Emmanuel Cerf has a goal: “200 boats and 20 countries.” It’s stated so, right there on the custom business card he hands me at St. Petersburg, Florida’s North Park where nearly 40 A Class catamaran are being assembled for this weekend’s Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta St. Petersburg. Here, on the grassy bayside lawn, boats, masts and trailers are strewn about, and Cerf is making the rounds, greeting sailors as they arrive, making sure all is OK.
Soft-spoken, with a warm, welcoming and twinkling smile, he has quick answers for anyone who approaches: boat logistics, parking, parties, and parts, you name it, Cerf can help. He’s an unsung puppeteer of A class sailing, and his focus this weekend is not on his own sailing, but rather as the organizing force behind the 2020 A Class World Championship in St. Petersburg. He has high-level meetings with city officials coming up and he has to strengthen his pitch.
Cerf, who’s one of the principles of a local family-owned mechanical engineering and packaging business, is also a notorious charitable fundraiser in the city. “My wife and I jokingly called the ‘beggars of St. Petersburg,’” he says, “because we’re always asking for money for this and that.”
Nowadays, he’s shoring up support of his big dream regatta. “My priority is on the 2020 Worlds, so the sailing is secondary for me right now,” Cerf says. “It takes so much work to organize a worlds, to make it very successful, but this will be very successful.”
Success, he says, will be nothing short of a world championship the likes the class has never before seen. He wants it to have the same energy and excitement he gets when sailing an A class cat. “When I first saw one, I was like ‘Wow. That looks like too much fun. I’m going to have one in a year.’
True to his word, he did buy one, and he vividly remembers his first regatta, or rather seeing a lot of the bottom of his boat. Undeterred, he’s since become a fine A class catamaran sailor, an importer, and one of its greatest champions. “They’re hard to sail fast, but they’re easy to sail,” he says.
And while the experience of sailing an A class catamaran from out on the trapeze alone, gliding across the bay on a 165-pound craft is second to none, Cerf says it’s the people he’s befriended in the class that excite him today. These are his people, I’m told, and he treats them as family. He’s known to buy regatta social tickets for all the sailors, just make sure everyone can get into to the regatta’s nightly parties.
“It’s a great mix of sailors, from teens to 85-year-old guys,” Cerf says. “I bought my first boat from a guy who is 82 and still goes out on the boat. The young guys foil very well, but the older guys in the classics are actually more competitive than the foilers. It’s an amazing group and it shows anyone can sail the boat.”
As importer of eXploder A cats, Cerf is the man to turn to for parts and spares, especially in a pinch. Mike Krantz, a cat-sailing fanatic from Lake Lanier, Georgia, can share plenty examples of Cerf’s generosity and his importance to the growth and sustainability of A Class catamaran sailing in the Southeast. As Krantz and a team of sailors unload six boats from a trailer under the warm Florida sun, he takes a break to share just one: “When we were heading to Australia for the Worlds we knew the manufacturer was going to be short on spares,” Krantz tells me. “So, Emmanuel, out of the goodness of his heart, emptied out his warehouse and gave us all his spare foils, rudders and parts, and put them in container, sent us off to Australia and told us to just settle up when we got back.”
Cerf loves his city and all its cultural offerings, and has a vision to integrate its fast-paced waterfront development for his world championship. Between North Park where the A cats assemble and launch and St. Petersburg YC to the south, sits the city’s monumental New Pier development, which is schedule to be completed by early 2020.
“The pier is key,” says Cerf, who envisions a world championship race village featuring sailing demos, a big screen with race videos and stage for the winner’s podium so competitors “can come in and talk about the sailing with people who’ve never sailed before.”
Cerf, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to work the cumbersome cogs of local government. Like his first outing in an A class cat, however, he remains undeterred. There are many hurdles, he says, especially when working with the city and the parks department for permitting and securing waterfront access, but knows people, including the current mayor, Rick Krisman, who sees as a strong ally for sailing events in St. Petersburg. Then, there’s the sponsorship, which he admits is a relentless pursuit. “I’ve been recruiting sponsors for a couple of years and now it’s in high gear because we need $100,000 to $200,000 to put on a great venue for the sailors,” Cerf says. “We want to do a race village like a mini America’s Cup here. Everything is possible so, hopefully we’ll have the America’s Cup of the A class.”
The funding necessary to launch Cerf’s world-class regatta may be the pressing challenge, but attracting up to 200 international competitors is not, he says. “Once sailors come to St. Pete, they love it here, but we do have to market it still and get sponsors. I want to hold the best regatta of any class, and we want to set the bar really high.”
Until then, he’s doing his thing at the NOOD. Being Emmanuel. Ensuring the sailors arriving from near and far have what they need. “It’s a fun group of people,” he says. “They’re customers, and customers want service. If you don’t have it, you can’t grow anything.”