This morning, John Spierling will leave his north Detroit home, sailboat in tow, and head south to St. Petersburg for the National Offshore One Design (NOOD) Regatta. The journey will take about 20 hours and likely involve plenty of caffeine, but it's a trip he looks forward to every year.
Spierling has been in just about every St. Petersburg NOOD Regatta since he started sailing in it in 2000. This year's event begins Friday and runs through Sunday off of St. Petersburg's waterfront. Spierling and his three-man crew were the overall winners in the 2016 regatta.
Being a defending champion is reason enough to come back to St. Petersburg, but there's also this: "You can't sail on a frozen lake," he said.
This weekend's St. Petersburg NOOD Regatta has the potential to be one of the biggest in its history. An estimated 150 boats in 11 classes will fill Tampa Bay. There will be small one-design boats (which means they are all designed to the same specifications) that have one sailor. There will be one-person A-Cats, which are catamaran-style boats.
And then there will be J/70 class boats that are 22 feet long and have four-man crews. This is a popular class, with 32 boats entered.
"J/70 is the perfect version of one-design sailing in this country," said Dave Reed, editor of Sailing World Magazine and organizer of the St. Petersburg regatta. "This is decided strictly on the skills of the crews. You can't blame it on equipment. There are sailors in this class from all over the country."
Spierling being one of them. He came down in January for a race in Key West. But the St. Petersburg event officially kicks off his season.
"It's smaller (here) than the Great Lakes and more sheltered and calm," Spierling said. "It's not too terribly rough and it can be pretty fast. But I also like coming down there for the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. It's got to be one of the most beautiful yacht clubs in the country. We have a great time down there."
Reed said Tampa Bay is much different than sailing on Florida's east coast.
"The crews that have the professional sailors onboard tend to do much better in the rougher conditions," Reed said. "The flat water of Tampa Bay seems to be a more level playing field. The speeds tend to be roughly the same so the racing is much more competitive. That's a bit of a draw for people to come to St. Pete. And for sure, downtown St. Pete is much more fun than it used to be."
Marty Kullman is a member of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and is entered in the J/70 class. He is an avid sailor who likes the idea of being on the water with nothing but the wind to use as power. But he also understands that his sport may not be the most exciting from a spectator's point of view.
"Sailing is a little bit like watching grass grow," Kullman said. "It's not something that translates well to TV or anything. For people standing on the sea wall watching it, it might be a little intimidating. There is a lot that goes into it."
Depending on the weather, sailing is expected to start each day at 10 a.m. Points are accumulated in each class by finishing position. Those with the fewest points win the class. Regatta organizers then calculate an overall winner based on the strongest individual finish in the most competitive class. That winner earns a berth in the Caribbean Championship Regatta in the British Virgin Islands in October.
But that's not really what's important.
"The winner gets a pickle dish, as we call it, so we're really doing it for the enjoyment," Kullman said. "We're not burning any fossil fuel. We're just out there on the water and challenging ourselves."