Like pirate ships prowling merchant routes, 16 wooden sailing vessels slipped out of Marina del Rey last weekend in advance of the starting gun for the 28th annual One More Time Regatta. Their peeled-log masts, varnished railings and cotton sails evoked the seafaring life and by contrast made the whitish fiberglass boats all around look like bathtub toys.
Entrants in the regatta, put on by the Wooden Hull Yacht Club of Southern California, were to sail 12 nautical miles around buoys anchored in the open sea between Santa Monica and El Segundo. The winners would receive a trophy and the slowest boat would be duly recognized as well. Our crew of six had only three experienced sailors, but skipper Calvin Milam assured us our 63-year-old sloop Sosie would be fast enough.
Regatta organizers use a formula comparing length, sail area and other factors to produce a time handicapping system that allows sailboats of differing shapes and sizes to compete against one another. With sloops, ketches, yawls, cutters and schooners all racing together, the handicap system is designed to equalize differences in design and emphasize sailing ability.
The One More Time event, one of several wooden boat races on the West Coast, was so named in 1977 because its forerunner, the Bicentennial Regatta, was rained out. Sailors of wooden vessels banded together in 1972 to form the Wooden Hull Yacht Club in response to the advent of more affordable fiberglass sailboats in the '70s. The vast majority of yachts and sailboats built today are made of fiberglass.
The newest boats in the regatta were 20 years old, the oldest 70. Almost all of them had undergone extensive restoration.
The regatta is "more of a beauty pageant than a race," said Randy Ames, a tax accountant who came up from San Diego in his Luders 16, its design dating to the 1920s. He said he has little interest in newer boats. "Fiberglass has that chalky, fake look. They just don't look real floating next to a wooden boat," he said.
Some skippers are merely the latest generation of a family to care for a wooden boat, but for others the high-maintenance hobby is an inexplicable passion.
"I could have bought an apartment building during the '80s," said Leon Cherniack. "But instead I bought Baruna. It's not practical. It's not an investment. It's an emotional thing." Two decades ago, Cherniack spent more than $100,000 to resurface the underside of Baruna, a 72-foot yawl that won the Newport-to-Bermuda race in 1938, the year it was built.
Sailboat races have starting points, but sailors do not drop anchor waiting for a regatta to begin. Instead they must sail in circles and aim to cross the starting line immediately after the starting gun but not before.
Sosie got caught in "dead air," losing wind from its sails just as the starting gun fired. Precious minutes elapsed before we could gain enough momentum to pass the starting line and, by that time, we had drifted almost to last place.
Trailing the other boats by what seemed half a mile, we watched the leaders turn out to sea after the Santa Monica buoy. Sea lions sunning themselves on the buoy brayed and maybe even jeered as our helmsman steered us into the wind and past their sleek bodies, circling the buoy.
Progress upwind is made by tacking -- zigzagging into the eye of the wind -- a point in the race where sailing skills can make up lost time. The Sosie overtook another racer, only to be overtaken again.
By the time we passed the next buoy, we couldn't even see any boats in front of us. Then the radio crackled with an advisory from regatta officials. It seemed many boats had missed the westernmost buoy and were now in danger of disqualification. We had missed it, too, but were so far behind and so close to the missed buoy that the advisory worked to our advantage. By simply turning out to sea again, we had suddenly become one of the leaders of the regatta.
We swung around the missed buoy in pursuit of the only sailboat we could see ahead of us. Crew members barked orders at one another. "Ready on the sheets!" one yelled as we prepared to round the final buoy marking El Segundo. "Coming about!" yelled another as the helmsman turned the rudder and the sails lost wind. "Watch your head!" yelled the first again as the big boom under the mainsail swung out to the other side.
"Nobody's listening to me!" our helmsman cried out when the sails momentarily lost wind. Retorts came quickly, as did action to regain momentum, and soon we were laughing with fierce glee as we passed the only sailboat we thought was ahead of us. Constantly adjusting the sails down the homestretch to maximize speed, we held our position and crossed the finish line. Were we first?
As it turned out, we finished second in our class. But we had hopes for the title, because regatta officials were still trying to sort out conflicting accounts of which racers had rounded the westernmost buoy.
The uncertain outcome left some sailors disgruntled. A few mouthed oaths and a letter of protest was signed by crew members of one boat. At the awards dinner, officials delayed presentation of the grand trophy, saying they would confer again and determine a winner later.
But picking a winner wasn't the only challenge facing club officials. Despite the pageantry of the race, there is the fear that the next generation of sailors may forget about wooden boats.
Club official Tom Zetlmaier conceded that members are graying faster than newcomers are arriving. Some owners could not race for lack of a crew, or because their boats had fallen into disrepair.
"It is our mission to introduce young people to what we do," Zetlmaier said. "We find that people have a blast if they just come out and join us. We'd like to have more of that."