Taken For a Ride

An impromptu beer can race doesn’t require thumbs out —but the experience is two thumbs up

Repeat Offender
The Harteck family's J/105 Repeat Offender readies for Santa Barbara YC's Hitch Hiker Wet Wednesday beer can race.Paul Todd/Outside Images

On the exterior wall of the Santa Barbara YC is a notice board. Tacked to the cork is a flyer that reads in large letters: “Hitch Hiker Wet Wednesday.” If I’m looking to go sailing, I’m at the right place.

It’s the middle of March, the air along California’s central coast is cool and the water cooler. The San Rafael Mountains are lush green and blooming after destructive wildfires and the rains that followed. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, and like most California yacht clubs this time of year, the place is quiet, but the grills are set up and the yardarm is fluttering with burgees and signal flags.

Photographer Paul Todd and I follow instructions on the flyer, which explains that, if I’m interested in hitching a ride in the club’s Wednesday night beer can race, I am to sit on the wall outside the marina gate, between two orange flags. Should anyone need a crew or two, this is where they’ll find us. We take a seat. Just a couple of blokes looking for a ride. Soon after, a tall, handsome young man steps up and asks, “Are you guys hitchhikers?”

Indeed, we are. The teen ­introduces himself as Paul Harteck. He has a J/105 and could use our rail meat. He's only 18, a freshman at Santa Barbara City College. He's into cars, and engines, and obviously, sailboat racing. The J/105 is technically his old man Larry Harteck's, but this is really the kid's program.

Young Harteck is a textbook California youth sailor; groomed in Sabots and Optis, raised around high-performance beach cats and 29er skiffs, then onto Farr 40s and Pac52s. Polite, quiet and humble, you’d never suspect the big-boat ­experience he has until he explains he’s been a nipper for a few of the area’s ­pro-laden grand-prix programs.

As we wait for the rest of the crew, the elder Harteck shares the story of how he bought Repeat Offender out of salvage—a boatyard accident—for $40,000, fixed the holes and the keel, and had himself a family racer. Since he was 14 years old, Paul has been onboard for practically every race.

“It’s my dad’s boat,” he says with a sheepish grin, “but we like it when he’s not around. He’s a bit of a yeller.”

There’s a discussion of what sails are on the boat, and whether the tack shackle on the jib furler should be replaced before we leave. Harteck gives it a quick inspection and confirms the repair can wait another day. Soon, Sarah and Heather, from the U.C. Santa Barbara sailing team arrive. Larry’s boat partner Bill and their longtime crewmember Dave will serve as the adults onboard.

On account of there being two capable hitchhikers, Larry excuses himself to the club’s second-floor deck, from where the race committee will conduct the evening contest.

It’s the second night of the Wet Wednesday series. The races are “fun” and don’t count toward the overall season scores. Hitchhiking is encouraged as a way to find or break in new crew—or simply recruit a few hands for the night. This particular race will start between two white, permanent race marks, with a weather leg to Mark A, a red navigational mark, down through the starting line, which is essentially a leeward gate, back upwind and finish through the starting line. Twenty-six boats show up, a fraction of the summer fleet, and it’s a mix of PHRF classics and one-designs.

Paul eventually asks us what we could do on the boat, which is where our whole ruse of being joe-schmo hitchhikers is revealed. My cohort, the Kiwi photographer often mistaken for celebrity Guy Fiere, agrees to man the mast. I’m happy to trim mainsail and play tactician.

“OK! Let’s go!” he commands as he bounds into the cockpit and starts the engine, which rumbles and knocks to life. Just as we slip docklines, a drenching squall sweeps down the emerald mountainside. Everyone dashes below for foul weather gear and we hoist the mainsail in the pouring rain. Wet Wednesday, indeed.

To our south, however, there’s blue skies, and by the time we’re cleating the main halyard, a vibrant rainbow stretches across the sky as the golden afternoon sun illuminates the Santa Barbara coastline in a golden veil. There’s plenty of time to soak in the scenery, because we’re the fifth of eight starts. While we’re warming up, Paul reminds our bowman, Alex, to keep an eye out for wads of kelp floating in the racecourse.

“The kelp is back,” Paul observes aloud as he scans the course. “There’s a lot of down-coast current, too.”

With strong current offshore, he assures me the smart strategy will be to start clean, get right ASAP, tack in the shallow water and cover any of the competition. From there, it should be straight-forward. Like the savvy local, he has it figured out already.

Harteck nails the start with a few feet to spare, reaches back to pump the backstay a few times and promptly gets in tune with the boat’s heel angle. I ask him if he uses target speeds. Nope. He doesn’t even bother looking the mast displays. “It’s all about feel,” he says. “I just know when it feels slow.”

Our tack toward shoreline current relief, as planned, is perfect and the trailing J/105—our primary ­competition—is to leeward, so we wait for them to tack before doing the same directly in front of them. Game, set.

Leading around the weather mark, the mainsheet gets stuck in the jaws of the cam cleat, but Paul, who can’t possibly weigh more than 130 pounds wet, fights the forces of the aluminum tiller and the big rudder that’s stalled beneath the boat. Someone on the crew yells to him to bear away.

“I am,” he responds in a cool, hushed tone.

Once the spinnaker is set, we try our first jibe of the night. It’s a thing of beauty. So is the next, and we’re still comfortably ahead of our rival, ­struggling with its spinnaker. The gate mark comes quick in the 15-knot puffs and swift current, which makes our first douse a bit rushed. In the chaos of the douse, the jib sheets get wedged in the foredeck hatch. It won’t roll out, and tension on the boat is escalating.

Harteck doesn’t say a word, allowing the team to sort out the problem themselves. The kid is clearly not a yeller like his pops. The spinnaker disappears down the hatch, we round the mark bareheaded, but the exit angle is still perfect. The kid is a natural. Once the jib sheet is cleared, the grey sail unfurls and fills with a snap, Dave grinds it home and we’re headed to the shoreline again. The boat is quiet, until Paul says to no one in particular—or maybe it was to himself—“Well, that wasn’t so good.”

He calls every move of the loose cover and we win the night’s only race with ease. We sail straight into the harbor, douse our sails, and Harteck glides the boat into its slip with the precision of a professional boat captain. We’ve arrived wet, but safe and victorious, and there’s even cold beer awaiting. Thanks for the ride, kid. That was fun.