Skip Kempff has trouble remembering a time when there wasn’t a sailboat around the house or a regatta for which to prepare. Sailing has been a part of his family for generations. His father, in fact, died in sailing race.
So it would be a big surprise not to see Kempff, 45, a native San Diegan, competing in the Thistle Midwinters West Regatta off Mission Bay today through Sunday. He has been working frantically the past few weeks to finish rebuilding his 17-foot Thistle in time for this event, which starts at noon today with three open-ocean races.
This is the 20th Midwinters Regatta. Kempff is the only skipper to have competed in all of the first 19. The best he’s finished is third. But Kempff, who works as a chemist for a company that harvests kelp, said he always races to win.
But for this weekend skipper, sailing has genuinely been a labor of love.
His wife, Christy, will back him up on that. They kissed for the first time while they were tacking and jibing their way out to a San Pedro race course and announced their engagement at another regatta. As a teen-ager, she used to race against her future husband in Thistle regattas up and down the West Coast.
Christy jokes that her marriage to Skip was prearranged. The two had their first date the night before Christy’s 18th birthday. Christy picked Jan. 22 as their wedding date, but Skip said no, there was a regatta that weekend. They got married Jan. 15.
“I jumped my dad’s ship and joined (Skip’s) ship after that weekend,” she said. “We sailed nationals together. I used to be his regular crew until we started having kids.”
As teen-agers, Skip and Christy crewed for their fathers in the three-man boats. Their dads, Bee Kempff and John Brown, became good friends on the racing circuit. For three years before they started dating, Skip and his family would spend the night before an L.A. area regatta at the Browns’ house.
The couple celebrated their 19th anniversary last week and now have three children, two of whom sail. Lisa, 15, and Mack, 12, have crewed with dad. Heath, 6, can’t be far behind.
It’s in the blood.
Skip’s father was commodore of the Coronado Yacht Club in 1945, the year Skip was born. Bee Kempff raced in the Thistle national championships at the age of 62. He was 72 when he died in a racing accident off Coronado in October 1984.
“We know he fell off the boat,” Skip said. “We also know that he had some lung damage. He had just finished jibing the spinnaker on a very difficult reach-to-reach type jibe rounding the (Coronado) bridge. And I think the physical strain caused him to black out momentarily.
"(Bee’s death) was very difficult for us. But at the same time, we recognized that if he had written his own way of going, why it would have been exactly as it occured.”
Skip has followed in his father’s footsteps. He was commodore at Coronado in 1989. And nothing short of disaster has kept him from sailing the open seas.
In 1980, Kempff shunned officials who had canceled a regatta out of Newport Beach because of a small-craft advisory. He and his crew, which included San Diegan Larry Klaasen, capsized and nearly lost his vintage wooden Thistle, “Echo,” to the rocks.
“We went out because we had already taken the boat up to Newport to sail,” Kempff said. “And why were we going to sit around and watch the weather when it was blowing? That’s when it gets exciting.”
Said Klaasen, 46, who has crewed for Kempff the past 18 years: “In hindsight, that was kind of crazy.”
Klaasen was also on board when Echo capsized early in the 1980 Midwinters regatta. Kempff is still kicking himself over that mishap. He had his best crew that year and also figured he had his best shot to win the event.
Slightly less crazy was the way Skip and Christy came to be married. Although Christy rarely crews these days, it doesn’t seem so long ago that she was 12 and sailing with her father for the first time. That was the beginning of her relationship with Skip, sort of.
“When we first started going up there, Christy was pretty young,” Skip said. “She’s more than 6 1/2 years younger than I am. So there weren’t a whole lot of sparks then.”
Skip remembers how Christy and her three younger sisters would watch as he and his crew came ashore after sailing late into the evening.
“They’d grin and giggle,” he said. “That was the extent of how enamored any of us were with each other. Her dad and mom were actually my friends at the time. I always say that they had four daughters and I picked their best one.”
Five years came and went, and Christy realized that one way to get Skip’s attention was by racing against him. She now thinks that might have been the only way to get him.
“Sailing and I came as a package deal,” she said. “It’s very important to him, and I understand that.”
Christy said she’d rather shop than sail, and she prefers lake sailing over open-sea regattas. But she plans to sail with Skip once more, in two years at the Thistle nationals. By then, she figures, the kids will be old enough to look after themselves, and Echo will be broken-in again.
Since March, Skip has been in their Imperial Beach back yard rebuilding Echo, which was built in the 1950s. The undertaking was long overdue and has included every member of the Kempff family. Klaasen describes Echo as the “tackiest” boat in the water. Kempff passed up Thursday’s practice racing to put some finishing touches on the boat, which may not win this weekend but could be the surprise of the regatta because of its new appearance.
The project has also reduced Skip’s schedule from about 12 events to four in the past year. Because of rustiness, Kempff doesn’t expect to be in contention this weekend.
“I’m anxious,” he said, “but I don’t expect to do real well in the regatta. This is like bicycle sprint riding, where there is stamina and conditioning and learning and sensing the boat. With the length of time I’ve been away, I’m sure my feel and sensitivity to it has been reduced.”
But then he pulled back and thought for a moment.
“Winning’s always a priority,” he said. “My dad used to have a statement on his boat that says: ‘Winning isn’t everything, but it sure beats coming in second.’ ”