overall winner and local favorite, Gary Schwarting’s Obsession, is ready to welcome his friends from the crucible of Miami for a few laps around the buoys that should be just a touch more tranquilo.

The Helly Hansen Sailing World St. Petersburg Regatta would not be the same without the hard-charging S2 7.9 entourage, which continues their tradition of an annual midwinter pilgrimage from parts north and west. Fifteen of these classic one-designs are on the scratch sheet, including Tom Bryant’s Matros, which practically ran away with the regatta last year (winning five of 8 races).

Hobie 33 fleet
The classic Hobie 33 fleet gathers several times a year, and the St. Petersburg assembly is always a highlight of the class calendar. Paul Todd/Outside Images

While we’re on the topic of classics—we celebrate the slick Hobie 33s, back again with their long, slender lines and overlapping genoas, managed by teams keeping this class alive and active well past its sell-by date. Same for the J/24 teams that migrate from points north, including past regatta winner Michael Quaid’s Ice Cube from Williston, Vermont. Quaid’s no fool: the weather is always better in St. Pete in February. Even if you do like skiing, the sailing will be better in T-Shirts and jammers.

To reinforce the point that the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series is no longer one-design exclusive, take note that we once again have a gangbuster ORC contingent that is an eclectic mix of designs from 25 to 36 feet, with both ORC A and B champions on deck to defend their 2022 titles.

L30 One-Designs
L30 One-Designs will race both buoy and long-course races at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Paul Todd/Outside Images

Did we forget anyone? Not at all. Your attention is drawn here to the L30 One-Design’s road warriors that have been moving these innovative raceboats around the country on trailers to share the stoke of L30 racing while championing the heroics of boat builders in Ukraine that continue to produce under historical duress. Three teams from Chicago’s Corinthian YC have taken to L30 charters for easy plug-and-play racing that will include buoy races and a distance race on Saturday.

Speaking of which, the goal of updating the one-day Rally race concept has resonated with the Tampa Bay PHRF rank and file, and we have a record turnout of 40 cruisers and racers that will enjoy long-course bay races on Saturday and Sunday, racking up the miles and returning to marina just in time for the parties, which will no doubt be rowdy as the last.

ORC fleet at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg
On the rail and in the sunshine, a great place to be in the ORC fleet at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Paul Todd/Outside Images

There will be drinks and fun and games, and music and awards, and one special conversation with Terry Hutchinson, skipper of the New York YC’s American Magic. As our guest in the hot seat on Friday night, we’ll get to hear firsthand what’s happening behind the curtain in Pensacola. We’re liking the wind forecast at the moment. We know for sure the air and sea will be warm, and the rest, we guarantee, will be sizzling.