February 21st, 2022
The Wetas have flocked to St. Petersburg, Florida for a good old fashioned weekend of fun on Tampa Bay.
With their upward-angled akas, their narrow wave-piercing amas and their high-performance flat top main mainsail, Weta trimarans seen sailing from afar have the appearance of water spiders skittering across wave tops. This unique and relatively unknown creature of the dinghy sailing world can be found on waterways across the country, and there’s said to be as many as 1,500 of them worldwide. While often seen in solitary, wherever the weather is warm and breeze is up, they’re known to swarm in lively and colorful displays, emitting sounds oddly similar to the gleeful hoots and hollers of sailors at play. The most recent sighting: Tampa Bay.
Oh, wait. They’re not water bugs. These are sailors. And they are hooting on their 14-foot trimarans as they plane down bay under their bright and colorful spinnakers. These are the sailors of Weta class, new this year to the Helly Hansen St. Petersburg Regatta.
Among the 21 sailors is Floridian transplant Peter Merrifield, once an ace college sailor and world championship-caliber keelboat skipper in the J/22 class who now finds himself among the ranks of Weta fanatics. He’s one of the late adopters of the one-design first introduced in New Zealand back in 2006. He’s only owned his Weta since mid-2021, and while his glory days are long past, he says, his recent successes in local Weta racing is the best he’s done in sailing since the arrival of the new millennium.
Merrifield, whose previous one-design of choice was the A Class Catamaran, came to possessing his Weta like most other owners: a friend told him to take it for a spin. “There’s seven or eight of them at Gulfport [YC]. And to be honest, I always thought it was a rotomolded boat, so I never gave it much of a thought.”
Lo and behold—on his first outing, he enjoyed the experience immensely. It was definitely easier to sail than his A Class Cat. And…what the heck. He soon purchased a used Weta from a guy who lived in Michigan but who kept it in Nebraska. For the past few months he’s been getting up to speed on nuances of the nimble little craft.
“The benefit I see in this boat over the catamarans is that it’s only the center hull that’s in the water during the tacks,” he says, “so you can play the windshifts more frequently than you can with a catamaran.”
While he fondly describes it as, “a Laser with training wheels,” what he likes most is its simplicity. “There’s not a lot to it,” says Merrifield. “There’s no diamonds (stays) to screw with, no spreaders to adjust or anything like that. But, still, being singlehanded and playing with three sails, especially getting around the marks, keeps it challenging. “I haven’t figured that part out yet,” he says. “But I’m working on it.”
The Gulfport’s Weta sailors race Portsmouth locally against the likes of Hobies and other beach cats, but there’s plenty of Weta action across the Florida peninsula and up the mid-Atlantic coast. The two regions enjoy each other’s company and travel to each other’s events, says Cliff Peshek, who is the energy behind the Florida fleet and responsible for securing a class start at the St. Petersburg regatta.
“We’ve been active here for a while, says Peshek, from Apollo Beach, across bay from St. Petersburg. “The dealer down here, a guy named Dick Hitchcock, passed away (in 2021) and he was kind of the sparkplug, responsible for getting boats into the southeast. So, without him it got a bit quiet, but now we have Starboard Tack Boats, owned by Richard Kiczek, up in Fort Walton Beach as our dealer in Florida and they’re getting things going again with the help of U.S. distributor Hardy Peters from East Coast Sailboats up in Duck, North Carolina. Both strive to ensure that they have a full stock of parts and inventory at all times so in essence they are a one-stop shop.”
While a large number of Weta owners are purely recreational, most, says Peshek, are keen racers like himself, and the boat’s portability contributes to the seasonal north-south flow and RV and camper regatta lifestyle common to Weta sailors. They’re constantly on the move, with as many as seven Florida regattas, including the big WetaFest April 29 – May 1 in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, before the calendar shifts to mid-Atlantic events.
The Helly Hansen Regatta is a new event for the class, says Peshek, and it’s a big deal. “The regattas (nee-NOODs) go way back and everyone knows it’s the real deal of big regattas—it’s a whole different level of event.”
Peshek, who now races Hull No. 1193, came to Weta sailing not long after it was selected as the Best Dinghy in Sailing World’s Boat of the Year Awards in 2009. “It was cool looking, and I was coming out of bigger keelboats—I sailed on a Tartan 10, Express 27 and a Viper 830. We were always looking for crew, and I just thought I’d simplify my life. The boat is not wicked, A Cat fast, but if you’re coming off a monohull like me, you’ll get the same feeling—it’s super cool. The thing is a riot. It instantly planes when you roll out the gennaker. When I got a taste of that downwind mode, I got hooked right away.”
Hitchcock, he says, always told him that the Weta sells itself, and indeed Peshek is proof. “I got in it with him, and gosh darn it, he was right. I’m a big guy—and he was a big guy—and we were still going well.”
For the duration of the St. Petersburg regatta, the Weta class will launch off North Point Beach alongside the A Class catamarans where Peshek hopes to do some informal recruiting. The intent is not to poach from any class, but he knows visibility is important to continue to grow the class. He has a lot of old friends in the A class, he says, and a lot of them are looking for the next boat. The Weta might just be the next right thing. All he has to do is get any one of them to give it spin. It worked for Merrifield.