Hundreds of the country's top collegiate sailors will compete on the waters of Tampa Bay this week and next as USF St. Petersburg, Eckerd College and the St. Petersburg Yacht Club host the 2013 College Sailing Spring National Championship.
"This is really a tremendous honor," said Allison Jolly, a former U.S. Olympic gold medalist who now coaches the USF women's team. "This event will showcase the very best in collegiate sailing."
The Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association is divided into seven conferences, and every seventh year, the South Atlantic Conference — which includes schools in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee — gets to host the championship.
For decades, Tampa Bay's top sailing events have been held on the waters off the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg. But because of the scheduled demolition of the historic landmark, organizers moved the racing near the Sunshine Skyway bridge, where the Magnuson Hotel Marina Cove will serve as the regatta headquarters.
College sailing can trace its roots to the 1890s, when it began as a club sport. The first formal competition took place in 1928, and today there are more than 230 active collegiate sailing programs in the United States.
"At some schools it is considered a varsity sport while at others it is still club," said Jolly, who competed in the first-ever Olympic women's sailing event at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. "It all depends on where the funding comes from."
The sailors at this series of regattas, which include women's, team and coed competitions, will race in "FJs" or "Flying Juniors," dinghies developed as a training boat for the Flying Dutchman, a discontinued Olympic class.
This "one-design" racing pits competitors against each other in identical boats.
"This style of racing puts a high premium on boat handling and tactics," Jolly said.
The FJ has a 4-foot, 11-inch beam and an overall sail area of 100 square feet, making it an ideal craft for young, athletic sailors. The two-person FJ is used throughout the world, from the United States to Japan, by high schools, colleges and universities.
In collegiate sailing, races typically last 18 to 20 minutes. After every two races, the competitors switch boats, which in one-design race, are all built to the same specifications.
"This is not a weapons war, where the person who spends the most money on design and sails wins," said Jolly, now in her ninth season at USF. "It is all strictly talent."