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Super sailing celebration

It's an image often used to portray a lifestyle of excitement mixed with leisure _ a sleek sailboat gliding across the shimmering sea, driven only by a warm tropical breeze. Sail Expo St. Petersburg, the "southern celebration of sail," aims to provide new sailors and old salts the opportunity to explore firsthand the newest sailing products that can bring that image to reality.

"You can watch it, try it, buy it. There's something here for all levels," said Karen Kelly, executive director of Sail America.

The show offers an up-close look at more than 100 wind-powered boats ranging from 8 to 50 feet in length. And not all of the boats have sails. There also is an assortment of dinghies, rowing shells, and a stylish but seaworthy pedal-powered boat that looks like something out of the Jetsons or Star Trek.

The two large exhibitor tents at Vinoy Park also offer a shopping mall of nautical gear and marine services from national and regional businesses.

"We have a lot more exhibitors, more boats, and a lot more of the major manufacturers are supporting the show," said Larry French, president of Johnson Sails, Inc., and a board member of Sail America. "All of their factory reps are here."

If you are shopping for knowledge instead of products, Sail Expo hosts a daily dose of one-hour seminars with presentations by nationally recognized cruising authors, product specialists and sailing instructors. In addition to the hourly seminars, which are free to show-ticket holders, the venue includes three specialty programs covering multihull cruising, women's sailing, and a racing skills clinic.

"The Joys of Cruising in Multihulls" seminar will feature a multimedia presentation by noted multihull authors, racers and builders at 6:30 tonight in Tent B on the show grounds. This free seminar is open to the public.

"The speakers hope to take out some of the mystique about multihulls," Kelly said.

Saturday's special seminar schedule opens early with "Take the Helm _ Women and the Sailing Life-style," hosted by the National Women's Sailing Association. Registration and refreshments open the all-day program at 7:30, followed by five land-based clinics plus on-the-water training in 26-foot sloops. Advance registration is required. Call NWSA at (800) 566-6972 for details and reservations.

Offshore Sailing School will host a daylong "St. Petersburg Challenge" racing clinic Sunday, with benefits going to the Leukemia Society of America. The students of racing techniques will get tips from featured speaker Betsy Alison, a four-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year. Advance reservations also are required for this land- and water-based program. Call (800) 221-4329.

As a benefit for the local Leukemia Society chapter, the Moorings Sailing Club will coordinate the "no experience required'" sailboat rides with veteran skippers on boats ranging from 20 to 45 feet. A $3 to $5 donation is requested.

Hunter Marine, which is introducing its fleet of small boats at this show, will offer free learn to sail classes each day, letting the students take the helm after a brief landside session. Casual clothes, soft-soled shoes and the spirit for a new experience are recommended.

New to the expo is Catarama, a waterside collection of multihulls on C Dock at the marina. Multihulls represent one of the stronger growth areas in the sailing industry, and the newest models are on display.

"We're going to have at least 15 large catamarans at the "catwalk,' or Catarama," French said.

Other scheduled events include a nautical flea market, sport boat association meeting, a reverse auction, windsurfing demonstrations, and the Mistral National Championship Windsurfing Regatta on Saturday and Sunday.

Sail Expo St. Petersburg, in its third year, grew out of the Sail St. Petersburg all-sailboat show that was launched in 1993 by the Southeastern Sailing Association. Sail America, a not-for-profit national sailing industry association, took control of the show in 1995 but the regional sailing association leaders are still actively involved in the development of the exposition.

French said attendance has averaged 10,000 and 15,000 guests with an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 sailing industry personnel working at the show.

"It's important enough (to the region) that the Pinellas County Tourist Board is a very heavy supporter of the show," French said.