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Young sailors' tiny boats carry some big dreams

The Valentine's Day Regatta on Boca Ciega Bay brings out both the casual sailor and the youngster with global ambitions.

By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- A series of horns sound, signaling the impending start of the last race of the day. In their small, bathtub-shaped sailboats, the fleet of young sailors jostles for position along the starting line.

This is the part of the race Michael Booker, 10, likes best. He enjoys the cramming of boats and the strategy of whether to swing out around the pack or shoot toward an opening.

In all, 139 boys and girls from around the country competed in the Valentine's Day Regatta this weekend on Boca Ciega Bay.

While Michael zeroed in on the first orange buoy in the distance, Caroline Wallace, 8, made a beeline for the docks. Sunday was cold, rainy and generally dreary day. She'd had enough.

Minutes later, huddled under a blanket and sipping hot chocolate, Caroline explained she was in this for the fun of sailing as much as the competition.

Others take the competition very seriously. They travel with their parents to regattas around the state, and sometimes around the country.

It takes a huge commitment from parents, said Tom Wallace, whose son, John, 11, is headed to the national team trials in New Jersey in March.

The Valentine's Day Regatta is one of the largest in the country for youngsters ages 8 to 15 who sail International Optimist Dinghies. The Opti sailboats are ideal for youngsters. They're small enough that an 80-pound child can easily right a capsized boat, as several found out in the high winds Saturday.

Though small, the boats teach all the basic principles of sailing. In fact, the regatta is billed as a breeding ground for perhaps the next generation of America's Cup sailors. That isn't just an idle boast.

As a boy, Ed Baird once sailed in Opti races for the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. He went on to become a world class, professional yachtsman and competed in the America's Cup and in the Olympics. He is now in New Zealand, where he will be a television commentator for upcoming the America's Cup.

His son, Max Baird, 10, was in Boca Ciega Bay Sunday getting his start in the world of competitive sailing.

"It takes physical skill, but also mental skill," said regatta organizer Tito Vargas of St. Petersburg Yacht Club. "It also teaches discipline and independence."

As lunch neared, the young sailors whizzed around like bees around a hive, collecting sandwiches from support boats. As he sailed past, Mateo Vargas, 11, refused to make eye contact with his father. It had been a difficult morning for the young competitor. He had committed to a course, but the wind changed, said his father.

"That's another thing it teaches," Vargas said. "You learn to make decisions and live with them."

In the last race, Vargas breathed a sigh of relief as his son was among the first 10 around the first buoy. It is a big race, Vargas explained, but his son had already qualified for the national team trials.

Last year, Mateo was the youngest competitor at the national team trials. Vargas said he travels around the state, sometimes out of state, almost every other week so his son can attend various regattas.

"It becomes a family disease," Vargas joked.

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