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RECREATION IN SAN DIEGO : Sabot Sailing: Serving High Seas to the Masses

Second in a series on recreation in San Diego, which will be published Fridays during the summer.


SAN DIEGO — Usually it's the parents who try to get their children involved in recreational activities.

In sabot sailing, it's often the reverse.

In the late 1960s, Betty Barr's three children wanted to try sailing with the San Diego Yacht Club. It didn't take long for mom to follow suit.

Like the children, she learned on a sabot, a small, wooden boat that resembles a wooden shoe. The sabots are 8 feet long with one sail, and they weigh about 95 pounds.

Barr is now considered one of San Diego County's finest female sailors. She recently won the San Diego division of the Adam's Cup, the top sailing event in the nation for women, using a 24-foot boat.

But mention sabots to Barr and she immediately lights up.

"The exciting thing is that young kids can do it, middle-aged people can do it, older people can do it, grandmothers can do it, anybody can do it," said Barr, 46, a registered nurse at Grossmont Hospital. "It's really wonderful because there is such a variety of people who can participate and be competitive."

Because of the boat's small size, sabot sailors don't need to be terribly strong to stay in control.

Sabots, which were designed in Naples, Calif., in 1946, are often used to teach the basics of sailing. Some of the best racing skippers in the world, including America's Cup winner Dennis Conner of San Diego--began their sailing careers in sabots because of the skills learned while guiding the small crafts.

And once children learn, parents often follow.

Barr is a member of a group of women who have been sailing weekly since 1969. They call themselves the Sexy Sailing Sabot Set, which includes women of varying ages and occupations who meet every Tuesday at the San Diego Yacht Club for a day of racing. Many of the original members--there are about 25 women in the group--still race weekly.

"If I wasn't sailing every Tuesday, I would probably be at home defrosting my refrigerator or cleaning my oven," said Jane Kenny, one of the club founders. "It's just a nice day for the mothers to get out. It's mainly for recreation. Some people like to go out and bat a tennis ball around a court. We like to race sailboats."

Said Barr: "I love just getting out and being on the water. I love the companionship, too, because when we sail or race, it is really special. It's good to be out with nature and with people."

The races, although friendly, are often rigorous events. The serious sailor is often changing position, yanking on the mast and leaning with her back skipping across the water to maneuver the boat.

But it is not a sport that can be immediately learned. There are a variety of factors that the sabot sailor must take into consideration while on the water.

The wind is an ever-changing force that the sabot sailor must watch. Experienced sailors such as Barr and Kenny can watch the surface of the bay to determine wind shifts.

During a race, a sailor's eyes are continually racing back and forth to check on what the other sailors are doing and what her own boat is doing.

"Mentally, you have to work very hard, because you have to figure out where to go, what to do, what the other sailors are doing and what your sails are doing," Barr said. "You also have to be watching the water so you can see if the wind is coming from a different direction and how you are going to react to it. You have to think about that before it gets to you or you get to it.

"You have to sort all of this out and figure out how to best go out and win a race. Those are the components, then you have to add your strategy."

Much of what Barr learned while sabot racing has helped her in other forms of sailing. In the Adam's Cup, Barr uses a 24-foot boat called a J-24.

"As far as your basic knowledge of sailing, it is the same," Barr said. "As a matter of fact, I have raced Dennis (Conner) in the sabots, and he was masterful. I could get ahead of him because I weigh 100 pounds less, but that was many years ago.

"With the J-24, that is very exciting sailing because you are flying spinnakers and you are doing everything the America's Cup crew is doing. And you really have to have teamwork. So it's been fun to experience that as well as the solo racing."

Barr added that the big difference between sailing a J-24 and a sabot is the crew size. A J-24 carries a crew of four. The sabot sailor is captain and crew because the boat is too small for more than one adult.

Racers, however, are not the only sabot sailors. The majority of people sailing sabots do it as an economical way to get out on the water and relax. A new sabot can cost between $1,000 and $1,500.

But Kenny, who also teaches sabot sailing, recommends that beginners start with a used boat, which can usually be found for $300 to $500.

Sabots are relatively easy to set up for sailing. In 20 minutes, the boat can be unloaded from its trailer, or the top of a car or truck, and the required rigging can be completed.

"It's portable and inexpensive," Kenny said.

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