Setting Sail Just for Fun : Hobie Sailors Seem Happy They Race for Pride, No Profit

On the shores of a strip of beach here, some of the best catamaran sailors in the world take a break and munch on hot dogs.

They visit with each other and chit-chat about the day's racing.

This particular day is overcast, but the winds are kicking up so these sailors look forward to an upcoming race.

They joke about races past and laugh about what might happen during future races. Who will do what to whom today?

It's a leisurely group. So leisurely, in fact, that it's easy to forget that these sailors are out to win a national championship. They look more as though they are getting ready to go out on the water, have a few beers and then tell old sailing stories.

The hot dogs are finally devoured and it is time to race. Faces turn stern. The sailors fidget with their boats to get everything just right. Once the horn blows, this is serious racing.

Things will be serious today at La Jolla Shores for the final round of the Hobie 17 U.S. National Catamaran Sailing Championships.

No prize money is at stake. The sailors compete for pride and the love of the sport.

"The people in the sport are one of the things that makes this so great," said Hobie Alter Jr., whose father created the Hobie catamaran in the 1960s. "In other sports where a lot of money is involved, you get groups of people who hang out together. In this sport, we all get together and party together."

And, of course, they race together--or, rather, against each other.

There were four races on this particular day, with racers qualifying for the championship round. Each sailor raced twice and gained points. The top 36 compete for the championship today.

These racers have to motivate themselves, because there are no roaring crowds at these championships. On this overcast day, there were few fans out for the races. And the ones who were there couldn't see much anyway. Most of the racing takes place about a quarter-mile offshore.

"Heck, for a spectator, this is more boring than watching golf," Alter said. "People watch golf because a lot of them play golf. If you like to sail, there's no reason to watch. You want to get involved."

This week's championship carries a little extra incentive because this is the first Hobie 17 national championship (the catamaran is 17 feet long).

Hobie 14 (single man) and Hobie 16 and 18 (doubles) championships have been held since 1969. The Hobie 14 was came first, followed a couple of years later by the Hobie 16. The first Hobie 18 championship was in San Diego in 1978.

Last year, a group headed by catamaran sailor John Wake designed a bigger catamaran for single racing. The Hobie 14 was getting too small for the rigors of sailing and for the size of some of the participants. Thus, a 17 was added to Hobie catamaran racing.

"I haven't seen anything bad yet with these new boats," said Enrique Figueroa, 22, a sailor from Puerto Rico, who was 17 when he won the Hobie 14 World Championship in 1981. "They should make for some good, competitive racing."

Said Alter: "This is one-design racing, which means that all of us are trying to win in the exact same boat. You have to go with what they give you. You battle not only against the other sailors but against the conditions as well."

Said Randy Smyth, a silver medalist in sailing in the 1984 Olympics: "The wind is different all the time and the conditions are different. This never gets boring. It's a new challenge every time you go out."

And, as Alter says, the racer's sailing skill is the determining factor in who wins.

"In auto racing, the guy with the best car can win," Alter said. "In the America's Cup races, the people with the most money win. Here, it's just the sailing."

And, even though a casual onlooker might not notice it, there's plenty of strategy involved.

In one race Wednesday, Hobie's brother, Jeff Alter, tacked (changed direction) after working his boat around one of the five racing markers on the course. The three boats ahead of him went one way and there went Alter, searching for a shorter course, diving under the sail to the other side of the boat to head in a totally different direction.

Jeff Alter's maneuver enabled him only to move from fourth to third, but Carlton Tucker was able to win a race with a tactical move.

Allan Egusa was leading the race when he was forced wide around a marker by Tucker, who positioned his boat between Egusa's and the marker and kept sailing straight for about 30 more yards.

Egusa could not do anything about the move and was forced to wait until Tucker tacked before he could head for the marker. The move vaulted Tucker into the lead and helped him win.

Earlier, Tucker was sailing along when his tiller extension pin fell out. He had to reattach it while the race was going on, losing the lead until he made the tactical move around the marker.

Tucker's problem with the extension pin was another example of why these athletes love Hobie racing. There are no pit stops a half-mile from shore. Skippers are on their own.

However, making repairs on the fly is not quite as exhilarating as just being on the fly. The sailors must hang suspended over the water to keep the boats from overturning. They attach themselves to a line, putting their feet on the side and stretching out over the water.

"There's no better feeling in the world," Smyth said.

Well, almost none better. For Smyth, there also is that Olympic silver medal.

"A lot of people like to come over and look at it," he said. "But that was just one race. The main thing I like about this sport is the atmosphere out here. Where else can you get to compete like this and go to so many wonderful places.

"If you do this long enough, you'll have friends all over the world."

Friends maybe, but money probably not. All of the sailors hold other jobs. Those with sponsors get hotel rooms and plane tickets paid for, but that's all.

"I don't think there will ever be any money in this kind of racing," Hobie Jr. said. "We're not that interested in that. We like our boats and we like to race them."

They also like the time between races, too.

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