ST. PETERSBURG — Tim and Jen French couldn't think of a better way to spend Valentine's Day than racing their Sonar.
"Sailing is something we both love to do," Tim French said. "So why not do it with someone you love."
For the St. Petersburg couple, it won't be exactly a romantic Saturday on the water. They'll be sharing the same portion of Tampa Bay with more than 1,000 other sailors.
The city's waterfront will be crowded with hundreds of masts this weekend as sailors from across the United States gather for one of the largest regattas of the year.
The National Offshore One-Design (or NOOD) series always draws a big crowd in St. Petersburg and the eight other U.S. cities it visits before its championship.
The St. Petersburg regatta comes just a few weeks after Key West's race week, which, next to the America's Cup, is one of the most competitive racing series in the world.
The NOOD features three days of one-design (a term used to describe boats with identical measurements and specifications) racing on different courses with easy viewing from the Pier downtown.
Level playing field
When Jen and Tim French line up against the other Sonars in their class today, the casual observer would be unable to tell any difference between the boats. But that is the idea behind one-design — every one of the 700 or so Sonars that race throughout six countries looks exactly the same.
But Jen French's boat has some special hardware. Ten years ago, the 37-year-old suffered a serious spinal cord injury in a snowboard accident that left her a low-level quadriplegic. That, however, has not kept her from competing. She uses a seat that slides from one side of the boat to the other.
"Last summer, we spent weeks on the road going from regatta to regatta," said Tim French, 47, who pilots corporate jets. "She does disabled regattas with one crew, but in races like this, I get in the boat, too."
Jen and Tim met 15 years ago in New England and immediately discovered that they shared an interest in sailing.
"We started off as just cruisers," she said. "But then we got down here and caught the racing bug. That was it."
Jen French, who runs a nonprofit that assists people with disabilities, is no stranger to the NOOD. This will be her seventh appearance, and she routinely finishes in the top 10. She had her best performance in 2005, a second-place finish against able-bodied sailors.
The Sonar is a versatile yet comfortable keelboat that has a legion of fans.
"They are great racing boats," Tim French said. "But you can still pack a cooler, call some friends, and take it out for a day on the bay."
The Sonar was selected as the Paralympics keelboat in 2000 and 2004, and sailed again at the Paralympics in Beijing, China, in 2008.
The 23-foot Sonar will be among the smaller boats this weekend. Last year, the NOOD event drew 183 boats in 16 classes, some as long as 70 feet.
Jen and Tim French know most of their competitors and lessons learned at last year's event will pay big dividends at this regatta.
"We have a lot of spirited dinner conversations about tactics," she said. "Salt and pepper shakers usually become weather marks, sugar packets, boats."
Tim French is proud of his wife's abilities, both on and off the race course.
"Jen can hold her own," he said. "She can compete against any able-bodied sailor."