Lilliputian Regatta Sets Sail in Irvine

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

When Harry Bourgeois' sleek sailboat tacks across the starting line, it leaves without captain or crew. Bourgeois stands at the water's edge, watching as his craft sails on without him. But he's still doing the navigating. That's because the boats in this regatta are toy-size models sailed by remote control.

Orange County Model Sailing Club sailors such as Bourgeois follow the same racing rules as the skippers of full-size craft, and the boats are built of the same high-tech materials as an oceangoing yacht. Their "ocean," however, is the lake at William R. Mason Regional Park in Irvine, where model enthusiasts spend weekends sailing in informal regattas or practicing for the next big regional competition.

A model sailboat operates on the same principle as a model airplane. There are two controls for each boat--one for the rudder, and one for sails. There are a number of model boat sizes and classes, but the most popular in this club is 50 inches long, weighs 10 pounds and carries 600 square inches of sail.

The secret to winning, according to Swede Johnson, 70, a retired sail maker who designs and builds his own models, is in keeping the boat as light as possible.

Johnson should know. He has earned his share of racing trophies in regattas around the country. Johnson is one of the three founding members of the Orange County club, and he has been racing model boats since the 1950s and building them in the garage of his Costa Mesa home since the 1960s. In fact, Johnson and Bourgeois, 71, recently returned from national model sailing championships in Dayton, Ohio, where Bourgeois took a first place and Johnson a third. And at the state championships this year, Johnson took first and Bourgeois took third.

In making his models, Johnson does everything from cutting and sewing the sails to casting the lead keels. He even uses a personal computer for his hull designs. "I try to keep up with the latest technology," he says. "New materials allow us to do a lot more things today. It's very interesting to try to make these boats go faster."

Indeed, many of the 30 or so members of the Orange County Model Sailing Club sail boats designed and built by Johnson.

Although many club members have experience sailing in big boats, Johnson says it is not necessary to know how to sail a full-size craft to be proficient at sailing a toy one. "We have a lot of people who have sailed," he said, "but a lot of really good model sailors have never sailed big boats."

Mark Mason, 41, the commodore of the club, says one member "had never sailed before in his life. He had never even been in a big sailboat. But he has beat some of the top (model) sailors in the country."

All it takes to become a member of the club is interest and enthusiasm, according to Johnson. "We don't have a club as such--any time someone comes out to the park to participate, they are a member of our club. If people want to try it, we'll let them . . . That's how others get involved."

There are no dues and no official meetings, Mason says. The members range in age from the mid 20s to 70s, with most between 35 and 55. "We only have two women in the club," Mason says. "I would love to see more women, minorities and young people become involved." The cost of a finished model sailboat, complete with remote control, is about $500, according to Mason. "A lot of people want to sail and can't afford a 40-foot boat. These boats you can afford," says Mason, who now owns two models.

Mason, who has been racing models for more than a year, says that "sailing the models is every bit as much a skill as sailing the big boats. These boats really fly. They get incredible speeds. People come out and watch, and they can't believe that the boats don't have motors." Top speed for a model sailboat is around eight knots, Mason says. "It's really exciting."

For information about the Orange County Model Sailing Club, call Mason at (714) 854-7210, or stop by the lake at Mason Park, 18712 University Drive, Irvine, between 1 and 4 p.m. any Saturday or Sunday.

"There's somebody out sailing every weekend," he says. "Sometimes we run as many as 20 to 25 races informally on a weekend."

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