Down to the Pond in Ships

At the San Francisco Model Yacht Club, sailors answer the call of the sea on a very small scale

There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats ... or with boats. ... In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter.
-- Kenneth Grahame, author ofThe Wind in the Willows

A great wind sweeps in from the northwest, filling the mainsail of the Samantha. She slices through the choppy water, building up speed until great waves lap over her starboard side, splashing brackish water onto her shiny brass railings and elegant stained-glass windows. Then, quite as suddenly, the wind dies down to a breeze, and the Samantha, faithfully constructed from the plans of a famed 19th-century racing schooner called the Gloriana, glides into port with quiet, uncanny dignity. Still, dissatisfied with the tack of the boom, captain and builder Andy Hahn plucks his boat from the water and sets to retying the mainsheet. His ship's namesake, 5-year-old Samantha Hahn, watches Capt. Hahn's fingers with a child's fastidious absorption, nearly oblivious to her own craft, a small pink-and-sea-foam-green free-sail yacht, which bobs in the center of Spreckels Lake awaiting the whim of Golden Gate Park's fickle winds.

"It's a lot like fishing," says Hahn, an aerospace engineer who began building the Samanthathree years ago as part of a design class at Stanford. "It takes patience and persistence, but basically, you're just at the mercy of the winds, which are a little capricious out here."

Over 500 hours have gone into the careful craftsmanship of the Samantha, and, according to Hahn, she's still not finished. But if you look closely at the hull of the ship, you can see the outline of tiny planks of balsa wood that Hahn laid over a wooden frame before painting it the traditional colors of black, white, and copper. There are no stainless steel fittings aboard the Samantha because there was no stainless steel aboard the Gloriana, only brass, which Hahn has faithfully fabricated by hand on a minuscule scale. And Hahn is an amateur. As the saying goes, sailing is like standing fully clothed under a cold shower tearing up $100 bills, but once it's in your blood, there's no turning back.

Hahn places his 18-inch schooner (he admits it's a little longer than it should be) back on the water and watches her sails flutter to life.

"I don't know what it is," says Hahn, watching his boat rock in the wake of a bird nearly twice her size. "You just push 'em out and they do what they do. But there's a grace and beauty in it. I really don't know ...."

Spreckels Lake was built in 1902, through donations from shipping mogul John Diedrich Spreckels -- son of Claus Spreckels, the "Hawaiian Sugar King" -- for the sole purpose of sailing model boats. Spreckels Lake wasn't unique in its specialized aspiration. A similar body of water was constructed in New York's Central Park to accommodate model-yacht clubs, which continued to grow in popularity through the 1930s. But as home to the San Francisco Model Yacht Club, founded in 1898, Spreckels Lake enjoys a distinguished reputation internationally and is still host to numerous model-boat regattas every year.

In the SFMYC clubhouse -- a stoic little building erected in 1937 as part of President Roosevelt's WPA project -- grainy photos of long-past Spreckels sailors adorn the walls. Current SFMYC Commodore James Harvey, a novice sailor by SFMYC standards with only four years of sailing under his belt, still has the boat his great-great-grandfather sailed. And while times have changed -- gasoline- and nitro-powered boats now roar across the lake at speeds up to 25 miles an hour three mornings a week, while electric- and steam-powered models hold court on alternate mornings -- the sailboats, with their silent whimsy and dignified form, still reign supreme over Spreckels. More than 100 model yachts are stored at the SFMYC clubhouse, and though many now have remote-control tillers and sails, a rack of colorful poles used to push free-sail boats from the bank still hangs from the wall. And there is never enough space for the yachts.

"The goal is to keep these boats sailing," says Harvey. "We don't want them to wind up on display in a restaurant somewhere, because they'll never see the water again."

But the impulse to put the boats on display is understandable.

Near the buffalo paddock, in the Anglers Lodge fly-casting pools, the power squadron of the SFMYC hosts its annual All Military Regatta. Under the flick of silvery fishing lines from the east pool, perfect scale models of historic World War II submarines dive into the scaly depths of the west pool; prewar aircraft carriers and postwar battleships slide over the surface, ignoring lines of delineation meant for casting tournaments. The captains, in waders and shorts, climb down into the cement casting pit, standing waist-level in the water, squinting over the pool with their remote controls firmly in hand. SFMYC Power Squad Officer Thomas LaMantea, with a loud, generous laugh and a jacket covered in sailing patches and insignias, strolls back and forth along the edge of the pool, patting folks on the back with one hand, waving around a small bullhorn with the other, and occasionally looking over the frequency board where coded clothespins pinpoint competitors' airwave frequencies.

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