A strong, steady wind carries two sailboats through the choppy sea around the breakwater in Marina del Rey. The skippers steer the vessels back into the calm waters of the harbor while the crews balance the two Holder 14s and watch for boat traffic.
This trip into the open ocean is a first for these novice skippers and it is a wild success. None of the boats capsized. No one went overboard.
These sailors are students enrolled in the UCLA Marine Aquatics Center's beginning sailing class, and their instructor, Gary Vidor, is giving them a taste of sailing the high seas now that they've completed their final exam inside the marina.
Over the course of the five-week class, the students have learned in the classroom the nomenclature and rules of safe sailing. And at the helm of a 14-foot sailboat they have mastered technique--maneuvering the sails, righting a capsized boat and picking up someone who's gone overboard.
If the students pass a written test and practical exam aboard the boat, they will be qualified to skipper their own boats. Most people pass, Vidor says, because the goal of the class is to help those who know nothing about sailing get shipshape.
"It's great to see them go from knowing nothing to having some control to being able to take the boat where they want it to go," said Vidor, who has been a sailing instructor for nearly 25 years and co-founded the Sierra Club's Blue Water Sailing Program.
Sailing is a mental sport that requires quick thinking and automatic reactions. Sailors must be able to adjust their maneuvers under conditions from strong gusts of wind to having no breeze at all. And, of course, they must also be able to steer their vessels around other boats.
Though most non-sailors would view sailing as an inactive sport, it can be very aerobic. Like cycling, sailors who are racing must maintain a constant level of activity, which is then alternated with fits and spurts of high intensity as conditions change.
Strong muscles in the lower back, abdomen, upper legs, shoulders and arms are needed to maneuver the sails and move among the starboard, port and middle of the vessel to balance the boat. The bigger the vessel and faster the race, the greater the exertion.
Sailing is a sport rich with honor and integrity since the sailors must police themselves. But it is also an expensive leisure activity, and as a result, interest in sailing is closely tied to the economy.
There was a sharp decline in Californians sailing during the recession in the early 1990s, according to Tina McKinley, executive director of the Southern California Yachting Assn., which governs yacht racing in the Southland. This year, however, has been a banner year for the sport. The number of new sailboats that have registered with the association has nearly tripled this year, McKinley said. In 1997, skippers of 1,450 boats signed up to race with the 90 certified Corinthian, or not-for-profit, sailing clubs in Southern California. So far this year, more than 4,000 have registered.
"Sailing is skyrocketing right now," McKinley said. "People are coming back into it."
The sport is also attracting youngsters. McKinley said California has the second-largest high school sailing program in the country, and most junior sailing programs in the Southland have waiting lists.
Sailing is a sport steeped in Old World tradition, and the flavor of yesteryear still exists. The first races took place hundreds of years ago among clipper ships that shuttled tea and spices between the continents. The first to port was often rewarded by the buyers.
That legacy continues to play out on the waters off the California coast, where most yacht clubs host weeknight regattas during the summer. On just about any given evening, dozens of colorful sails ripple across the horizon until the sun sets.
On Tuesday nights, UCLA holds a regatta to encourage people who have just completed sailing classes to spend more time on the water. Anyone who hasn't taken the class but can pass the test is also invited to rent a boat for $8 and join the racing.
"I've done a lot of sailing, but I was always the one who served the beer," said Peggy Compton, 38, who just completed the course. "Learning to sail is something I've always wanted to do. It's something I can do with my kids."
The races are officiated by a "principal race officer," who sets up a 100-yard figure-eight course with buoys that tests each crew's technique and speed. From a Boston Whaler in the middle of the harbor, the officer runs as many races as he can until the sun goes down.
No one keeps track of who wins or loses. The regatta is held in the spirit of fun, of the great outdoors. Sailors say that getting out on the water and powering a boat with nothing but the wind and the strength of their arms and legs is the best relaxation around.
"There's nothing better than sailing," said McKinley. "You forget about the world and restore your soul when you're out there."
* On the Move is published on the fourth Monday of the month. Tracy Johnson's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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For the Yacht Club Near You . . .
For more information on sailing, call:
* Assn. of Orange Coast Yacht Clubs
* Assn. of Santa Barbara Channel Yacht Clubs
* Assn. of Santa Monica Bay Yacht Clubs
* Assn. of San Pedro Bay Yacht Clubs
* San Diego Assn. of Yacht Clubs
* Sierra Club
* Southern California Yachting Assn.
* UCLA Marine Aquatics Center