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Members Ahoy : Shark Island Yacht Club Hopes to Lure More Powerboaters to Hop Aboard


NEWPORT BEACH — After years of the daily grind, the last thing some people want to do is trim sails and haul halyards.

So at Shark Island Yacht Club, captains from every walk of industry join together to pilot one thing--powerboats. Powerboats ranging from small craft to big yachts that the work-weary can put on auto-cruise while they sit back and hoist only a dry martini.

Ten times a year, these manufacturers, entrepreneurs, restaurant owners and attorneys cruise en masse out of Newport Harbor, headed for ports from San Diego to San Francisco, the blue burgee with its gold propeller flying stiffly in the breeze.

And throughout the seasons, members can be seen motoring the harbor, fishing the open waters, sitting on their docked yachts by the Balboa Island Bridge or hobnobbing at the club's restaurant and bar.

But this is not just any yacht club. This is a decidedly exclusive fraternity. In fact, members say it's one of only three yacht clubs in the world--the others are in Florida and New Zealand--that are restricted to powerboat owners and devotees. The club is not open to sailboat owners.

There's been a price to pay for that exclusivity.

Shark Island Yacht Club, founded in 1960, once had about 240 members, but because of sailing's soaring popularity and billowing fuel costs, club membership has dwindled to about 100 people and 70 boats.

The club restaurant's service recently was curtailed to three days a week, and the majority of the remaining members are older than 45.

Yet despite rough financial seas, members have no plans to invite sailboats to join.

Instead, they are launching a campaign drive to recruit new and younger powerboating members. The members have raised additional money to refurbish the club, and they plan to hire a new, full-time restaurant service.

Club manager Pam Nesbitt said that in addition to sailing's dominance, tight financial times have made it difficult for younger members to invest in powerboats and join the yacht club.

"It's been an uphill struggle the past seven years," she said. "The yuppie crowd out there is trying to maintain their lifestyles, and belonging to any yacht club, especially a powerboat one, is difficult for them."

Most yacht clubs today have both powerboats and sailboats as members, said George Hively, commodore of the Yacht Racing Union of Southern California, an umbrella organization for yacht clubs from Santa Barbara to Chula Vista.

"Yacht clubs came into existence to organize sailing races," he said. "At one time of course, all private vessels were sailboats. It was only at the latter part of the last century that small powerboats made their appearance."

Hively said the popularity of powerboating really took off after World War II, when a lot of small, surplus military craft became available. And about six years later, the advent of fiberglass made powerboats more affordable, he said.

"Yacht clubs began to change as powerboats were added," said Hively. "And as men got older, they got powerboats. But then, largely as a result of the 1974 energy crisis, boating made a giant swing back to sail, as everyone was concerned with price and availability of fuel."

Member Bill Nemecek, 53, is an Irvine real estate agent who wears dual club hats as port captain and membership director. He said Shark Island Yacht Club members have nothing against sailboats. In fact, they lease their downstairs conference room for monthly meetings of the Voyagers, an all-sail yacht club that recently lost its lease at the 28th Street Marina in Newport Beach.

"Years ago, there were more powerboats than sailboats," Nemecek said. "But powerboats are four to five times more expensive to run. And most yacht clubs allow both, because members with children often want those children to learn to sail. Plus, almost everyone has at one time had a sailboat."

Sheila Van Guilder, commodore of the 260-member South Shore Yacht Club in Newport Beach, said she doesn't understand limiting membership to one kind of boat.

"It is a different way of looking at yachting--whether you get someplace in a hurry or just lump along--but I don't understand why they can't be in the same club," she said. "It just doesn't make good sense, financially or otherwise."

Van Guilder said about 15 of her club's 158 boats are powerboats, otherwise known as "stinkpots." "We use them for race committees," she said. "And our powerboats don't wait for the sailboats to get places. They just book on over and start the party earlier.

"Yes, there's a rivalry. But it's a friendly one. We welcome powerboaters."

Lyle Eisel, 60, sat on one of two brocade couches in the plush living quarters of his 50-foot yacht, the April Ann, named after his granddaughter. The concrete manufacturer, whose tanned face is creased from years of boating, had just returned from a cruise to Long Beach along with about 60 other Shark Island Yacht Club members and guests.

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