As recently as three decades ago, if you owned a sailboat in Ventura County you needed an extra piece of equipment: a trailer. Despite miles of shoreline, there was virtually no permanent mooring.
"You could anchor near Ventura Pier, but every time you wanted to get to your boat, you had to climb down a rope ladder and take a row boat," said Don Mills, a civil engineer who is the historian of the Ventura Yacht Club. And, he adds, there was room for only about 20 sailboats.
Ventura County was a boater's paradise waiting for a marina. That finally happened in the early 1960s with the construction of Ventura Harbor in the city of Ventura and Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. Today, approximately 3,500 boats are permanently moored in the two harbors, and the area has become one of California's prime sailing locales.
But aside from ideal wind and wave conditions, Ventura has something that most areas cannot offer their sailors: a destination. Channel Islands National Park--a string of five islands--is just a few miles off the coast, close enough for an easy afternoon cruise.
"If you sail out of Marina del Rey, you've really got no place to go except Catalina, and once you've done that it gets pretty dull," said Robert VanBenthuysen, who lives in Ventura Harbor aboard his 32-foot sloop. "Sailing in Ventura is much more interesting."
VanBenthuysen is a member of the Ventura Yacht Club, the oldest boating organization in the county. Founded in 1938 as the Ventura County Boat Club, the VYC has grown from 60 to its current 218 members. It stages the annual Ventura Cup Regatta, which is considered the area's most prestigious race, and wields a great deal of influence over sailing in Ventura.
Fifty years ago, the VYC thought it had found a permanent a home in then-new Port Hueneme Harbor. But the U. S. Navy evicted the club at the outbreak of World War II. After the war, club members concentrated their efforts on getting a harbor built in Ventura.
In 1952, the VYC was instrumental in helping create the city of Ventura Port District, a public agency. It took an additional 10 years before a $4.7 million bond issue was passed and construction begun on about 250 acres of swampland on Pierpont Bay. A huge dry hole was excavated to a maximum depth of 15 feet, the dirt transported inland to help build sections of the Ventura and Santa Paula freeways. Jettys were built and then a dredge chewed a channel, allowing seawater to flood the harbor.
The VYC secured a 50-year lease from the Port District and built a two-level clubhouse in 1967. Sailing was on its way in Ventura--until nature got ugly. In 1969, the harbor was wiped out by the greatest flood in the recorded history of the area.
On Jan. 25, 1969, the Santa Clara River jumped its banks and flooded, but damage was minimal. Exactly a month later, the river overflowed again, this time sending a crushing wall of water down the flood plain. At Ventura Harbor, more than 100 boats were destroyed or lost when they were propelled out to sea like giant surfboards. Most of the 1,900 slips also were destroyed.
After the flood, the VYC clubhouse was virtually an island, accessible only by dinghy, and the devastated harbor had to be dredged. Sailing came to a halt for a couple of years.
While Ventura Harbor was built specifically for recreation, Channel Islands Harbor was created by the Army Corps of Engineers as a sand trap to control erosion on down-coast beaches. But Ventura County, which runs the harbor, quickly recognized the recreation possibilities, and 3,600 slips were built. Today, the harbor is home to four clubs, including the 400-member Pacific Corinthian Yacht Club.
Despite their proximity--only seven miles apart on Harbor Boulevard--the two harbors are not rivals, Don Mills said. "We don't compete, we complement each other," he said.
Ventura County sailors are always comparing their turf and surf to Marina del Rey, a massive South Bay harbor with 6,100 slips. In comparison, the harbors at Ventura and Channel Islands seem almost quaint.
"It's a quiet, little-town atmosphere here," said Sandi Hirlinger, who lives aboard a 41-foot trimaran in Ventura Harbor and belongs to the Pierpont Bay Yacht Club. "There are a lot of boats here, but there's not the everyday traffic like Marina del Rey. There's no hustle and bustle."
But sailing off the Ventura coast, as idyllic as it is, can be "treacherous," said Dotty Massa, a grandmother who is the VYC's first woman commodore. "You have to be aware of a lot of things. You have to know your boat, how the marina is laid out, your compass bearings, and the wind conditions--the wind can go from zero to 20 or 30 knots in a short time.
"Sailing here is exciting, but it's only as dangerous as you make it."