Imagine cruising the San Francisco Bay in a quarter-million-dollar sailboat, the wind lapping against your face, the unparalleled backdrop of the Bay Area sparkling all around you. Now imagine a flotilla of ships alongside your own as the sun drops in the sky, buoyant greetings called from ship to ship, bottles of cold beer circulating, as you glide over the waves in the bay.
If such an outing sounds like a perfect summer evening that's way out of your price range, brace yourself for some shipshape news: Experts and novices alike can participate in summer racing at local sailing clubs -- for free -- simply by showing up on the night of the race and asking to work as crew.
There are scores of sailing clubs in the Bay Area, and many of them run evening "beer can races," or relaxed racing events that welcome visitors for free. "Our Friday night races are pretty casual," says Bart Von Zastrow, 38, an accountant by day and sailor on a 39-foot Dehler yacht at the South Beach Yacht Club by night. "The idea is that it's supposed to be a nice way to end the week and hang out with people on Friday nights. There are lots of other races that are serious, and Friday nights are not that way."
The camaraderie extends beyond the boat, Zastrow admits: "One of the reasons I joined the club is that it's the cheapest bar in town."
"These races are great if you're interested in a first-time experience to figure out what yachting is all about," says Gregory Sherwood, commodore of the South Beach Yacht Club. "Some clubs have crew lists or bulletin boards on their Web site, but if you show up at the club on the day of the race with your gear [a life jacket], invariably you'll find someone to go out with. It's really just the willingness and the attitude."
Even those who can't tell port, the nautical direction, from Pinot Grigio shouldn't be put off, Zastrow says. "Skippers are also always looking for 'rail meat' -- people who provide ballast for a boat going on an upwind leg. They're not really doing much, but it's a good way to get out there." As a courtesy (and to avoid being forced to walk the plank), you should bring beer or snacks for your mates, or buy a round at the bar after the race.
Before you head to the docks, do some research at www.sfsailing.com. Jaime Muniz has created the definitive online compendium of San Francisco sailing information, complete with an online database of crew calls, a schedule of racing nights that are open to the public, and links to yachting clubs around the bay. "The site puts together people with boats with people who want to know how to sail," Muniz says. "Each yacht club has its own personality, and depending on the person, you might fit in better with one or the other. Club location matters too -- it's a good idea to check a couple of them out."
After serving as a human sandbag a few times, you might find yourself yearning for a more substantial role on the boat. Anthony Sandberg, founder and president of OCSC Sailing in Berkeley, says, "When you race as rail bait, you can grind a winch and be helpful. But you can do that for 20 years and not learn how to sail; you learn how to crew. On the other hand, you can take sailing lessons and in many cases have more skills than the captain of that boat. It all depends on what sounds good to you."
Several area sailing schools offer a full slate of introductory sailing classes and clinics, including Berkeley's OCSC, Grand Prix Sailing Academy in South Beach, Tradewinds in Richmond, Club Nautique in Alameda and Sausalito, Spinnaker Sailing School in Redwood City, and Treasure Island Sailing Center. While no longer the enchanting price of nothing (clinics can cost as little as $30, but week-long classes can top $1,000), several of these outfits also provide members with access to boats for a fraction of the price of a yacht.
No matter which tack you take (wordplay intended), sailing the bay is a rush. "It's a lot of fun; it's exhilarating; you name it, and that's what sailboat racing is," reflects Commodore Sherwood. "It's amazing how exciting it can be when you're only going 10 miles an hour."