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Sudsy Nights In California

On a recent trip up I-5, Herb McCormick sampled the weeknight, beer-can racing in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "Herb's Watch" for June 2, 2009

June 3, 2009
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Alice Leahey steers her J/105 /Grace O’Malley/ towards the finish line during a California YC Wednesday-night race off Marina del Rey.

Alice Leahey steers her J/105 Grace O’Malley towards the finish line during a California YC Wednesday-night race off Marina del Rey. Herb McCormick

As a native New Englander, I always feel a bit adrift when visiting California. It’s so big! And kooky! But seriously: Like Texas or Alaska, California is essentially a nation unto itself, vast and limitless, with an ingrown culture (and economy, though that’s not so hot at the moment) that’s all its own. Still, the three great California cities-San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco-couldn’t be more different. From the general vibe to the specific geography, each place is unique and iconic. You often meet folks who reside in one of the sprawling metropolises who would never, ever consider moving to either of the other two. The three bustling cities are Golden State subsets, independent spokes in the ever-rolling wheel.

Except, that is, when it comes to sailboat racing.

At least that’s what I came away thinking after a big drive up I-5 in early May from San Diego to Seattle, with stops in L.A. and ‘Frisco. Unfortunately, I was a little too early for the beginning of the San Diego Yacht Club’s summer series, but on a Wednesday off Marina del Rey, and two nights later, on San Francisco Bay, I had the chance to race like the locals do, and it was a terrific, eye-opening experience.

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Beer-can racing is a summer ritual on both coasts and on select lakes and rivers across the land. In my hometown of Newport, R.I., you can literally race every weeknight from June through August, and I’ve watched many a fine sunset on a Shields or a J-24 while sipping a cold one after a spin around the buoys.

So I felt right at home walking down the docks at Marina del Rey’s California Yacht Club to hop aboard Alice Leahey’s J-105 Grace O’Malley for the club’s appropriately named Sunset Series that runs from April through September. Old pal Tom Leweck, of Scuttlebutt fame, had invited me to spend a night at his home in Venice Beach, and since my timing brought me through on a Wednesday-and since the Farr 30 he was sailing that evening had a full crew-he leaned on his neighbor, Alice, to take me for a ride.

The sailing world, as we all know, is an incredibly close-knit and insular one, and this was hammered home once again when I stepped aboard Grace O’Malley and ran smack-dab into another long-time marine-industry friend, Bob Condon, Alice’s first mate on and off the boat. I shook hands with the rest of the crew, most of whom weren’t the regular members of the Grace squad, and off we went.

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My few experiences sailing off Southern California have almost all been light-air affairs, so it was interesting setting sail in a good 18-knots of northeasterly breeze. The Wednesday CYC series regularly attracts a hundred boats or more, with starts for four PHRF divisions, a couple of cruising classes, and one-design Martin 242s. We were competing in the 15-boat PHRF B fleet. The starting line was chaotic. And, lo and behold, we were over early.

Alice spun us around and we cleared the line and rejoined the hunt. It was a windy, wavy beat in washing-machine seas, but the skipper did a nice job working our way upwind. We rounded the top mark, set the asymmetric, and had a sweet reach back towards the club, topping off at 11 knots. But the breeze was dying and once inside the breakwater off Marina del Rey, it had eased to a whimper. We crossed the finish line in the very last of it, for what would end up being a ninth-place finish, and ended things up rehashing the entire affair with cold Heinekens in Grace’s cockpit. Despite our foibles, it had been a fun night on the water.

|| |—| | Herb McCormick| |The crew aboard Hank Easom’s 8-Meter Yucca prepares to jibe on a Corinthian YC Friday-night contest off Sausalito.| Forty-eight hours later, heading out from Sausalito, I was at it again. This time my benefactor was Rob Moore, the longtime racing editor at Latitude 38, who’d arranged for me to sail with him aboard the vintage 8-Meter Yucca, skippered by San Francisco legend-in-his-own-time Hank Easom.

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As we motorsailed towards the starting line off the Corinthian YC, Hank told the funny story about how Yucca, built in 1937, came to be his. He’d traveled to Southern California back when the new Cal 40s were all the rage-yes, we’re going back a few decades here-with the firm intent of picking one up for himself. Fate, in the form of Yucca, intervened. Hank brought her home instead and has enjoyed kicking the tail of many a Cal 40, and scores of other boats, ever since.

Unlike the pick-up crew on Grace O’Malley, Yucca’s team was comprised of a cast of longtime regulars. Rob sent me an email about Hank and the crew a couple of weeks after my night aboard. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll let Rob explain the dynamic:

“Hank’s a Bay Area icon, a disciple of the late, great Myron Spaulding. He’s probably won more races than any person, living or dead, on SF Bay. He never sailed much outside the area and has been on the racecourse virtually every weekend of his 70-some years.

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“His right-hand man is Charlie Mohn, a dentist in his mid 60s who still rides centuries on his bike! Mike Figour, our resident bartender, was a regular until he moved to Puerto Vallarta. Rest of the old timers are aging out and he is filling the gap with 50 years olds-the “junior program”-Robin, Laurence, Emmet, me, and a few other knuckleheads. You are still too young to sail with us regularly! I savor every moment on that boat. Hank and Yucca are really special, and very admired by everyone out here. I’m too involved to be objective but am glad you got to experience it.”

Well, yes, I got to experience it all right, trimming the jib with Rob and gasping to sheet it home with every tack. It was another night of steady breeze and the beat out to a mark in the general vicinity of the Golden Gate Bridge was visually spectacular. We were tit for tat with a Santa Cruz 37 called Tiburon out to the windward mark and managed to hold our own downwind under Yucca’s broad-shouldered spinnaker. When all was said and done, we corrected out to first by a mere 11 seconds over the 37-footer, then retired to Yucca’s waterfront slip at sunset.

That’s right, the boat does have a resident bartender named Mike-that’s, like, his whole job-and once we were tied up, we put him to work. Researching stories is exacting labor, but I’m happy to report that beer-can racing is alive and well on the Left Coast.

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