SWING­ING IN THE BURG

WHAT USED TO BE A SLEEPY WIN­TER RE­GATTA DES­TI­NA­TION IS NOW THE MOST HAP­PEN­ING PLACE IN WESTERN FLORIDA. BY DAVE REED, PHO­TOS BY PAUL TODD

Sailing World - - Swinging in the burg -

It was way back in 1998 when the NOOD Re­gatta first rolled into St. Peters­burg, Florida, a time now so long ago that most of us can hardly re­mem­ber what it was like. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s Mon­ica Lewin­sky scan­dal was just wind­ing up, Dale Earn­hardt was win­ning the Day­tona 500 on his 20th at­tempt and one-de­sign keel­boat rac­ing was on the up, with the emer­gent classes of the day be­ing the Corel 45s and the Mumm 30s. Race­boats were loaded with sailors will­ing to hike their butts off all day in a sim­ple open ex­change for rum, beer, crew gear and maybe a red Mount Gay ball cap.

The NOOD Re­gatta scene was an eclec­tic mix of new and old one-de­signs when 149 boats as­sem­bled at St. Peters­burg YC for that GMC Yukon/ Sail­ing World NOOD Re­gatta. We’re talk­ing Hen­der­son 30s, J/22s, J/24s and J/29s, and the “level rac­ing” classes. The mash-up of tran­sient 20- to 30-foot­ers trans­formed the ma­rina across the street from the big yacht club into what could pass to an un­sus­pect­ing passerby as a nau­ti­cal flea mar­ket, what with all the wet sail­ing gear hang­ing from life­lines and booms.

“This wasn’t your av­er­age club fleet,” is how the ed­i­tors of this mag­a­zine de­scribed it. “More than 100 en­tries came from places like Michi­gan, Texas and New York.”

Trai­ler­ing big keel­boats to Florida for a mid­win­ter re­gatta used to be a big deal. Nowa­days, with sport­boats prac­ti­cally liv­ing on their trail­ers year-round, and a slew of South­ern re­gat­tas that con­nect Mi­ami to parts north, keel­boat portage is the norm. While the classes have changed — level is now PHRF, and the J/70s and Melges 24s have usurped the Sonars in St. Peters­burg — the yacht club, with its busty fig­ure­head and stately yardarm wel­com­ing guests at the front door, hasn’t changed one iota. It’s been there long enough now to be con­sid­ered an iconic ar­chi­tec­tural fix­ture of the St. Peters­burg wa­ter­front. It doesn’t have the same stature or his­tory as the swanky Vi­noy ho­tel a few blocks down the street, but there are decades of Amer­i­can sail­ing his­tory right there be­hind its co­ral fa­cade.

The yacht club today holds its own as an epi­cen­ter of sail­boat rac­ing on Tampa Bay and con­tin­ues to breed world-class cham­pi­ons that fol­low in the foot­steps of its more no­table young stars of yes­ter­year, guys like Ed Baird and Mark Men­del­blatt. It’s also up­held its rep­u­ta­tion as a re­volv­ing door for one-de­sign classes big and small that snow­bird in Florida for mid­win­ter cham­pi­onships: Light­nings, Snipes, Op­ti­mists, This­tles, to name a few.

The big club­house, with its busy so­cial cal­en­dar, caters to an af­flu­ent pool of mem­bers who have ac­cess to a top-shelf Sun­day brunch, a cir­cu­lar sunken bar with croon­ing lounge singers on the week­ends and an out­door pool and tiki bar, as well as gi­ant ball­rooms for wed­dings and big re­gatta par­ties like the NOOD. All the es­sen­tials are there to sat­isfy the mem­bers’ an­nual dues. Plus, there’s a park­ing garage out back, as well as front-row seat­ing for the an­nual Indycar Fire­stone Grand Prix of St. Pete.

Across the street from the club, on De­mens Land­ing, is where the magic hap­pens though. The Sail­ing Cen­ter, a tall, white ware­house-look­ing struc­ture on city prop­erty, is prac­ti­cally a year-round hive. The club’s lease with the city stip­u­lates that the cen­ter pro­vide in­ex­pen­sive ac­cess to the wa­ter, which is darn near im­pos­si­ble to find in Florida th­ese days.

On any given day, the cen­ter has a steady flow of mem­ber and non­mem­ber kids in Op­tis, adults in clubowned J/70s, high school­ers in 420s and the city’s new mil­len­nial work­force dip­ping toes in one wa­ter­sport or an­other. Its staff and wa­ter­front team are young and much more in touch with the de­sires of com­peti­tors th­ese days, and as rac­ers them­selves, they know how to run a top-notch re­gatta on and off the wa­ter.

The scenery at the Sail­ing Cen­ter in Fe­bru­ary during the 2018 Helly Hansen NOOD Re­gatta isn’t much dif­fer­ent than it was when NOOD Re­gatta or­ga­niz­ers added the event to their se­ries as its sev­enth and only mid­win­ter stop. The trail­ers in the park­ing lot no longer have J/24s but J/70s, and the Light­nings have re­placed quite a few of the Sonars.

Yet, while much of the club and its sail­ing cen­ter’s ap­pear­ance re­main un­changed, what has been dra­mat­i­cally trans­formed over the past 20 years is the city of St. Peters­burg it­self. The place is hop­ping, and any­one who hasn’t been to a NOOD Re­gatta in two decades should pay a visit. Be pre­pared to be blown away. St. Pete is en­joy­ing an ex­plo­sive growth spurt, and like a hor­monal teenage boy, it’s only get­ting big­ger, more ma­ture and way more ac­tive af­ter dark.

If it isn’t al­ready, es­pe­cially with Key West Race Week on per­ma­nent hia­tus, St. Pete may just be the next great Amer­i­can re­gatta des­ti­na­tion. Sure, Mi­ami’s sail­ing con­di­tions might be bet­ter, but it comes with a price.

Plus, St. Peters­burg is sim­ply a friend­lier place to play.

“St. Peters­burg was, I’ll ad­mit, a dead city,” says Mayor Rick Krise­man. “There used to be two jokes about us. The first was that you could shoot a can­non down Cen­tral Av­enue and you wouldn’t hit any­thing or any­one, and the other was that the av­er­age age of our res­i­dents was ‘de­ceased.’”

The av­er­age age, he adds, is now 42.7, and it’s the No. 1 city in the state for mil­len­ni­als.

Krise­man is early into his sec­ond term when we meet, hav­ing re­cently eked out a “very ex­pen­sive” elec­tion over his Repub­li­can ri­val. His re-elec­tion is a good thing for sail­ing, and for the club, be­cause he’s keen to keep im­prov­ing his city’s wa­ter­front. Under Krise­man, the city has blos­somed fi­nan­cially and phys­i­cally, which one would think would bode well for an easy re-elec­tion, right? Not so, he says. “We had is­sues … with the sew­ers.”

When Hur­ri­cane Her­mine dumped its load of trop­i­cal mois­ture on the re­gion in Au­gust 2016, St. Peters­burg’s an­ti­quated sewage sys­tem purged more than a re­ported 230 mil­lion gal­lons back into wa­ter­ways. The en­su­ing pub­lic ou­trage spurred Krise­man’s gov­ern­ment into ac­tion. Mil­lions of dol­lars in grants are now in play, and big in­fra­struc­ture projects are un­der­way. Tampa Bay’s wa­ter qual­ity, and the preser­va­tion of St. Peters­burg’s wa­ter­ways in par­tic­u­lar, says Krise­man, is a pri­or­ity.

“It’s a unique time in the city right now,” he says. “And our wa­ter­front is the key driver. The com­mu­nity is in­cred­i­bly pro­tec­tive of the wa­ter­front, and they don’t let any­thing go with­out pay­ing care­ful at­ten­tion to it.”

The city is sur­rounded by about 244 miles of shore­line, and the stretch of east-fac­ing wa­ter­front, which spans from the Cof­fee Pot at its north­ern end to Lass­ing Park in the south, is un­der­go­ing a con­sid­er­able face-lift as part of a large-scale de­vel­op­ment plan. The vi­sion is to make the city a des­ti­na­tion ap­proach­able by wa­ter, rimmed by an in­ter­con­nected park sys­tem with wide­spread pub­lic ac­cess and green trans­porta­tion op­tions, which Krise­man says bodes well for at­tract­ing and cater­ing to fu­ture sail­ing events, such as the A Class Cata­ma­ran World Cham­pi­onships in 2020.

An­chor­ing the de­vel­op­ment is the com­ple­tion of what is cur­rently be­ing called the New Pier. The gaudy, space­ship-look­ing struc­ture that once jut­ted into the bay north of St. Peters­burg YC was de­mol­ished years ago, to the lo­cals’ de­light. Its re­place­ment is now fullpile-drive ahead, with a sched­uled open­ing in 2020. Green space and ob­ser­va­tion decks run­ning its length will make it a pleas­ant place for spec­tat­ing sail­boat races, and pro­vide a new at­trac­tion for vis­it­ing fam­i­lies and friends of com­peti­tors out on the wa­ter.

“Part of the rea­son for our growth over the past few years is the qual­ity of life,” says Krise­man. “It’s a down­town that’s walk­a­ble and bike­able, and be­ing on the wa­ter is a huge draw. Even the mayor of Tampa says he wishes they’d pro­tected their wa­ter­front like we have ours.”

Only a few blocks west of the New Pier, in the heart of down­town, the si­lence of an early Fe­bru­ary morn­ing is shat­tered at 7 a.m. with a ca­coph­ony of St. Pete’s growth spurt. Cranes and con­struc­tion sites are om­nipresent. There’s the new One St. Pete lux­ury con­do­minium tower a block from the yacht club, said to be the largest in Pinel­las County, at 41 floors and 450 feet tall, as well as two $85 mil­lion pri­vately funded art mu­se­ums near­ing com­ple­tion ( one is the James Mu­seum of Western and Wildlife Art, and the other is the Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can Arts and Crafts Move­ment).

Nip­ping at the heels of all this new con­struc­tion are res­tau­rants, bars and dance clubs. Within walk­ing dis­tance of the club, re­gatta sailors can stum­ble upon live bands, salsa danc­ing, drag shows, rov­ing bach­e­lorette par­ties and open-air bars. The meta­mor­pho­sis from a sleepy Wed­nes­day night in the Burg to its Fri­day-night frenzy is fas­ci­nat­ing.

Krise­man claims St. Pete is not just one of the fastest-grow­ing cities in the South­east, but it’s the arts and cul­tural cap­i­tal of Florida as well, and that too ex­tends to its gas­tro ex­pe­ri­ence. “We also view our food and beer as an art,” he says, “as you can see by craft brew­eries all over the city.”

This state of af­fairs, of course, is in stark con­trast to the NOOD of 1998. When the party ended at the club, one would wan­der a few blocks in search of af­ter-hours en­ter­tain­ment, hold­ing tight to one’s wal­let and trip­ping over tum­ble­weeds. Not so th­ese days. Blink on a Satur­day night and you’re whisked away to a hip ur­ban bar scene with shiny, happy peo­ple and more top-shelf res­tau­rants than you could pos­si­bly in­dulge in over the course of a three-day re­gatta.

Granted, pound­ing drinks into the wee hours of the morn­ing is not every­one’s ver­sion of a good time — rac­ers do have to get up for boat call, af­ter all. There are now many more at­trac­tions should Tampa Bay rear its uglier, glassier, wind­less side.

Yes, the venue can be no­to­ri­ously light (the win­ter av­er­age is 8 knots), and as the down­town con­crete jun­gle grows, so too may the im­pact on the sea breeze fill­ing in from the ocean side of the penin­sula or the norther­lies that blow in the win­ter months. Should rac­ers find them­selves loi­ter­ing near the yacht club’s fig­ure­head under a limp AP flag, how­ever, the St. Peters­burg vis­i­tors guide has pages upon pages of day­light op­tions to ex­plore, start­ing with the Sal­vador Dalí Mu­seum just down the road from the club. In the op­po­site di­rec­tion is the Mu­seum of Fine Arts. Im­pres­sion­ist painters not your thing? A few blocks west is the Morean Arts Cen­ter and the mind-blow­ing glass­work of Dale Chi­huly.

If you’re not in the mood for art, stay out­doors and rent a cruiser from one of the many bike-share racks scat­tered about and wan­der into the gen­tri­fy­ing western neigh­bor­hoods with ever more bars and artist guilds, or head north on the coastal bike path to me­an­der through man­i­cured neigh­bor­hoods and parks. The point is, should races ever get post­poned, or worse, can­celed, there’s no ex­cuse to be bored or loi­ter around the docks. Grab the crew, find a brew and get cul­tured. Q

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