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Raceweek to get off to different start

Change is coming on the sailboat racing scene.. If all goes as planned, this week's Tampa Bay Raceweek should offer spectators an unusual and exciting sight.

Traditionally, competitors start racing at one given time, jockeying for position to cross an invisible line drawn between the race committee boat and starting buoy just as the starting gun fires.

Each boat has a handicap, which the race committee later uses to calculate how that boat "corrects out" against the field. In many cases, the fastest boat to cross the finish line is not the boat that wins the race.

This year, the sailboats in Tampa Bay Raceweek will have a staggered start, with as much as two hours between starting times. The times will be based on each boat's handicap rating, with the slowest boats starting first.

Ideally, if the organizers' calculations are correct, the fleet of sailboats should all finish within minutes of each other. The racing starts Friday, Oct. 16, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 18 between St. Petersburg, Tampa and Bradenton. The fleet should pass under the Sunshine Skyway on Saturday and Sunday. For information, call 822-3873 in St. Petersburg.

With the economy as sluggish as it has been, small businesses everywhere are feeling the crunch. A quick sampling of the local marine industry, however, highlights change around Tampa Bay.

Richard Jones at the Lazarette Ship's Store in downtown St. Petersburg admits, "In the past three years, business is way down." Some of the slump comes from the economy, Jones feels, and some comes from increased competition locally.

"The small business needs to specialize to succeed," said Jones. "We're spreading out into service, which we would never have thought about during the mid-1980s."

At the SR Boatworks in northeast St. Petersburg, designer Glenn Henderson and his crew are hard at work on a new boat, the SR-33. Like the 21- and 27-footers designed by Henderson, the 33 aims for a sleek package of speed and good workmanship with a relatively inexpensive price tag.

"We're doing great over here," said the designer's business partner and wife, Cissie Henderson. "We're anxiously awaiting the unveiling of the 33."

Meanwhile, the Hendersons are building their 59th SR-21 boat.

Competition Sails, a locally owned and operated sail loft, has moved and "downsized," said owner Michael Robertson of St. Petersburg. "In essence," Robertson said. "Competition is out of the physical manufacture of sails _ we're still taking sails and service, but we will be using the Clearwater UK sail loft for production."

Stealth Sails of Tampa, on the other hand, has been "really busy," according to sailmaker Mark Shepard.

The loft uses an innovative high-tech material for distinctive, clear sails that are often significantly less expensive than conventional sails. The loft has been filling orders from all over the Southeast, and the sailors at Stealth have tentative plans to race a 27-foot boat from Glenn Henderson's boatworks at Key West Raceweek in January.

Sarasota-based Ullman Sails and Masthead Enterprises has moved to St. Petersburg. According to partner Paul Silvernail, the sail loft will focus "repairing and recutting" existing sails "to keep them alive longer," as well as making and selling sailing gear. Work has been coming in steadily, said Silvernail, even though they've been in business for under a month.