Heart and Soul of our Sport

Published on March 19th, 2018

For the 45th annual St. Thomas International Regatta (STIR) on March 23-28, the most fun may be among a fleet of 13-footers that could prove the tonic for promoting activity in our sport. John Holmberg shares this report from his home in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands.

The cycles of change continue and the results of the 2017 hurricane season are showing in reduced participation in some local events and even the 45 year old St. Thomas International Regatta (ex International Rolex Regatta) realizes they need to encourage participation.

The situation in 1990 was similar after Hurricane Hugo decimated the local area fleets, and then St. Thomas Yacht Club Commodore Richard Knoepfel called me to ask if I thought we could get together a beach cat class to help bolster the numbers at STIR.

Hobie 16s had been included in this prestigious regatta for many years but were “dis-invited” after one ill-advised food fight at a jacket and tie awards dinner. So now I leapt at the opportunity to get beach cats back into our biggest regatta of the year and four years later, at the 1994 event we had 26 boats on the starting line.

Fast forward to 2018 and our St. Thomas Yacht Club faces the same problems after our islands weathered two Category 5 storms in less than two weeks. Our fleets have been dwindling, beach cats especially, with less than five boats sailing on average.

Many years ago as the cycle was repeating I swore that when my beloved Inter 20 sold I would only buy a Hobie 16 or Hobie Wave. First came the 16 and my son and I made wonderful memories of sailing to St. John and sliding up on Honeymoon Beach, with highlights of representing the US Virgin Islands at the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games and even winning our Rolex Regatta.

I have witnessed the “arms race” of newer and faster boats, and the decline of fleets when one person wins too often (guilty!), and now believe that simple one-design sailing and racing is the heart and soul of successful sailing club membership programs.

Our club hosted the first Sunfish World Championships in 1970 and the following year we had 50 boats on our beach as all ages and abilities were welcomed. I raced that event as did my whole family, and we all started on the same against the stars of our day, sailing on the same boat we camped with on weekends …legendary egg fights under the moon and all!

A few years ago, I made good on my promise to buy the Hobie Wave, and Teri McKenna also made good on her threat to do the same – hers brand new and mine from a nearby resort with 13 years of tourist abuse.

We sailed and laughed and took friends for rides, and lent the boats out often as people saw the easy and safe sailing we enjoyed. That summer our kid’s sailing camp was struggling with their 20 year old Sunfish and I offered the use of my Wave which was an instant hit with numbers of kids hanging on, under, and jumping off that boat.

Since I paid for my Wave with quarters ($1) and really enjoyed seeing the joy on the faces of the kids and their parents, I told Teri I was going to donate my boat to the club; she said she would do the same. We both wanted to see more people sailing, so we approached then Commodore Dan Nicolosi to suggest a change to the beach scene and asking for his support.

He agreed and found club funds to buy three more Waves, bringing our fleet to five boats in a very short time. A sixth boat was in nearby storage with a private owner who was encouraged to donate as well – thank you Tom Turner. Teri spent hours rehabbing my old boat and it is almost indistinguishable when sailing or lined up on the beach (thanks Teri!).

Instantly, we had a fleet, or so it seems, and now we have kids signing up for “Adventure Sailing” every Friday after school – no racing and lots of laughing and falling off. Soon Thursday evening racing started up and we have kid’s teams, parents with kids along, and senior citizens all whizzing around Cowpet Bay. Hooray for wet, sandy members having fun!

Then realty strikes me as I stand on the beach in Florida last year and see 42 Hobie Waves in Pensacola preparing for their 2017 Intergalactic Championship. This, I recognized, is the boat that can build a club’s membership.

The success of the St. Thomas Yacht Club and our legion of great sailors all started with a healthy small boat fleet that was not intimidating, cost relatively little to sail, could easily be the weekend fun boat while being durable enough for kids capsize contests.

Our Sunfish sailing days built small boat skills that enabled our sailors to move into larger and faster boats with relative ease. Compare that to people trying to enter into sailing in larger boats without these basic skills – to me this is the missing link.

And, Sunfish owners and sailors please forgive me, but the Hobie Wave seems to me the boat that will help rebuild our yacht clubs collective participation, membership and of course, sailing skills. The safety, durability and “sail-ability” of this little plastic boat makes it a winner for getting more people on the water. Thank you Hobie Cat and Morrelli & Melvin Design for this.

I believe the success of our sports of sailing and racing needs a healthy pipeline of new sailors – which will naturally create a pipeline of new racers too. My focus is 90 percent sailing which will bring 10 percent racers. If we do not grow the ‘sailing’ side, we will not have the ‘racing’ side of the sport.

I welcome the chance to have a new class in our venerable regatta, and appreciate the efforts by Chris Rosenberg and the rest of our Board for coming up with this idea. Upon being asked if I would participate, I immediately agreed and offered to do a Friday afternoon beach clinic to help bolster the event and encourage participation.

Thanks also to the St. Thomas Sailing Center who is taking up the tasks involved, and to Cruz Bay Watersports’ Chris Batchelor for donating six more boats for the event. Twelve boats on the line and others welcome… it’s gonna be great!


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