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A Q&A with Shep Barrows and Emily Zimmerman on the STYC's annual MLK Regatta

by David Schmidt 10 Jan 08:00 PST January 10, 2023
Racecourse action at the STYC's MLK Regatta © Image courtesy of Emily Zimmerman

If you're a junior sailor who hails from the Northern Hemisphere and is suffering from the early-winter no-sailing blues, the St. Thomas Yacht Club's MLK Regatta is worth your attention. Racing takes place in the Optimist and Collegiate 420 classes on January 14 and 15; the Optimist class is open to sailors age 15 and younger, while the C420 class is open to all high school sailors.

The regatta stretches back a quarter century and was designed to help bolster the STYC's junior program. Given some of their alumni, it's fair to say that it worked. It's also fair to say that a One Design regatta that keeps rolling for 25 years has something going right for it.

(Aside, of course, from having the great wisdom to unfurl in a beautiful place, on crystal-clear waters, during a time of historically great sailing conditions.)

I checked in with Shep Barrows, who founded the MLK Regatta and ran STYC's junior sailing program for many years between 1997 to 2012, and Emily Zimmerman, STYC's Commodore, who has headed the club's junior program for several years and who continues to direct Optimist-class regattas, via email, to learn more about this warm-water One Design regatta.

Can you please give us some story on the MLK Regatta, its culture, and the kinds of junior sailors one is likely to encounter on the starting line(s)? Are we talking about Olympic hopefuls, high-school sailors, Junior club racers, or all of the above?

SB: The Club had the first MLK Regatta in 1997, at the time when Thomas Barrows, Cy Thompson, and Taylor Canfield were first getting serious about becoming competitive on the national Optimist Class scene. A weakness in the junior sailing program at the Club was blatantly clear. There were so few sailors in the parent-led program that it was impossible to practice starts realistically. We only had four or five boats on the line in our practices. We needed several small local regattas with kids from the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico so we could get 15 to 25 boats on the line.

Beyond that, these local regattas would give our kids more experience managing fleets and gaining racing skills in general. The KATS (Kids and the Sea) program in St John sent over around 10 Opti sailors, making the starting lines in the first MLK Regatta about 15 boats. The other regatta we had over a holiday weekend was the Columbus Day Regatta, and it was equally successful. The next year we got Optimist sailors from Puerto Rico and Tortola. In the summer of 1998, the three top Optimist sailors in St. Thomas, Thomas, Cy, and Taylor, had several Top Three finishes in races at the U.S. Nationals.

EZ: Today, the MLK Regatta is for High School sailors racing 420s, and the Optimist Championship and the Optimist Green Fleet sailors. The event is the second of two Virgin Islands Optimist Dinghy Association (VIODA) qualifiers for the Optimist North American Championships.

The North Americans will be in the Caribbean in 2023, in Antigua. The first qualifier was at the Howler Regatta in October at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, in Miami.

What kind of entry numbers are you seeing this year? Also, are there any notable geographical concentrations to this entry list?

EZ: It's a small event in general, and especially recently with Covid. However, in 2021 we had several entries from the USA mainland since there wasn't any sailing going on up there at the time.

The timing of the MLK Regatta is a few weeks after the Orange Bowl Regatta in Miami. The Club's Optimist Championship team travels to compete in that event. But, not everyone, like some of the Green Fleeters and those new to sailing. Thus, the MLK Regatta gives these kids a racing experience. As Shep mentioned, there is a struggle here on a small island with a relatively small program to get enough boats on the start line to effectively practice starts in preparation for racing in bigger fleets.

While the MLK Regatta is a wonderful opportunity for beginning sailors, it's also the perfect opportunity to train parents to be Race Committee volunteers. Our IOR regatta, June 12-18, 2023, welcomes 125 sailors from several nations and is volunteer-run, including the race committee. At the MLK Regatta, parents can come out and get familiar with handling the flags and horns and documenting the over-earlies and results. It's also an enjoyable way for parents to see and understand what their kids are doing.

Weather-wise, what kind of conditions can sailors expect to encounter off St. Thomas in mid-January? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

EZ: The Christmas winds are still blowing in January and the swell is up. It could easily blow 20 knots with 4-to-6-foot seas. Or it could be flat and calm. Typically, we'll have 12 to 15 knots and a light swell.

The wonderful thing is that from the STYC, there are several options to place a racecourse. There's Great Bay, in front of the Ritz Carlton, St. Thomas, which is generally calm. Similarly, the sheltered Christmas Cove across from Cowpet Bay. Or, around the James islands and out to Cow and Calf Rocks if we need to be in more breeze. It all depends on the day, and we can change the racecourse venues day to day.

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

EZ: Big. As my daughter says, it's all about 'playing the shifts and watching the current.' It's at events like the MLK Regatta that our beginning sailors learn that local knowledge.

Generally speaking, are most entrants from St. Thomas and/or the USVI, or do you get entrants from farther afield?

EZ: This year, we have sailors coming from St. Croix as well as St. Thomas, and possibly neighboring islands. We should have 15 to 20 Optimists and six to eight 420s racing.

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

EZ: Enter and race with us in the MLK Regatta. It's a good opportunity to get race experience in your backyard for Caribbean sailors. And it's a time where it's too cold to sail in many places for those coming from the USA.

How many races do you and the other organizers hope to score throughout the regatta? Are we talking Windward-Leewards or other shapes?

EZ: We plan to have five races a day or 10 races total for the MLK Regatta. We'll start both the Optimist Championship and Optimist Green Fleets at the same time, on the same course, although the Green Fleet will go once around the windward-leeward course and the Championship fleet twice. Both will finish upwind.

We have a separate windward-leeward course for the 420s, with a downwind finish. We'll launch the Optis and 420s as staggered starts off both sides of the one Race Committee Boat, with the 420's run off the starboard and Opti's off the port.

Do entrants have to supply their own boats, or does the St. Thomas Yacht Club supply any of the boats? Also, are there charter opportunities for visiting sailors?

EZ: We have a limited number of boats available at the Club. Since many sailors are local or regionally based, they bring their own boats.

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?

EZ: We ask all sailors to bring their own water bottles and we set up refill stations at the STYC. We also don't hand out plastic water bottles. More recently, we've moved to a digital noticeboard to go paperless.

Also, we only have one committee boat for two separate courses, so that saves on fuel.

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

EZ: The STYC is proud of its Junior Sailing Program and its efforts to continually expand. In the past year, the Club's community outreach has grown to offer sailing and other community-based programs to over 75 youth from organizations including the Boys and Girls Club, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, My Brother's Workshop, the Marine Vocational program, the Virgin Island Professional Charter Association Summer Camp and ongoing sailing classes.

Additionally, we have over 125 sailors enrolled in the Club's Junior Sailing Program from entry-level sailing to competitive racing and high school sailing for both Antilles and PGIA/Montessori Schools.

For 2023, the STYC will continue to support these programs along with conducting our smaller regattas like the MLK and Columbus Day events, and we look forward to hosting our 30th anniversary IOR.

It's a safe bet to say you'll see STYC sailors excelling on the national and international sailing stage for years to come.

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