Stroll along the Downtown St. Petersburg shoreline, and Styx’s iconic song I’m Sailing Away inevitably comes to mind. The scenery is an artful juxtaposition -- the eclectic Dali Museum and modern push of workday on one side; on the other, sails of multiple sizes billow in the breeze at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center.
What makes this area a port of call for so many sailors? There’s the weather, of course, a year-round, shipshape blend of sun and generally favorable water conditions. Active youth programs hook area children with the independence of the sport and high-caliber instruction. Plenty of opportunities exist for novices of all ages to learn and practice. Professionals flock to the area year after year for well-known regattas.
One thing’s for sure: whether you’re a cruiser, a kid, an expert or a true beginner with dreams of the open Gulf, the Tampa Bay Area is the place to embark. Cue Styx on the playlist -- let’s sail away.
A gaggle of miniature sailors fills the St. Petersburg Sailing Center harbor, instructors and parents watching as each child maneuvers his own Optimist dinghy. Affectionately called “Optis,” these tiny vessels have local roots: the late Clark Mills, a Clearwater resident, designed the first one in 1947. The largest youth sailing class in the world, “Optis” are known for their safety and stability.
An instructor paces the dock and calls out suggestions. The mini captains respond to terms like “tack” and “jibe,” circling each other without collision. Each is in charge of his own boat, which brings to mind the question: When else is a seven-year-old allowed to be in charge of anything? It’s partly this newfound responsibility, says St. Petersburg Sailing Center Water Programs Coordinator Corey Hall, which hooks many newbies for life.
“The local programs here welcome kids as young as 5-7,” she says. “Once a child learns the ropes, they find plenty of opportunities to race.”
The St. Petersburg Sailing Center runs learn-to-sail programs for children. Tampa’s Davis Island Yacht Club
hosts a nonprofit Youth Sailing Foundation; the Clearwater Community Sailing Center
is a resource as well. After the years of “Optis,” children graduate to larger boats and have ample opportunity to join high school and collegiate sailing programs.
University of South Florida St. Petersburg
fields a team, as does Eckerd College
. Hall herself sailed in St. Petersburg from the age of 8 and became a member of The College of Charleston’s racing team before returning to the Bay Area.
Todd Fedyszyn, head sailing coach for both the St. Petersburg Sailing Center and local Shorecrest Preparatory School
, sees many of his sailors ultimately commit to institutions with strong sailing traditions. He believes they have an advantage over their Northern competitors.
“The kids who decide to sail year-round are the ones we really see excel,” he says. “Here, that’s easy to do.”
A professional sailor’s destination, Race to Cuba, et al
In addition to his coaching duties, Fedyszyn is a professional sailor who races a J24 vessel worldwide in various regattas. The Bay Area is a popular location for professional sailing events and home to regattas attended by some of the most prolific sailors around the globe.
A variety of youth regattas are ongoing and offer stacked fields. Then there’s the revival of a historical local race, a St. Petersburg sailing staple of yesteryear. Sometime in the mid-morning of February 28, the St. Petersburg to Habana Regatta
will begin close to where the point of the old Pier used to be.
The race last occurred in 1959; before the event’s hiatus, it had been held for 29 years. This year’s race organizer, Richard Winning, remembers the hubbub. His father participated in the race to Havana. Stories of the race’s glory days made him take action when a revival seemed possible -- and he says he’s ready to start a new era with the event, which hopefully will resume on an annual basis.
“This is an incredible opportunity -- this race has so much history,” he says. “We have 80 boats in 4 classes participating, including a boat from Cuba.”
The historical connection isn’t lost on regatta competitor Albert Jasuwan, a St. Petersburg resident whose grandfather competed in the race years ago. Jasuwan remembers his grandfather telling stories about the Cuban nightlife, when music and people filled the streets. He looks forward to following in George Albert Jasuwan’s footsteps on the streets of Havana and expects great interest for future races.
“I think this is huge for the local sailing scene,” he says. “The sail from Florida to Cuba is on the ‘bucket list’ for many sailors.”
This foray into Cuba brings with it an insurance challenge for race participants, as none previously required marine coverage for the locale. These insurance risks are unique when compared to exposures in other common destinations. St. Petersburg-based Wallace Welch & Willingham is providing advice and tailored coverage enhancements to owners and captains who plan to make the journey.
"Cuban Waterways Endorsement is not available from most insurance companies. Extensive additional underwriting is required by the few carriers who can provide a solution, and these all have their own nuances as to coverage, limits, safeguards and deductibles," says Wallace Welch & Willingham CEO Scott Gramling.
For sailors, the race is an opportunity to make history; for the insurance agency, homegrown in St. Petersburg since 1925, it’s a category opening. The company writes many marine policies each year for clients nationwide, but this particular circumstance has proved different.
“It’s been exciting to provide answers to the many questions the insurance community has developed over this evolving new exposure," Gramling says.
The everyman sailor
Speaking of exposure, Rear Commodore Jason Baruch’s number one tip for fledgling sailors is to get plenty of it -- in good weather, that is. To learn the basics of sailing, he says, it doesn’t take mass preparation. Hop on a boat, perhaps one at the Davis Island Yacht Club, of which he’s affiliated. Non-members are invited to do so during certain races. Learn by watching and assisting competent sailors. Above all, just get out and sail.
For those who’d rather cruise than race, the Davis Island Yacht Club offers monthly cruises within the Tampa Bay area. Some groups head as far as Pine Island, Fort Myers or Clearwater. Popular destinations include the Manatee River and other jewels of the area. The cruising fleet often docks for the night, and the experience is social.
“This club is very supportive of sailors,” Baruch says. “Get a boat, a basic understanding of Tampa Bay navigation, and a cruising buddy. You’ll be set.”