Sailors Can Tack to Their Hearts' Content in Weeknight Races

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Every Wednesday around 6 p.m. in Newport Harbor, Karl Gronbach glides across the starting line in his 20-foot sailboat, leaving his workday worries behind. "For me, this is a midweek high," Gronbach says. "It takes the strain away."

Gronbach is one of hundreds of sailors who rush from their offices to the dock to take part in eight different weeknight, in-the-harbor races held Tuesday through Friday all summer long.

Most sailors, like Gronbach, compete in just one series, but a few die-hard racers sail nearly every evening. Although sailboats have been competing in Newport Harbor since 1917, when the county's first yacht club was founded, the oldest of today's organized summer series--the Beer Cans Races--dates back only to the 1950s.

As 77-year-old Jack Baillie recalls: "It started when we raced my 10-meter boat, Hilaria, against an 8-meter boat named Cheerio. We got into a discussion that worked into an argument about which boat could beat the other on any course in the harbor. So we had a race and I won. We continued racing every Wednesday during the summer. Then, more boats joined us. After about two years, it grew very fast as other boats came along."

Today, instead of two boats, you are likely to find more than 100 boats competing on any given evening. On a recent Thursday, Balboa Yacht Club's Beer Cans series drew 70 entries, ranging from 20 to 48 feet in length. Across the bay, Newport Harbor Yacht Club's Twilight Series drew another 40 boats.

"When you get that many boats, there are traffic jams all the time," says Peter Huston, race administrator at Balboa Yacht Club. "Especially around the ferry crossing. The ferries have the right of way so you've got to stop and tack around them. There are near-collisions every week."

No one seems to know exactly how the Beer Cans series got its name. Baillie speculates that some of the earlier sailors may have thrown beer cans in the water as they sailed through the bay. Huston says he heard that early sailors used a beer can as a racing mark. "With all the emphasis on safe boating and non-drinking today, we don't like to play up the name," Huston says. "But changing the name would be like trying to change Christmas to another day."

The emphasis in all the summer races is on fun rather than cutthroat competition, says John Shug, spokesman for South Shore Yacht Club, which sponsors the harbor's Wednesday night Hibachi series. "These are the kind of races where you can come out even if you have never raced before," Shug says.

About 40 boats usually turn out for the Wednesday night Hibachis and another 50 boats compete in Balboa Yacht Club's Twilight series, which is held farther up the bay on the same evening.

The newest--and most unusual--addition to the summer racing calendar is the Wooden Boat Series, sponsored each Tuesday by Josh Slocum's Restaurant. The series, which began about seven years ago, is open only to wooden boats and attracts everything from 12-foot dinghies to 65-foot yachts like Baillie's Newsboy.

The races were started by Ernie Minney, longtime sailor and owner of the restaurant. Minney videotapes each race and shows the tapes at the restaurant immediately after the finish.

"We have people who come down just to watch the boats race," says Ken Gavitt, a racing regular. "We start and finish in front of the restaurant and it is quite a sight. It gets kind of hectic out there. In addition to our races, Orange Coast College is usually putting on a symposium with sabots."

Dodging sabots, ferries, moorings and other sailboats is standard fare for the weeknight sailors. "Traffic is always a consideration," Baillie says, "but Tuesday nights, when I race, are better than most days. It gives you a lot to think about, but the rules of the road are quite clear and I have never heard of any accidents. Besides, these boats don't really go very fast. Most racing is done at about six or seven miles an hour."

On Tuesday evening, at the same time as the wooden boats are racing near Josh Slocum's, a "whole bunch of little kids" are taking to the water in front of the Lido Isle Yacht Club, says Will Longyear, vice commodore of the club. "At 7 and 8 years old, we have some of the youngest racers," he says. "That's because we start them sailing at 5 years old."

On Friday nights, the club holds its adults-only sabot races, which draw an average of 20 entries. Also on Fridays, Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club holds its Summer Sun Series, which attracts about a dozen boats ranging from 25 to 45 feet in length.

"We are geared toward family racing," says Donna North, chairman in charge of the Summer Sun Series. "We started it mainly because there were so many races during the week that many families felt left out. So we've made this a family thing."

For Mel Richley, a regular in the Beer Cans for the past 23 years, family and friends are what the series is all about. Last summer, Richley counted 42 friends aboard his 48-foot boat Amante one evening. "Now we put a limit of 30 on the number of people we allow aboard," says Richley, who races with his wife, Rickie.

Richley, a winning sailor who takes most races quite seriously, says: "These races are just for fun. If we were racing seriously, we'd have a crew of 10 people on board--not 30."

All the evening races are operated under the Sundown Rule, which requires the first boat of the fleet to cross the finish line before sundown. "It's a safety factor," says Gronbach, "so that you don't have boats out there after dark."

Races usually begin around 6 or 6:30 p.m., and most boats take about an hour and a half to complete the course. "When daylight-saving time ends, it is always extremely disappointing," Gronbach says, "because we have to stop racing. I enjoy the races so much I wish we had daylight-saving time all year round. For me, it is a natural high."

Offshore race--The 20th annual Seal Beach-to-Dana Point yacht race, sponsored by the Seal Beach and Dana Point yacht clubs, will be held today.

The one-day, offshore race will run from Alamitos Bay breakwater to Dana Point Harbor entrance. For information, call (714) 828-2943.

Laser championship--The California State Laser Championship races will be held today and Sunday near Balboa Pier.

The two-day, five-race competition is sponsored by the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. Racing will take place about one-quarter mile west of Balboa Pier. For information, call (714) 673-7730.

Long-distance swim--The 21st annual Seal Beach Rough Water Swim is expected to attract 1,000 swimmers Sunday.

Activities begin at 6 a.m. with a 10-mile swim from west of the Huntington Beach Pier. The remaining swim meets, including three-mile and one-mile events in various age groups, will take place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Seal Beach Pier. For information, call (213) 598-3610.

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