ST. PETERSBURG — Long before around-the-buoy races came to dominate the local yachting scene, sailors looked to the open ocean as the ultimate test of skill and endurance.
Classic regattas, such as the Southern Offshore Racing Circuit's run from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale and another legendary sail from Tampa Bay to Havana, Cuba, drew huge fleets and the best yachtsmen in the country.
But venturing out on the high sea is rough and risky. The big offshore races disappeared one by one, all that is, except the St. Petersburg Yacht Club's Regata del Sol al Sol.
The 456-mile race from the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg to the northern tip of Isla Mujeres, Mexico, hasn't missed a year since beginning in 1969.
When the wind is good, a fast boat can make it in three days. But when the weather is bad, a boat can linger in the Gulf of Mexico for more than a week.
In some years, the sailing has been easy. In others, boats have been dismasted and towed into port. So finishing the race to Isla Mujeres is something to put on your sailing resume. That is why a record 51 boats, ranging in length from 30 to 68 feet, will gather in the waters off the Pier at 10 a.m. today for the 40th running of this historic race.
A navigator's race
On the map, Isla Mujeres looks like a straight shot at 210 degrees. But looks can be deceiving. The Loop Current, which comes up through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba then "loops" through the Gulf of Mexico before dumping into the Gulf Stream, is a force to be reckoned with.
"It has always been a navigator's race," said Dr. Robert Bryan, who made the initial run in May 1969. "It was especially challenging back in the days before GPS and Loran."
Bryan was aboard Vince Lazzara's boat, a 50-foot Columbia. Lazzara, a sailboat manufacturer, went on to found Lazzara Yachts, now known for its world-class megayachts.
"We won the navigator's trophy that year," Bryan said. "That means they sealed all of our navigational equipment. We could only use a sextant."
Bryan and his crewmates endured 8-foot seas in a race that saw 17 finishers with a 44-foot sloop called Stampede taking the trophy for winning the race.
The bigger, the better
The longer a boat's water line, the faster it goes.
"The trick is to find the biggest boat you can and hitch a ride," said Dr. John Jennings, a former SPYC commodore who made the run in 1986. "If you have to fight a 4-knot current the whole way and you are making only 6 knots, it is going to be pretty slow going."
Figuring out the wind and currents, plus the wild card of not venturing too close to that big island 90 miles off Key West, can be tricky.
If you miscalculate, even by just 100 yards, you can spend a full day just trying to get into the harbor.
In 1994, this reporter was aboard a 54-foot Irwin called Cumbia that missed the harbor's entrance by a quarter mile. We spent the rest of the afternoon tacking back and forth to get into port.
"Getting there is easy. Coming back is the hard part," Jennings said. "It is hard to find a crew. Everybody wants to fly home."
Storm of '88
The 20th running of the Regata del Sol al Sol in 1988 nearly ended in tragedy. The race started on a Friday morning in a light breeze. The sailors were unprepared for what would follow.
By Saturday morning, a low-pressure system had moved into the Gulf of Mexico, kicking up 50-mph winds and 20-foot seas.
By late Wednesday, five days into the race, nine of the 37-boat fleet had not been heard from. On Thursday, eight boats reported in, most of them having dropped out of the race in Key West or the Dry Tortugas.
But still missing was Shenanigan IV, a Tartan-33 skippered by Dr. Francis Traun, a retired physician in his early 80s from Ruskin, and two crew members.
Word spread quickly through the tight-knit ocean-racing community. Then, at 2:30 a.m. on Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard reported Shenanigan IV safe in Isla Mujeres, eight days after it left St. Petersburg.
Follow the action
Ocean sailors such as Fred Bickley, another past commodore of the yacht club, looks forward to "The Mexico Race" all year.
"There aren't many ocean races left," Bickley said. "Races like this help put St. Petersburg on the map as far as the international sailing goes."
Bickley, and his crew aboard his 68-foot Irwin Mango Latitudes, hope to make landfall sometime Sunday evening.
"The wind should be good," he said, crossing his fingers. "Or should I say, hopefully."
Bickley's boat and the other 50 signed up for this race will have electronic tracking devices aboard. You can follow the fleet's progress at www.mexicorace.com.