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For the Love of the Sea

July 30, 2002|JANET EASTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the most easygoing of sailboat races. The course isn't demanding, winning or losing doesn't mean much, and the trophies are engraved glass mugs or squished Bud cans mounted onto a piece of wood.

No wonder Beercan regattas are so loved by sailors and those who cheer them on that there is usually at least one every summer, wherever there's a boating club willing to organize one.

A no-spinnaker rule makes the Beercans even more laid back in some harbors. The large headsail, which billows out in front of the boat, can obscure views in a crowded race. Its replacement, the smaller jib sail, is easier to see around and maneuver from side to side, although its size can also make it harder to capture the wind. Using the jib takes the pressure off crews who don't want to work too hard, but allows others to test their tactical skills, if they choose to.

The Balboa Yacht Club launched its Beercan Regatta more than 50 years ago so members could have a relaxing sail in Newport Harbor and not care who finished first. Since then, sailboats have created a postcard image on Thursday evenings from mid-May until the end of August by lining up in the part of Newport Bay that separates Balboa Peninsula from Balboa Island. The volunteer race committee classifies about 40 boats by size and staggers their start time, with the larger A-class boats leaving first at 6 p.m., to avoid trampling the smaller ones.

It's hard to guess who will be the real winner of Balboa's series, which ends Aug. 29. Will it be the skipper who posts the most wins over the 15-week season? The hundreds of yacht club members and their guests, dressed in tank tops and tennies, who chow down on barbecue and toast the sunset after the race? Or student sailors--sometimes in boats borrowed from Orange Coast College's respected sailing program--who test their skills in a calm harbor? It all depends on what the Beercan Regatta means to the players.

It's a race to John Mack, 65, who sails a 36-footer named Michegaas--Yiddish for "crazy idea"--with co-owner Joe Greenblatt and a steady crew of six men. Mack has been competing in Balboa's Beercans for 25 years and has taken home trophies for doing well during one of the four months of the regatta, but never for the full season.

He's determined, though, to show off his team's prowess: "This is a race where we can have fun, but we're serious, and we want to win."

His crew members hope to place in the top of their class, but to do so, they'll have to improve their performance during the final five races since they're in the middle of a pack of eight now.

"We were pretty sloppy at the beginning of the season," Mack says. Once, the crew lost track of the start sequence, missed taking off with the C-class and spent the rest of the hourlong race trying to catch up.

As three boats were rounding the final marker, there were nonstop directions to the Michegaas crew and shouts to the other boats, which were just an arm's length away on both sides, to "Stay clear!"

Dennis D'Alessio, owner of the banana-colored Salty Dog, doesn't care who wins. He has boxes of painted trophies with toy sailboats on top, and he doesn't want any more.

"Our race is to get to the party at the [Balboa Yacht] club," says D'Alessio, who publishes a national directory for the marine industry with his brother, Richard, and says the only stress they have with the Beercans is leaving work on time to meet their crew.

Although most skippers restrict the number of people weighing down the boat, the 47-foot Salty Dog is the place for a deck-full of singles "to hang out, meet and date," says D'Alessio. Finding crew isn't difficult. An hour before the race, people plead their way on board, sometimes waving a six-pack of beer as enticement.

"We go for comfort," says D'Alessio, 37, who has been racing in Beercans since he was 12, first in Marina del Rey and for 20 years in Newport Beach.

Many inexperienced sailors get their start competing in these more casual regattas, and that's their main benefit, says Mary Longpre, a Balboa Yacht Club member who volunteers at youth and adult races. "A lot of guys in the important races like the America's Cup grew up competing in Beercan races," says Longpre, who has been skippering Queen of Hearts, a 20-footer, and Valentine, a 30-footer, with an all-female crew in Balboa's regatta for three decades.

The first lessons every new sailor should learn? "Have fun," says Longpre, 59, whose husband, Bob, taught her the sport. "But be safe and respect the camaraderie. A good sailor will drop out of a race to help a fellow competitor who's in trouble."

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The Balboa Yacht Club's Beercan races begin at 6 p.m. on Thursdays through Aug. 29 in Newport Harbor. Good public viewing points are at the Balboa Fun Zone area on the Balboa Peninsula or the sidewalk aligning South Bay Front on Balboa Island.

The Balboa Bay Club, which is open to yacht club members and their guests, is at 1801 Bayside Drive, Corona del Mar, (949) 673-3515, www.balboayachtclub.com.

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