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An interview with Donna Sue Marks on the 2021 Fall Foil Racing Regatta

by David Schmidt 4 Nov 2021 08:00 PDT November 5-7, 2021
A jump at the Race Committee Boat by Competitor Zack Marks © Nick Mandalou

If you spend any time around the water, it's obvious that foiling has made huge inroads into the sailing and boarding worlds, both on the grassroots level and—starting with the 2024 Paris Olympics—the international stage. There's a lot of exciting energy around foiling, the speeds are intoxicating, and the equipment demands a different level of athleticism than windsurfing or kiting gear from even just a decade ago.

Sailing at foiling speeds is one thing, but racing is another thing entirely.

Take, for example, the 2021 Fall Foil Regatta, which is being held on the waters off of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, in St. Petersburg, Florida, from November 5-7. The event is open to OpenKite Hydrofoil, iQFOiL sailors and Wing Foilers it is attracting sailors from Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Manta, Manabi, Ecuador; Hood River, Oregon; Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island, and Austin, Texas.

I checked in with Donna Sue Marks, Regatta Chairperson and Race Officer of the 2021 Fall Foil Regatta, and a few of her friends, via email, to learn more about this exciting event.

Can you please tell us a bit about the Fall Foil Racing Regatta, its history/culture, and the kinds of foiling sailors that one can expect to find at this regatta?

The twice-a-year (April and November) event started seven years ago under the Organizing Authority of the Florida Kite Racing League with a group of local kiters; Bill Chamberlain, Zack Marks and Kevin Reali.

The event was later hosted by Elite WaterSports - Aaron McClearnon proprietary under the name Elite Hydrofoil Regattas, and as of 2020, the Organizing Authority is St. Petersburg Yacht Club. We strive to offer high-performance racing following the Racing Rules of Sailing Appendix's for Kiting and Windsurfing and the International Kiteboarding Association guidelines for racing, courses, and formats.

In support of the continuance of grass roots we offer an A and a B Division of Kite riders.

The iQFOil Windsurfing Class joined us in January 2021, and we have expanded to Wingers at our November 2021 event.

Depending on the timing of other events we can have world-class riders, local riders speed testing against their friends as well as up-and-coming riders with sights on the 2024 and 2028 Olympics. It is two days of racing, sharing tactics, usually good weather and most of all friendship.

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter off St. Petersburg, Florida in early November? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

Aaron McClearnon - Elite Watersports: Weather in November is amazing for running these types of regattas and events. The probability of the ideal conditions is great and consistent year after year. Most days favoring northeast wind bay racing. On average winds over 15 [knots] but hardly ever exceeding 25 [knots].

Do you see local knowledge playing a big or small role in the regatta's outcome? Can you please explain?

Aaron McClearnon - Elite Watersports: Sailors may have a slight advantage in knowing the weather patterns and tides. All info is usually accurate within a couple hours of race time leading up to the event.

Our waters are mainly estuaries in the bay which present navigational challenges. Study your Google maps and know where sandbars could be located next to grass flats! This is mainly a concern on practice days and not so much on us within the racecourse boundaries. It's moderately shallow off our coast. One mile from land is typically still less than 25 feet of water, meaning our waves don't necessarily get too large off the Gulf Coast but steep in nature.

If you could offer one piece of advice to visiting (and local) kiters, what would it be?

Come ready to race in one of the most Foiling Friendly places in our country. Beach launches in the Gulf of Mexico or racing in Tampa Bay with the gorgeous Skyway Bridge as your backdrop. Enjoy St Petersburg downtown vibe. A mixture of all kinds of restaurants, clubs, and grills with indoor and outdoor seating, waterfront parks, bike, walking, one-wheeler and pet friendly.

Do you have any kiters who you are eyeing for podium finishes? What about any dark horses who you think could prove to be fast, once the starting guns begin sounding?

We usually do not know who will be on the podium as the racing at the top is always very close. I believe we have only had one repeat winner in the seven years of racing over ten-plus regattas.

Obviously organizing and running a big regatta amidst a still-churning pandemic isn't easy. Can you tell us about the biggest logistical and organizational hurdles that you've had to clear to make this happen?

SPYC Commodore David Mendelblatt: Organizing a regatta of any size during the pandemic was a big concern. Careful consideration had to be given to adherence to local, state and national regulations.

Early on, guidelines were constantly changing and it was unclear what rules would be in effect from one day to the next. There was much uncertainty regarding how to stop the spread of the disease and what responsibility we had as a club. We [initially] took the tough steps of closing down our regatta calendar and re-starting with small, local events.

We convened a Covid Regatta Task Force (which consisted of our Chairmen of Regatta General, Ocean Racing, Junior Activities, and Sailing Center, as well as representatives of different types of racing disciplines, Club leadership and Physicians). This group helped establish protocols which were used to create safe events. Examples of changes included: Go/No Go deadlines, On-line registration, check-in and skipper's meetings, crew accountability and waivers, no social events, mandatory masking and limits on R/C personnel allowed on each boat.

As we have gained a better understanding of how to stay safe, many of these regulations have been relaxed. We are very proud of the work we did which allowed us to host regattas for youth and adult sailors.

The biggest logistical and organizational challenges have been keeping up with the ever-changing recommendations and trying to determine whether international athletes would be able to travel and transport racing gear.

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

We do our best to limit our footprint to the environment both on land and sea. We encourage riders to bring reusable hydration containers and we use large water coolers to let them refill on site. We use boats that are single engines, low-profile Whalers, RIBS and jet skis for safety to access our competitors as quickly as possible.

We have reusable Safety PINNIE's this year, and we encourage our SWAG to be environmentally friendly. Our race registration documents, pre, during and post communications are being done online as we move away from paper.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record, about this regatta?

This grassroots event was created, designed, and continues due to the active participation of riders off and on the water. Protecting the integrity of their intentions cannot be done without valuable feedback from Kiters, Windsurfers and Wingers. They are the heartbeat of the regatta. If other foiling classes believe the venue is favorable, we'd love to hear from you.

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