LONG BEACH — Bill Huber threaded his 38-foot yacht through a swirling mass of boats of all sizes and colors, snaking ever closer to the anchored power cruiser that marked the starting line for the Wet Wednesday race.
His face grew rigid with intensity. Huber, 52, barked orders to his seven-member crew to trim the sails as he constantly turned the wheel to shift course. He glanced nervously at his digital watch as the seconds ticked away before the starting gun was to sound.
"We better go for it here!" he shouted. "I want speed! I want speed!"
The yacht Cobra dug into the light chop and sliced a frothy path into the sunset. Breaking away from the pre-race pack, six other boats stretched around Cobra. All were identical Catalina 38s, a swift cruising/racing boat that is distinctive for its round sides and high, swooping stern.
Despite the deft pre-race maneuvering, Cobra started in fourth place. But Huber, the 1987 national champion in the class, took the lead as the boat beat west into the setting sun.
Cobra rounded the first mark with enough of an edge that the skipper and his crew could relax for a moment while Huber's wife and crew member, Judy, passed out another round of beers for the ride downwind beneath a billowing red, white and blue spinnaker.
It was true Wet Wednesday tradition: a mixture of suds and seas, brew and boats. One moment, the crews snap with America's Cup determination; the next, they relax with a shouted joke or a quick beer. Later, they can swap racing experiences over barbecued burgers at the Long Beach Yacht Club, which has sponsored the races for more than 20 years.
"The hamburgers, the fun, the competition, the tradition--they all combine. It's a little bit of everything," said Carl Kindrich, a club officer who organizes the Wednesday evening races during summers.
It is part race, part social event.
"On Wet Wednesdays, you go out and enjoy yourself," said Wendy Miller, who crews on her dad's Catalina 30 named Miller Time.
But Howard Minnick, who sails aboard the 35-foot racing yacht Reflex, said between bites of macaroni that the competition can be just as serious as on weekends.
"You don't invest $100,000 in a sailboat and not be competitive about it," Minnick explained.
Typically, Kindrich said, 105 to 115 boats participate. They range from a fleet of 20-footers to 80-foot ocean racing yachts. Only two of the biggest boats showed up last week; the rest were either dry-docked or otherwise preparing for the June 30 start of the Transpacific Yacht Race from San Pedro to Honolulu.
To help minimize confusion, each class or division has a different starting time and course. The Catalina 38s are so identical--right down to the sails--that they compete head-to-head. The first boat across the finish line wins.
Not so with the custom racers. Built by different makers to widely varying designs, they are assigned handicaps based on complex formulas involving weight, sail area and other factors. That way, the boats are equalized in an attempt to emphasize the seamanship and tactics of a skipper and crew rather than the superior design of a boat.
In those divisions, the fastest boat is not necessarily a winner. Kindrich said the handicap rule allowed him to compete in the Wet Wednesday races aboard a heavy (48-ton) yacht that was among a few old-timers that once plied the courses.
The races are open to members of local yacht clubs affiliated with the Southern California Yachting Assn. It has become one of several midweek yachting events that includes Balboa Yacht Club's Beer Can series in Newport Beach and the Seal Beach Yacht Club's Thirsty Thursday. Officials and skippers say the Long Beach event is considered more serious and competitive than some of the others.
Some skippers drill their crews on the weeknight races in preparation for big weekend regattas. For some skippers, the Wednesday night races are as important as anything on the weekends. Huber said the local Catalina 38 championship will be decided on Wet Wednesday races from June 28 to July 26.
Over the years, Kindrich said, the races have become more competitive as skippers have lobbied for use of more complicated gear. Many classes that once raced with only two sails, a main and a jib, now are allowed to use others, such as the parachute-like spinnaker.
The Long Beach Yacht Club organizes the summer races into two five-week series. They are coupled with single-night events. Huber won two of the series races and placed sixth in a third.