Alameda shows strong signs of marine life

Alameda shows strong signs of marine life

Michele Ellson

It is a balmy summer evening as dozens of sailors prepare for the next race in Oakland Yacht Club’s 2012 Sweet Sixteen Series – which is perhaps better known, along with similar races run by Encinal and Island yacht clubs on Friday nights, as Alameda’s beer can races. Martin Jemo and his crew prepare the Joanna, Jemo’s 30-foot Irwin, for a 90-minute run on the Alameda/Oakland Estuary.

Jemo has been sailing since the 1950s, and he and two other members of the crew have sailed together for so long that one crewmember jokingly refers to them as the Ancient Mariners.

“Finding something that you love keeps you alive,” said Katherine Ulman, who has sailed with her Ancient compatriots for at least 15 years, even through a bout with cancer.

Alameda is home to a half dozen yacht clubs including the 200-plus member Oakland Yacht Club and another half dozen marinas, three boat yards and about 4,000 slips – and also a hardy contingent of sailors, some of them brand new and others who have enjoyed sailing as both a sport and a way of life for decades. It boasts some of the oldest yacht clubs in the Bay Area and may be one of the biggest sailing communities in California, with more boat slips that almost any other California city.

Local mariners attribute Alameda’s status as a sailing hub to the Island’s hospitable weather and light winds – which offer access to world-renowned sailing in San Francisco Bay without the cold, choppy conditions sailors may experience in the waters off San Francisco and Berkeley – and the availability of waterfront property to businesses, alongside a rare, well-maintained deep water channel.

“It is a lot calmer and warmer to sit on your sailboat in Alameda on the Oakland Estuary than almost anywhere you can go,” said Kame Richards, owner of Alameda’s Pineapple Sails.

Richards said Alameda’s moderate weather makes it easier to work on boats outdoors, and its winds – which might blow at 10 knots, compared to 20 to 25 knots in nearby Berkeley – are gentler, a boon to sailors with smaller boats. The lighter weather also makes it cheaper to sail here, he said, because it doesn’t require sailors to don expensive foul weather gear.

Alameda has historically been an address to shipping outfits like the Alaska Packers and also the military, but it’s also home to some of the Bay Area’s oldest yacht clubs, including the Encinal Yacht Club – founded in 1890 – and the Oakland Yacht Club, which was founded in 1913 and which made its way across the estuary in 1977, after a dispute with its former landlord, the Port of Oakland.

Author Jack London was one of the Oakland Yacht Club’s earliest members – one wall of its bright Pacific Marina clubhouse are graced with a slip reminding London he was late paying his $5 fees. Today it’s home to sailors like Jim Jessie, a former commodore who has twice circumnavigated the globe but now looks forward to watching the America’s Cup races – the World Series kicks off Tuesday in San Francisco Bay – and sailing around “the ditch,” as he calls the estuary.

“This is the banana belt here,” Jessie said during one of the club’s recent Wednesday lunches.

While Oakland is blessed with similar weather – and the same access to the estuary, which is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers – local marine business owners said they can’t purchase land for their businesses there, as many have here in Alameda, because much of it is owned by the Port of Oakland.

“To a small businessman, being able to get equity in the real estate is a tremendously attractive thing,” Richards said.

Oakland Yacht Club owns its facilities as do several of the local marinas and boat yards like Svendsen’s Boat Works, a full service boat yard and repair facility that has been in operation since 1966. Svendsen’s vice president Sean Svendsen played a role in bringing the America’s Cup team Artemis Racing to Alameda Point, and the boat yard recently received delivery of a fleet of America’s Cup chase and support boats, its second Cup-related project in two months.

Alameda’s maritime businesses play a key role in supporting the city, owners say. A recent sales tax report listed boats and motorcycles as one of the Island’s top 15 business types, while the city’s budget shows Bay Ship & Yacht as one of its biggest employers (the U.S. Coast Guard is another).

Andy McKinley, general manager of Grand Marina – which sits on the basin that once hosted the Alaska Packers operation – said he’s got 50 people working in the marina and its boat yard, along with a lot of boat owners who pay taxes on their vessels and buy supplies in town.

“Seventy percent of our clientele do not live in Alameda,” McKinley said. “When they visit, they load their boats up with food and beer and take off. A lot of that they buy here.”

The local clubs offer races big and small – Encinal Yacht Club, which sits next door to Oakland Yacht Club, sponsors an annual Coastal Cup that runs from the Golden Gate Bridge to Southern California along with the members-only Commodores Cup and the more public beer can events. And they offer reciprocal privileges to other clubs in Alameda and elsewhere.

“They know how nice it is to get to a strange port and get taken care of,” Jessie said of the reciprocal arrangements. “It’s a very close fraternity. It’s amazing.”

While the clubs are private to members, they offer opportunities for those interested in learning how to sail to give it a try. The beer can races hosted by the Oakland, Encinal and Island yacht clubs offer novices the chance to watch the races or even get on a boat to participate in the action.

“If you raced a couple times a year, you would be an expert sailor in a couple of years,” McKinley said.

Encinal Yacht Club also operates a a robust junior sailing program that trains hundreds of young sailors each year. Encinal’s president, Tony Shaffer, said the club just added a “grasshopper” class for 6-year-olds who want to learn how to sail.

“We feel one of our duties to the sailing community is to teach as many youth as possible about the sport. It keeps the sport alive,” Shaffer said.

Richards is trying to take things a step further. He’s working to create a community sailing center so that sailors who aren’t members of a local yacht club have someplace to go. The center would have smaller boats and would be a place where families could sail together – boosting access to the sport.

“A community sailing center – that’s what it would do,” he said.

Additional information on the local sailing and marine community:

Alameda Waterfront website
Latitude 38 magazine

Photo credits: Slideshow photos one through six by Michele Ellson; photos seven and eight courtesy of Svendsen's Boat Works.