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Once ‘Flight of the Snowbirds,’ today’s Flight of Newport Beach sailboat race carries on 85-year tradition

Lasers navigate into position at the start line of Flight of Newport Beach sailboat race in Newport Harbor on Sunday.
Thirty-six Lasers navigate into position at the start line of Flight of Newport Beach sailboat race in Newport Harbor on Sunday.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman)

Sunday found local sailing enthusiasts vying for bragging rights in the 85th annual Flight of Newport Beach, but one did not need to be a sailor to appreciate the stirring vision as the race got underway on the south side of Balboa Island.

”You’ll never see that many sailboats on a start line at the same time,” said David Beek, race chairman. “They all line up and want to be the first one across the start line.”

Beek’s father, Balboa Island resident Seymour Beek, began racing in the event in 1941 when it was Flight of the Snowbirds. He was 7 years old and captured the award for the youngest skipper.

Today at 88 he continues to enjoy sailing and seeing familiar faces competing next to him in his Laser named Big Jim.

Over the years, the senior Beek has not only competed in a variety of sailing races but has also served as principal race officer for the Flight of Newport Beach.

“This event is a single race spectacle, the only one of its kind,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun for a lot of people and as a yacht race shouldn’t be taken too seriously.”

Flight of Newport Beach race chairman David Beek keeps watch on the Sunday race from his boat. With him is Bronny Daniels.
Flight of Newport Beach race chairman, David Beek keeps watch on the Sunday race from his boat. With him is Bronny Daniels.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman)

Irvine resident Rich Luttrell, who has been racing Lasers for 25 years competed this year with his wife, Karen for the first-place “Married Couple” award. He agrees the event is all in fun.

“Twenty percent of the people are out there to win a race,” Luttrell said. “But with so many boats, most people are trying to either beat the boat ahead or stay in front of the boat behind.”

The event is the longest running continuous race in Newport Harbor. Sponsored by the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, Commodores Club, and hosted by the Balboa Yacht Club, Beek explained that the event is free and open to all ages.

“Along with the no age limit and free to enter, there is no yacht club affiliation,” he said. “A lot of kids come out and sail without experience. We encourage everyone to come out.”

Sailing his Laser, Big Jim, Seymour Beek, 88, competes in Flight of Newport Beach sailboat race on Sunday.
Sailing his Laser “Big Jim,"Seymour Beek, 88, competes in Flight of Newport Beach sailboat race on Sunday.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman)

The race continues to evolve by keeping current with vessel changes.

The premier race started as the Flight of the Snowbirds in 1936 and became one of the largest small sailboat races in the world, with 200 boats entered at its height of popularity in 1950.

A Snowbird is a small wooden boat class with an 11-foot hull and was once the most popular boat in Newport Beach.

In the early 1970s the race became Flight of the Kites, an American recreational sailing dinghy with wooden mast and a fiberglass hull that was nearly a foot longer than the Snowbird.

In 1979 the race then became the Flight of the Lasers. The Laser boat is constructed of fiberglass and was built with an emphasis on simplicity and performance.

It has become one of the most popular dinghy classes in the history of competitive racing. The lightweight Laser is 13.9 feet and can accommodate two sailors.

Today the race is called the Flight of Newport Beach, officially named by the Commodores Club in 2019. With the trend for better and faster boats there are 100-plus boats in three different classes, Harbor-20, Lasers and a new class of high performance, O’pen Skiff.

With the addition of Harbor 20-boat type, a 20-foot-long, 900-pound contemporary daysailer that can hold up to eight people.

The 9-foot-long O’pen Skiff, with a self draining hull of polyethylene, attracts younger sailors and can hold a couple of people.

 Jane Hoffner Horst, Merry Cheers and Susan Jennings compete for the Balboa Yacht Club.
The all-female team sailing Balboa Yacht Club boat, SkipHers in Flight of Newport Beach on Sunday, are, from left, Jane Hoffner Horst, Merry Cheers and Susan Jennings.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman)

Newport Beach resident Jane Hoffner Horst and her all-female team raced a Harbor-20 boat. Although Horst has been racing for about 40 years, mostly in Long Beach, this was only her second time entering the Flight of Newport Beach.

Horst, a member of the Balboa Yacht Club, coaches an H-20 sailing clinic for women at the club on Monday nights.

“It’s a really fun regatta” she said. “It’s basically a tour of the Newport Harbor, while mixing it up with a lot of different boats.”

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