Remote Experiences


You can take your kids sailing Sunday without ever leaving the San Fernando Valley--if you go to Lake Balboa at the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Center, that is.

We’re talking radio-controlled, detailed, scale-model boats about a yard long that can be rented from “Boatkeeper” Ray Lopez, who can be found at the southeast end of the lake.

“You’re really sailing,” Lopez tells his young customers, as he instructs them how to operate the remote control panels on a miniature craft resembling Stars & Stripes, the vessel that won the America’s Cup a few years ago.


“Kids pick it up, it’s almost innate,” Lopez explained recently. “When you see a kid catch on to the maneuvers that make a sailboat catch the wind and move, out there under their control, they get a grin that won’t come off their faces.”

Lopez’s fleet is a mix of 14 types of vessels, including sailboats, fishing boats and tugboats, all painstakingly assembled by him and members of his Van Nuys family from kits that cost several hundred dollars each.

A Los Angeles native, Lopez has been building and sailing model boats in local ponds since childhood. While working as a manufacturing supervisor at a Torrance wheelchair factory, he was looking for a business of his own. In 1998 he made a deal with the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Center to start his Boatkeeper operation--in both Spanish and English.

Lopez’s tugboats and fishing boats are powered by small, silent electrical engines. The sailboats have no engine at all--they are powered only by the breeze, with the remote control allowing skippers to manipulate the sails. This is in contrast to miniature powerboats, that are fueled by gasoline and are known for creating a noisy buzz similar to that of remote control airplanes. “I don’t subscribe to the model powerboat idea--the noise, and they crash into things,” Lopez said. With a nod toward the lake where boats controlled by young clients glided silently among the ducks and herons, Lopez said, “I like to listen to classical radio at the same time I do business.”

Lopez has named his boats after family members, friends and even his pets, except for two tugs named Castor and Pollux, a pair of stars in the constellation Gemini.


On a recent Sunday, Canoga Park Middle School student Marcos Martinez chose Castor because, he said, “I want to be an astronomer.”


Nearby, in a deck chair at the water’s edge, Alyssa Campbell, 8, enjoyed a treat from her grandmother, Lorraine Loeff of Van Nuys, while deftly using a hand-held radio control panel to navigate a boat among some ducks. Noticing the girl’s steely concentration, Loeff asked quietly, “Is it like Nintendo?” No response. Loeff repeated her question. Silence. Then, with a sharp affirmative nod, Alyssa answered, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Watching nearby, Lopez remarked, “The kids do this with utter concentration. Girls have better eye-hand coordination. They make better skippers than boys.”

An exception to this generalization is Noah Luke, 6, a regular customer and trusted unofficial helper to Lopez. “I want to have a remote control collection,” Noah said as he hoisted a sailboat larger than himself out of its carrying case and put it into the water for a customer. “I have a boat and car and need a plane and copter.”

His father, Dick Luke, a studio electrician, watched.

“I got interested in this because of my kid,” he said.

Noah and his dad spent an hour a night for three months assembling a radio-controlled miniature boat complete with a a fully equipped galley.

Customers often ask Lopez where in the Valley they can get kits to build their own boats. He suggests places where he has bought some of his own craft, including Smith Bros. in Northridge, Gizmos in Burbank and Family Hobby in Valencia.


Boatkeeper, Sepulveda Basin Recreation Center, Lake Balboa. Rental site is between the paddle boats and the playground. Enter on Balboa Boulevard midway between Burbank and Victory boulevards. Hours: Sundays, 10 a.m.-sunset. Rentals: $4 for 15 minutes, $7 for 30 minutes, $12 for an hour. (818) 709-4540.