Thursday, October 2, 2008
There’s a universal understanding at the beer-can boat races: a six-pack of suds equals a spot aboard a vessel.
And there’s one rule: Have fun. Racing sailboats doesn’t always have to be competitive. Beer-can races are beloved in the sailing community precisely because of that. It’s an opportunity for sailing-lovers to get together to drink, test the seas and enjoy each other’s camaraderie without the stress of real contention, though there are still some light-hearted rivalries.
Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club hosts these races on Wednesdays at 5pm. It’s the perfect opportunity for non-sailors like me to hang with the big guys and enjoy the ocean, without judgment cast for lack of skill.
As the sun prepares to set over Monterey Bay, I carry my six-pack of trade into the club as a sonata of hiccupping seals and lapping ocean waves create the perfect nautical soundtrack.
Despite the wimpy 12-knot winds and a sea as flat as a sand dab, a fleet of about 15 small- to mid-sized sailboats convenes.
Everyone prepares for the race, filling their buckets and coolers with generous amounts of Tecate, Sierra Nevada and Blue Moon brews.
“All these people are young at heart,” local sailor Sid Hamilton says after taking the last swig of beer from his bottle.
Hamilton– a laid-back dude with a sun-bleached goatee– has been sailing since the mid-’90s.
He chuckles as he cracks open another brew and acknowledges Riley, a floppy-eared Chihuahua-mix in a mini life jacket, kicking back on the rear of the boat Santy Anna.
“[Riley] goes below when it’s crazy out there,” Hamilton says, “but when it’s calm he likes to lay out in the sun.”
Openings for extra crew members on the smaller vessels are scarce, but I manage to get adopted into a four-person crew consisting of Sarah and David Duncan, Jack Allen and Kit Ruck, whose husband John is the club’s commodore.
Sarah’s grandfather built Calphurnia in the ’60s. The 28-foot sailboat is named after Sarah’s great-grandmother.
“Sailors, we are family,” says Sarah, who has been sailing since she was 4 but has been an active sailor for about eight years, when she inherited the boat.
“Our number one goal is to have fun during these races,” Allen adds, taking his position at the rear as the boat’s driver.
Sarah starts the boat’s engine and her husband takes position as captain, standing at the front to orchestrate the crew’s adjustments.
As we cruise out of the dock area, the pleasant mood is matched perfectly by a small group of playful dolphins swimming briefly alongside the boat.
Sarah jokes, “The boat tips big time,” then blows into a large conch shell, Lord of the Flies-style, sounding a deep bellow, as David initiates the raising of the main sail.
The wind quickly picks up, knocking Sarah into my personal space.
“You get to know people very quickly in sailing,” she says.
Our watercraft joins a fleet of about 10, including Yankee, October and Stillwater near the Race Committee boat, to find out our course and to await the signal to begin. Allen explains that the course is dependent on wind and the roughness of the water.
The five-minute countdown begins after the course is laid out on a dry-erase board displayed on the Race Committee boat.
The engines are cut and we’re ready to go. I get a crash course on sailing duties, which include tacking and jibing (pulling the sail to go with the wind and away from the wind, respectively).
With the race underway, the winds surge and the ocean roughens.
The possibility of seasickness creeps up on me but I manage to fend it off, keeping my eyes on the horizon.
For a few minutes I silently observe the crew operate the boat’s network of ropes and pulley systems.
“I told you we were going to put you to work,” Sarah says as she hands me an ocean-soaked rope.
“Pull it!” Kit yells.
I yank the rope till it’s tight, then Kit tells me to give the rope some slack or else the boat will stall.
My official job title: jib trimmer.
We approach the finish line and take an impressive second place after IXXIS, named after 9/11.
In the name of nautical bliss, beers are cracked and the celebration begins. We convene at the Yacht Club, which vibrates with congratulations, laughter and sailing stories intermingled with hefty doses of liquor and barbecue.
“I just enjoy everything about the ocean,” says Tracy Call, owner and skipper of IXXIS.
“And the beer,” adds one of the boat’s seven crew members and self-proclaimed “pit wench,” Charlene Sturm.
“It’s all about the team effort,” Call says, “and drinking a few beers.”
Beer-can races happen every Wednesday at 5pm at the Monterey Bay Yacht Club on Municipal Wharf #2. Spots are not guaranteed. 372-9686.