St. Pete To Shine Again

The Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series 2024 kicks off in St. Petersburg with a packed Tampa Bay.
2022 Star Class Vintage Gold Cup
Nothing is better in a breeze than a Melges 24. The Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg will be the class’s Midwinter Championship. Walter Cooper

The St. Petersburg Yacht Club and the western shore of Florida’s Tampa Bay will be the epicenter of sailboat racing this weekend when more than 240 teams across 13 one-design classes and five handicap-racing fleets get races started for the first event of the national Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Now well into its third decade, the regatta will also mark 10 years with its title sponsor.

The Sunshine City’s motto is that St. Pete is “Always in Season,” and that is certainly the enticement for many teams traveling in from colder climes with the promise of warm breezes, stiff competition and a nightlife that’s never been more vibrant.

One such northerner is David Mierzwa, of Lake Placid, New York, who on Tuesday was behind the wheel and racing to get south of a big storm burying the mid-Atlantic and Northeast in snow and ice. Behind him was bitter cold, but ahead of him was warmth and the anticipation of his first Melges 24 Midwinter Championship at the regatta.

As a newbie to the demanding Melges 24, Mierzwa says his primary goal is to “stay out of everybody’s way,” but ultimately, he and his teammates are on a mission to learn the nuances of this high-performance keelboat from his peers.

“We’re going so we can hunt for tips, tricks and whatever makes us better,” Mierzwa says. “It’s about having the opportunity to do an event of this caliber with likeminded people, because while sailing is the goal, being surrounded by others that do the same sport is sometimes better than the sport itself.”

As the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg will be his team’s first major event, he recognizes they don’t have a high enough racing pedigree to vie for the Midwinter Championship title—yet. “The only way we can get to that point is to go out there and race,” he says.

And race they will, from early Friday morning through late Sunday, alongside several other one-design classes that are the regulars of this February classic, including the S2 7.9s and the Hobie 33s, both of which will also be vying for their midwinter championship titles. 

2022 Star Class Vintage Gold Cup
A pair of Hobie 33s round the leeward gate at the 2023 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petetsburg. Walter Cooper

The S2s have the returning champions of Tom and Mary Bryant’s “Team Matros” from Holland, Michigan, which won seven of eight races in 2023 to earn their berth at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Caribbean Championship last October. At each of the series’ five events one team is selected to compete in the British Virgin Islands for the overall season title.

The Hobie 33s also have their champions returning to defend— Craig and Deborah Wilusz’s “Hoof Hearted”—but this year there’s a new and unknown challenger from Waxhaw, North Carolina, and it’s a boat with a nefarious name: “Bad Bunny.” Its new owner, Sean Rhone, says he’s looking forward to meeting and racing with other Hobie 33 owners for the first time and “taking a peek under their hoods.”

Rhone has been primarily racing his Hobie 33 in singlehanded events and low-key races on North Carolina’s Lake Norman, and like Mierzwa, he’s not sure how well he’ll fare, especially with a five-person team that’s been assembled by way of social media message boards, and whom he’s never met.

“It’s cold in Charlotte,” Rhone says, “and I’m getting tired of the cold weather, so when I saw that the fleet was having its midwinters in St. Petersburg, I thought it would be nice to go and race against some other Hobie 33s for once.”

The sexy singlehander known as the Contender. Life on the wire is better at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

Mierzwa and Rhone may pass each other on an interstate somewhere on the way to St. Pete, along with a sizable Canadian contingent of Contender dinghy sailors making their annual pilgrimage from across the northern border. The 16-foot Contender, which its loyalists claim to be “The Sexiest Singlehander in the World ” was introduced in 1969 and continues to be popular internationally, as well as in Tampa thanks to local sailmaker Ethan Bixby. Bixby, a champion of many classes, continues to rally the troops to the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta and the fleet has doubled for this year’s gathering. Bixby, who won all races last year, will of course be among the 11 trapezing sailors.

Sharing the same racecourse will be eight teams racing the doublehanded Windmill class, which is new to the regatta lineup, but another cult classic sparked in the 1950s. Class measurer Pat Huntley, of Erie, Pennsylvania, is now a decade into Windmill racing, and says he’s eager to enjoy some fast sailing in St. Pete and good times with his fellow Windmillers. “It’s such a fun and cool group,” Huntley says. “And the Windmill is such a bad-ass skinny and fast boat. It can handle the chop easily and is really fast.” 

Five teams racing in the 20-foot Flying Dutchman class (first built in 1951) will hail from California to Tennessee and hosted by local FD ace, Lin Robson, the 2023 class winner. The doublehanded bonanza, however, will be the Melges 15 class, which will feature an impressive 31 teams, nearly double from 2023. The new one-design class has exploded in popularity across the country since its introduction three years ago, and midwinter regattas elsewhere in Florida have maxed out at nearly 100 boats.

Melges 15 class
The Melges 15 class continues its boom at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

Among the Melges 15 ranks in St. Petersburg will be New York’s Iris Vogel, who has traditionally raced the regatta with her larger one-design keelboats over the years (a Soverel 33 and a J/88, both named “Deviation”). Vogel is now enjoying the challenge of big-fleet racing and exhilarating downwind sailing.

Racing with her partner, Tim Longo, Vogel helms and Longo handles the front of the boat, and over the past year they’ve been working their way up the scoreboard, but have a long way to go to the top. “This is a totally new thing to sail in such a big fleet,” Vogel says. “J/88 events typically get a dozen boats at best, and the racing is much slower paced. The tactics are completely different and boats are fast downwind so it’s a ton of fun, but we are still learning a different style of racing. Having the smaller fleet [at the Helly Hansen Regatta] will give us a chance to work on our boatspeed.”

While the out-of-town armada is significant, local sailors look forward to the regatta every year, especially Tampa Bay’s PHRF sailors who’ve made the event a key fixture in their Suncoast Boat of the Year Series. For these fleets, which now comprise the regatta’s largest group with 38 entries across four divisions (Spinnaker, Non-Spinnaker, Racer-Cruiser and Cruising) organizers have added two days of long-course racing over the weekend. Depending on the wind strength and direction of the day, the race committee will plot a daylong course to test each team’s navigational and sailing skills, as well as their perseverance and desire to be first to the dock and first to the yacht club bar.

Robert De Moss’s crew on the Beneteau 33 Kelly set the kite after the start of a long-course race at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg in 2023. Walter Cooper

Local sailor Tim Landt, who has been an active sailor on the Tampa Bay waterfront for decades, is a registered competitor in the Cruising division in his new-to-him Nightwind 35, “Charisma.” He’s excited to see the regatta’s blossoming distance-race fleet and says the local growth and interest in racing older-generation yachts is good for the sport and for the Tampa Bay racing scene.

But it’s not all classic plastics in the distance fleet. In the Racer-Cruiser division will be the sparkling new Neo 43, owned by Ken Mungan of nearby Isles Yacht Club in Punta Gorda, Florida. Mungan purchased his sleek Italian-built 43-footer in 2022 with big plans to take on a few of the sport’s marque distance races, and local events like the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta offer he and his team an opportunity to learn the boat in a racing environment.

A Class Catamaran Midwinter champion Cam Farrah at the 2023 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

“When I turned 40 I needed a hobby and took up sailing,” Munger says. “I’m always trying new things and got into racing 2019. I did the Melges 24 for a while, but the Neo, because it’s a shallow-draft boat, allows me to do more local long-distance racing and we’re learning a lot.”

For this weekend’s regatta, Munger has more crew lined up than there are roles on the boat, but that’s fine with him. “We’re going to be overloaded, and I am anticipating a level of skill and organization that we don’t quite have yet,” he admits. “We’ll have two coaches and a new set of racing jibs that will be used for the first time, so it will be fun, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Trimaran in St. Pete
Weta Trimarans revel in the Tampa Bay conditions in 2023. Walter Cooper

While the long-course racers are making their way around the bay, closer to shore, will be the multihulls: the high-tech A Class Catamarans, which have two divisions (Classic and Foiling) totaling 33 competitors, and the Weta Trimarans, with a smaller contingent from years past, return with nine boats, and among them is two-time defending champion and local Pete Merrifield looking for a three-peat.

David Starck and crew
David Starck and his teammates keep the flow, en route to finishing second in the Lightning division at the 2023 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

         The iconic Lightning Class is one of the regatta’s largest one-design fleets, with 25 boats, five of which will be raced by members of the Starck family with a few world champions among them. Hall of Famer, Augie Diaz, of Miami, and Ched Proctor, of Southport, Connecticut, both world champions as well, always add to the high level of racing and camaradarie Lightning sailors enjoy all winter. The Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg is a key warm-up event for the Lightning class’s hotly-contested two-regatta Southern Circuit with March events in St. Pete and Miami.

J/24 fleet
J/24s arrive at the gate at the 2023 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta in St. Petersburg. Walter Cooper

Sharing one racing circle immediately off the city front will be the 29-boat J/70 fleet and a reemergent J/24 fleet, both of which will no doubt provide quality racing for both professional and amateur sailors. The same will be true for the ever-competitive ORC fleet, with 11 entries, which will be racing further south. Bill and Jackie Baxter’s J/111 “Fireball,” from Stamford, Connecticut, which has won all of its events this winter will return to defend its 2023 ORC title, which it earned with ease, winning seven of eight races.