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Members Ahoy : Shark Island Yacht Club Hopes to Lure More Powerboaters to Hop Aboard

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After years of the daily grind, the last thing some people want to do is trim sails and haul halyards.

So at Shark Island Yacht Club, captains from every walk of industry join together to pilot one thing--powerboats. Powerboats ranging from small craft to big yachts that the work-weary can put on auto-cruise while they sit back and hoist only a dry martini.

Ten times a year, these manufacturers, entrepreneurs, restaurant owners and attorneys cruise en masse out of Newport Harbor, headed for ports from San Diego to San Francisco, the blue burgee with its gold propeller flying stiffly in the breeze.

And throughout the seasons, members can be seen motoring the harbor, fishing the open waters, sitting on their docked yachts by the Balboa Island Bridge or hobnobbing at the club’s restaurant and bar.

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But this is not just any yacht club. This is a decidedly exclusive fraternity. In fact, members say it’s one of only three yacht clubs in the world--the others are in Florida and New Zealand--that are restricted to powerboat owners and devotees. The club is not open to sailboat owners.

There’s been a price to pay for that exclusivity.

Shark Island Yacht Club, founded in 1960, once had about 240 members, but because of sailing’s soaring popularity and billowing fuel costs, club membership has dwindled to about 100 people and 70 boats.

The club restaurant’s service recently was curtailed to three days a week, and the majority of the remaining members are older than 45.

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Yet despite rough financial seas, members have no plans to invite sailboats to join.

Instead, they are launching a campaign drive to recruit new and younger powerboating members. The members have raised additional money to refurbish the club, and they plan to hire a new, full-time restaurant service.

Club manager Pam Nesbitt said that in addition to sailing’s dominance, tight financial times have made it difficult for younger members to invest in powerboats and join the yacht club.

“It’s been an uphill struggle the past seven years,” she said. “The yuppie crowd out there is trying to maintain their lifestyles, and belonging to any yacht club, especially a powerboat one, is difficult for them.”

Most yacht clubs today have both powerboats and sailboats as members, said George Hively, commodore of the Yacht Racing Union of Southern California, an umbrella organization for yacht clubs from Santa Barbara to Chula Vista.

“Yacht clubs came into existence to organize sailing races,” he said. “At one time of course, all private vessels were sailboats. It was only at the latter part of the last century that small powerboats made their appearance.”

Hively said the popularity of powerboating really took off after World War II, when a lot of small, surplus military craft became available. And about six years later, the advent of fiberglass made powerboats more affordable, he said.

“Yacht clubs began to change as powerboats were added,” said Hively. “And as men got older, they got powerboats. But then, largely as a result of the 1974 energy crisis, boating made a giant swing back to sail, as everyone was concerned with price and availability of fuel.”

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Member Bill Nemecek, 53, is an Irvine real estate agent who wears dual club hats as port captain and membership director. He said Shark Island Yacht Club members have nothing against sailboats. In fact, they lease their downstairs conference room for monthly meetings of the Voyagers, an all-sail yacht club that recently lost its lease at the 28th Street Marina in Newport Beach.

“Years ago, there were more powerboats than sailboats,” Nemecek said. “But powerboats are four to five times more expensive to run. And most yacht clubs allow both, because members with children often want those children to learn to sail. Plus, almost everyone has at one time had a sailboat.”

Sheila Van Guilder, commodore of the 260-member South Shore Yacht Club in Newport Beach, said she doesn’t understand limiting membership to one kind of boat.

“It is a different way of looking at yachting--whether you get someplace in a hurry or just lump along--but I don’t understand why they can’t be in the same club,” she said. “It just doesn’t make good sense, financially or otherwise.”

Van Guilder said about 15 of her club’s 158 boats are powerboats, otherwise known as “stinkpots.” “We use them for race committees,” she said. “And our powerboats don’t wait for the sailboats to get places. They just book on over and start the party earlier.

“Yes, there’s a rivalry. But it’s a friendly one. We welcome powerboaters.”

Lyle Eisel, 60, sat on one of two brocade couches in the plush living quarters of his 50-foot yacht, the April Ann, named after his granddaughter. The concrete manufacturer, whose tanned face is creased from years of boating, had just returned from a cruise to Long Beach along with about 60 other Shark Island Yacht Club members and guests.

Now, he, his wife, Jan, and fellow powerboaters were relaxing with cocktails before going to the club dining room for Sunday brunch.

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“It started out as all-powerboat club and it’ll always be that way,” Eisel said. “It’s about the cruising. How long does it take a sailboat to get to San Diego?” He laughed. “Too long,” he said.

Chuck Langlois, 58, former Shark Island commodore who is a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant and semi-retired realtor, agreed.

“The founders were tired of sailor types,” he said, smiling. “We like them, though, don’t get me wrong. A lot of powerboaters are ex-sailors. But as you get older, it’s a bit hard to pull those jibs.

“It’s also about the racing. Sailboaters are waiting for God to throw the wind at them. It’s a whole different kind of racing.”

But Langlois didn’t join for the racing.

“Why do all that work?” he said, laughing. “I joined to cruise and have fun.”

Langlois and his wife, Loretta, residents of Irvine, joined Shark Island Yacht Club about 15 years ago. He said he then had the 42-foot boat, the Sea-J, and wanted to enjoy its use and meet people from all over the world.

For health reasons, he later sold his boat and now hitches rides with other members.

“You don’t have to have a boat to be a member,” he said. “By being a member, I can make use of yacht clubs everywhere. I’ve been to yacht clubs in Great Britain, Canada, Spain, Denmark, Greece, Chile, Gibraltar and all up and down this coast. I’ve developed good friendships. This club is just pure fun.”

Eisel, who as a boy owned small fishing boats in Minnesota, stood and walked through his yacht, pointing out the telephones, the master stateroom, the two full heads with showers and the teak-lined pilot house.

“It’s a house on water,” he said. “When you’re in your own business, you need time away. I’m down here puttering almost every day.”

“It’s like a weekend condo,” said his wife, Jan, 56. “It’s good for my husband. He’s on the go all the time and needs this.”

Jan Eisel said most of her and her husband’s friends are in the club.

“I don’t care how old you are,” she said. “Being in the club keeps you going. It keeps the men busy and keeps you from getting old and boring.”

In addition to the 10 monthly ocean cruises, Shark Island Yacht Club takes an annual land cruise to places such as Las Vegas and holds various theme parties each month.

Fishing also plays a major role in club activities, with members engaging in tournaments as far away as Cabo San Lucas. There is a ham radio club, and the 25,000-square-foot clubhouse is site of weekly Power Squadron and Coast Guard powerboat classes.

The wives belong to the Sharkettes, an auxiliary that has its own fishing tournament and raises funds for the club, which is equipped with its own private pub, banquet room, formal dining room, bar and dancing area and view balconies.

“This is not a snobby club,” Nemecek said. “There’s something here for everyone--from boot stomping to black tie.

“Some other yacht clubs tend to cater more to the professional, but we have people from all walks of life. From electricians to presidents of corporations, rich and poor--everybody gets along with everybody.”

Now, the club’s goal is to increase membership to about 250 people.

To encourage the under-45 crowd, Shark Island is offering social memberships at no initiation cost in addition to the traditional vested memberships, whereby members actually own an interest in the club that is on land leased from the Irvine Co.

There will also be new business memberships, where up to three people can use one membership.

“It’s like starting a new yacht club,” Nemecek said. “To entice younger boaters, we’ll teach boating skills and offer small slips for them to start out with. Then they can work their way up to bigger boats.”

To join, a person has to be sponsored by a present member and appear before a review board. Not many people are turned down, he said.

“We don’t care if a person has no boat or a rowboat, and we’re not interested in credit-checking,” he said. “We’re looking for people who enjoy life and do what we like to do.”

“We’re here to have fun,” Nemecek said. “That’s what boating is all about.”


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