Kings Day Regatta: A little NASCAR on water

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JACKSONVILLE - On the final day of the three-day Kings Day Regatta, staged Nov. 21-23 from the Florida Yacht Club, Clay Today Sports Editor Randy Lefko got a glimpse of the NASCAR-like racing tactics of sailboat racing on the St. Johns River.

With Florida Yacht Club waterfront director Jodi Weinbecker offering play-by-play commentating while deftly negotiating her outboard-powered media boat, sailboats in two classes; 18-footers, called Lightnings, and 24-footers, called J24s, battled bow-to-bow, stern-to-stern on a one mile course that traveled north toward the Jacksonville skyline, 180 degree turned between two buoys, which was the tricky part of the racing, returned to the start line; a white buoy stationed about 100 yards west of an anchored race officials boat, then repeated the course for the final of the two laps. Total sail distance was about four miles; about 45-60 minutes of action.

"I don't actually know which King this race is named after, but I know the race has been going on since the 1970s," said Weinbecker, five years at her post with a retired Coast Guard husband manning one of the racing boats. "We have crews from New York and Miami. Saturdays event had 20-25 miles per hour winds and it was 55 degrees. We tell our competitors this is north Florida weather. The wind was a little too much and it was freezing."

Weinbecker noted that Bishop Kenny and Episcopal high schools that train at Florida Yacht Club and competed up and down the East Coast.

"Nobody else really does youth sailing around here," said Weinbecker. "St. Augustine has some youth programs. This is our 30th year of youth sailing. It's not a scholarship sport, but it is a sport that can get you in some places if you are good at it."

On Sunday, Weinbecker ushered out a handful of boats in both races to take on a slightly-choppy St. Johns Rivers with less than 10 miles per hour winds.

"Boats will head north in a back and forth path to move against the wind; tacking, with each boat trying to protect any 'clean' air they can capture in their sails," said Weinbecker. "At the turnaround, with the wind shifting to a kind of tailwind, the boats will unveil a Spinnaker sail that looks like a big parachute to push the boat on a faster path back to the start turnaround. Their is a lot of strategy in getting to that gust of wind in a spot that the other boats can't steal the wind from behind. There is a lot of strategy like car-racing and bike-racing after that turnaround."

Unfortunately, in the first races of the Sunday schedule, one of the J24s got tangled with the turnaround buoy and created a chaos of a mess that had officials abandoning the race and calling for a restart of both races.

"The Lightnings start a minute after the J24s and when the buoy got caught behind the J24 that was moving in the current away from the buoys original spot, the smaller boats did not have a proper course," said Weinbecker. "We just bring them back and start over."

Weinbecker noted that time penalties and a spin, where a boat that has been tagged for a penalty can do a complete 360 degree spin; a penalty turn, at the spot of the foul then continue to prevent going all the way back to the start line or back around a turn buoy. Fouls include touching another boat, plus numerous rules regarding wind position and rights of way on the course.

"The start is a straight line from a buoy to the officials boat that one horn notes five minutes to start and a second horn notes the start," said Weinbecker. "In that five minutes, the boats will sail parallet to the line with the wind generating some east-west speed, then, at the second horn, all the boats turn into the wind and head down course," said Weinbecker. "If they cross the line early, they get called out and can either go back behind the line or do a spin. Sometimes, if they can spin fast, they won't lose much time at the start. If they are in a tailwind, the spin is a costly punishment."

After the turnaround, watching the spinnakers line up in a angled line to stay out from a sail following offers a colorful site for observers with most of the spinnakes bright colored.

"It's one of the best parts of watching a sailing race," said Weinbecker. "The other parts of the race is a lot of strategy, some anxiety and confusion, but if the racers line up in a clean line, it's really colorful."

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