With so many one-designs rolling around the Sunshine State these days, Florida is the undisputed epicenter of winter racing in the United States.
Tampa Bay? You betcha, just as it has been for decades with midwinter one-design battles waged from the iconic clubs of Davis Island and St. Petersburg. The action thus far has been up north at Davis Island, where the J/70s have been going at their winter series, but this weekend the fun shifts south to St. Petersburg for the Helly Hansen NOOD Regatta. The J/70s, while reigning as the big-fleet, however, will share the bay with one-design classes new and old.
We’ve got Lightnings, Sonars and S27.9s representing the old school, and on the more modern front, look to the Flying Tiger sportboats, the Melges 24s and the A Class catamaran set with its dual-identity of classics and foilers sailing alongside each other (and scored separately).
Of note is the return of the Melges 24 class, which has been enjoying a resurgence of its among among Corinthian owners and blossoming regional fleets. For local Melges 24 owner JA Booker, it’s a resurgence he’s happy to be part of. Eight or nine years ago, he says, there might have been as many as 45 teams, but some years there weren’t any. This weekend, he’ll have nine others to race alongside, including a few teams making a migration north from this past winter’s Melges 24 World Championship in Miami.
Booker raced the worlds himself, with a family campaign that included his son, 24, on the helm and his 20-year-old daughter on the bow. His boat is old, he says, but the experience was excellent, except the long motors in and out to the racecourse.
He’s looking forward to the shorter commutes in St. Petersburg, and with an eye on the forecast, he anticipates a “fun day” on Saturday and a bit of a drifter on Sunday. But this time of year, the breeze is dictated by movements of the fronts, so we’ll see how the next one passes through.
This weekend, Booker’s son is back to work, so he’s bringing in two sailors from nearby Eckerd College, one of whom will drive. At 6’4″ and 210 pounds, Booker is happy to call tactics from the middle of the boat, trim the spinnaker and serve as “chief righting moment.”
For the S2s, 2017’s overall champion John Spierling will be back to defend, surrounded by the usual suspects of the fleet, all of whom travel from far and wide to race in St. Petersburg. Spierling has been darn near impossible to beat, so this year organizers have added a twist their series by allowing open coaching during Friday’s races. Roving the course will be North Sails’ Chuck Allen, providing boatspeed and sail trim tips to everyone. The coaching will be followed up by onshore video and photo debriefs.
It will definitely help the fleet, says Spierling who admits that maybe he does have a bit of an extra gear upwind. “Maybe it’s how we trim the boat,” he says, “and how we get around the corners better.” The later, he adds, is because he has a deep crew pool that knows what they’re doing on the boat, making maneuvers smooth and consistent.
As the fleet spark plug, he’s also partially responsible for get-togethers, which he says can be challenging in St. Petersburg due to its abundance of bars and nightlife. They’ve tried quite a few haunts over the years to serve as the unofficial southern outpost of the S2 fleet, but have yet to find the ideal spot. The search, he says, will continue.
In the meantime, Wednesday will be spent rigging the boat again after the haul south from Shelby Township, Michigan, followed by a day of practice on Thursday to get back into the racing rhythm. Their class championship was in Racine last September, so this will be the first gathering of the S2 class for 2017, of which he’s looking forward to.
The Lightning’s have a new addition this year with the arrival of class legend Ched Proctor, who will assuredly give last year’s winner Michael Zonnenberg a run for his money. Zonnenberg is liking the light-air forecast, he says, because his team is on the light side, and his boat is new to him.
“I got into the fleet in 2014 with a lent a boat and came into the fleet,” says Zonnenberg, who’s family roots run deep in the class history. “Two years later, I got a good deal on this boat and jumped on it, bringing it down from Montreal, [Canada].”
Along with Proctor, Zonnenberg, will face many others who have been racing a lot so far this winter at the various Lightning regattas in Florida, and he’s got a new middle crew, so he admits he’s a bit anxious—that and he’s been busy at work as a 24-year-old manufacturing engineer with Honeywell. “Ched’s been sailing a lot lately, so he’ll be well practiced,” says Zonnenberg. “I have sailed against him a bunch, but only wish I asked him more questions about the boat.”
He’ll have his chance come Thursday when the fleet assembles for registration, with racing on Friday through Sunday for everyone.