Newport's 'beer can' racers say it might be time to bail out

Andy Rose is a fixture at the Thursday evening sailboat races in Newport Harbor -- freewheeling competitions dubbed the "beer cans" -- skippering his 49-foot, 11-inch silver beauty to first place nearly every week.

As the sun sinks, Rose and about three dozen other competitors circle the waters south of Balboa Pavilion like sharks. The large boats, white sails fat with wind, slip past each other, angling toward the floating orange flag that marks the start. Rose's routine is always the same: He studies the wind's direction and speed, and eyes the currents below.

The beer cans -- named, as legend has it, for the bobbing pop-top cans that once marked the course -- are a rite of summer that defines the culture of Newport Beach.

"If you look at the symbol of the city of Newport Beach, it's a sailboat race," said Peter Bretschger, who races his 40-foot sloop Adios every week in the Balboa Yacht Club-sponsored contests.

But for Rose, Bretschger and other Newport Beach sailors, the waters have grown choppy.

The privilege and tradition of their beer can racer's world is colliding with a changing reality. Bigger, faster boats in a more congested harbor have spurred the Orange County Sheriff's Department to keep a closer eye on the race's safety and even prompted city leaders to commission an etiquette code for the racers.

And that is testing the sensibilities of sailors who view whipping through bay waters in summertime races as an inherited right.

No matter the time of day, the harbor is a blur of activity. The Balboa Island Ferry chugs back and forth, sportfishing boats churn into port, locals pilot electric boats with a cocktail in one hand, and as evening approaches, charter cruises slip through the harbor so guests can take in the spectacle of it all. At least 15 yacht clubs and other sailing organizations call the harbor home.

Although the beer cans have been a part of this bustling scene for at least half a century, a sense of friction has surfaced. There are tales of sailboats colliding with other vessels in the harbor -- and gliding off before deputies arrived -- and of deputies halting boaters for speeding mid-race, ordering them to lower their sails.

"We had several times where our encounters turned very ugly," said Harbor Patrol Capt. Deana Bergquist. "We were getting people going by, flipping us off."

Not long ago, harbor deputies twice ordered retired executive Chuck Brewer to lower the sails on his yellow 45-footer. Once, he said, deputies mistook him for another boater who crashed into a boat, and halted him 50 yards from the finish line, he said. In another incident they cut him off mid-race for going too fast.

"What are we going to do?" Brewer asked. "We're racing."

Bergquist couldn't confirm the encounters but said deputies issue hundreds of verbal speeding warnings on the water that don't get recorded as citations.

Between January 2007 and February 2008, the Harbor Patrol issued 130 citations in Newport Harbor, according to department records. Of those, 27 were for speeding. Over the last month, the Harbor Patrol logged scores of traffic stops, accidents between boats and instances of speeding or reckless driving among all types of vessels.

"There is more enforcement activities," Rose said. Deputies "pride themselves on saying, 'We're not giving out a lot of tickets, we're just stopping people.' The problem is, if you're in a race and being stopped. . . . "

Dennis Rosene, 67, of Corona del Mar, agrees. "To make us feel like criminals is ridiculous."

In February, the city's Harbor Commission worked to smooth things over by adopting a set of "safety and courtesy tips" for yacht clubs. The one-page guideline reminds racers to watch out for novice boaters and to stop if they crash into something. " 'Communication' does not mean screaming at other vessels in an agitated manner which may exacerbate the potential problem," tip No. 3 reads.

To help establish peace on the water, the beer can finish line has been moved from the Balboa Yacht Club -- next door to the Harbor Patrol -- to the harbor's main channel, and a race committee warns commercial boats when races are to begin. Bretschger is working on an instructional video to teach law enforcement and others about harbor racing.

Despite the efforts, Brewer, fed up with the hassle, decided to sell the Heartbeat.

"I don't want to be a target," the 73-year-old Lido Isle resident said. "I hate to sell it, but she's too fast for what the Sheriff's Department says we can do in the harbor. I don't want to deal with it."

Bergquist insists that strained relations between sailors and law enforcement have improved.

The obscene gestures flashed at deputies do seem to have vanished, but some sailors are still chafing because of the intrusions on an institution that has provided a rhythm to their lives for decades.

For its part, the city of Newport Beach is adopting a wait-and-see approach through the busy summer season. "What it comes down to is self-policing and self-regulation, which is, in my opinion, an ideal way to solve the problem," said Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller. "So far, this summer's been uneventful, which is a good thing."

Sailors argue that they're in control of their boats and that deputies who think racers are careening recklessly through the harbor don't understand the intricacies of the sport.

For Rose, who sailed his first boat when he was 10 and had his current boat, It's OK, designed to measure just under the race's 50-foot limit, making minute adjustments to his sails in concert with guys he's known since high school is second nature.

Harbor Patrol deputies are trained in identifying boats, understanding how quickly they might sink and other aspects of boating safety. But they are not required to learn to sail. "We're looking at the rescue aspect, not the recreational aspect," Bergquist said.

After a series of gaffes by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Harbor Patrol more than a decade ago -- using the wrong jargon to make commands and having to cut down a sail because deputies couldn't lower it -- Deputy John Rochford pushed his captain to offer sailing instruction. Not only did deputies learn to sail, but for a while about half the patrol staff joined Marina del Rey's Wednesday night races while off-duty.

Down the coast, die-hards such as Rose are laboring to see eye-to-eye with a Harbor Patrol perceived as threatening a pastime that's more obsession than hobby.

When he's squinting at the glimmering horizon, flicking his eyes to the sails, everything else wilts away.

Well, almost.

"Every once in a while," he says, "you break your train of concentration to have a sip of beer."