A landlubber joins the curious Opening Day rituals of Marina del Rey yacht clubs
Story by Joe Piasecki
Photos by Pat Reynolds
It’s 9 a.m. Saturday at the Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club and, at 33, I’m by far the youngest person in attendance not wearing a Cub Scout or junior ROTC uniform.
Before a crowd of about 150 people dressed in blue or black blazers, bright white trousers and the occasional sea captain hat, an unfamiliar and highly formalized ritual plays out — one that would repeat with varying degrees of solemnity at each of Marina del Rey’s six yacht clubs over Opening Day weekend.
Generally speaking, a color guard presents the flag, followed by a pledge of allegiance and a spirited rendition of “America the Beautiful.” A bridge officer — in laymen’s terms, a senior member of the club’s elected leadership — offers a religious invocation. Military veterans are called out for honor and saluted, sometimes as anthems play for each branch of the armed services. A bell is rung exactly eight times for club members who have died over the previous year. Visiting dignitaries from other clubs up and down the coast are recognized. Hear your name and it’s time to stand up and salute — that way they know you’re alive.
The new commodore — basically the club chairperson, but don’t dare call them that! — and bridge officers (vice commodore, rear commodore, fleet captain and port captain, all with different duties depending on the club) are then sworn in with the raising of small flags outside the club. Only then can the club be re-commissioned for yachting season, marked by the raising of the club burgee (a triangular flag unique to each club) and a bone-shaking blast from a cannon.
Food is served with champagne or cocktails, and then it’s back to the water taxi and onto the next club. So goes the packed schedule for two seven-hour days that, in “summer uniform” under a blazing sun, is surprisingly exhausting, even for this young newcomer in the crowd.
Opening Day ceremonies — a 19th-century military-style tradition that began in the stuffy, patrician clubs of New England and Europe — seem an odd fit for sunny, laid-back Southern California.
For one thing, the weather allows the marina to operate year-round, though bridge officer announcements that water has been cleared of icebergs continue as a running joke.
For another, Marina del Rey clubs tend to have more to do with sailing than yachting, with several of them focused almost entirely on small boats.
So what does it all mean?
“Primarily, Opening Day is just to get people together. It’s one of the few days where you really act and dress the way yacht clubs used to be. We’re a bit more formal [than some other Marina del Rey yacht clubs], but it’s a lot of fun and a little bit of an ego trip — we just have a good time,” said Santa Monica Windjammers Yacht Club Commodore Fred Weinhart, who joined as a collegiate sailor in 1969 and returned to the club in 2007.
When it comes to formality, the Windjammers, located at the terminus of Mindanao Way, and the nearby South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club actually fall in the middle of the spectrum.
The California Yacht Club on Admiralty Way and Del Rey Yacht Club on Palawan Way conduct more elaborate Opening Day proceedings — think darker coats with tassles and emblems and women decked out in red with shiny white gloves — while the Pacific Mariners Yacht Club on Panay Way and the Marina City Club-based Marina Venice Yacht Club offer laghter, less pious takes on the same tradition.
The differences have a lot to do with age and money.
Cal and Del Rey, the largest clubs and most expensive to join, boast spacious, upscale facilities and tend to have an older membership — at least when it comes to who shows up for Opening Day. During the Cal Yacht Club ceremony, paramedics were called in to revive an elderly woman who appeared to have a stroke but had fortunately just passed out from sitting in the heat.
While annual membership packages for Cal and Del Rey range into the thousands, it costs about $900 per year to be a Pacific Mariner, $640 per year to join the South Coast Corinthians and just $400 to be a part of the Marina Venice club.
At Cal — where aviation pioneer Donald Douglass and a banking-heir cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt once served as commodore and the descendants of 1920s sail racing star Frank A. Garbutt are still on the membership roles — a seven-piece brass band brought a bit of old-style pep to the lunch reception after its 300-plus guest ceremony.
Festivities at Del Rey, which closed out Opening Day weekend with a fantastic buffet spread, included a four-piece a cappella band and live musicians for the military salute.
Other clubs relied on recorded jazz or classic rock, and members of Marina Venice celebrated with members of local bar band Unkle Monkey.
“Clubs differ,” said Pacific Mariners Commodore Glen Solomon, “but what we all have in common is a love of being around the water.”
At Del Rey and at Cal especially, there’s a heavy emphasis on racing, with Cal planning 62 days of sail racing this year and touting the extensive accomplishments of its large juniors racing and rowing programs (whose members didn’t appear to be around for Opening Day). Del Rey is also planning several regattas, including an April fundraiser race for City of Hope.
Several Windjammers members are also involved in racing activities, and the South Coast Corinthians cater to small craft operators who would rather spend time out on the water than in its small clubhouse, Commodore Nick Sampson said.
Other clubs seem to exist primarily as a way to form social bonds among boaters.
The Pacific Mariners, who livened up their Opening Day ceremony with a modified rendition of the “Super Chicken” ditty performed by a man in a chicken suit, are sometimes called the Pickled Mariners due to the free-flowing pours at the 24/7 self-service clubhouse bar. I overheard a volunteer server report that the club’s 250-or-so guests on Sunday morning polished off at least 450 eight-ounce Bloody Mary’s in about 90 minutes before retiring to the clubhouse for champagne, cocktails and a spread of homemade hors d’ oeuvres.
“This club is for the most part about people having a good time,” Solomon said.
The barroom and office space inside the Marina City Club that hosts the Marina Venice Yacht Club is often mistaken for simply a bar, and on Sunday nights non-members are invited to take part in a $5 member potluck as they drink and listen to live music.
“I was told for six years that there was a hidden bar here. I didn’t know it was a yacht club,” said Marina Venice Yacht Club Commodore Mike Quinn, a radio personality and music producer.
Quinn, 42, is the youngest commodore in Marina del Rey (the oldest is 75). He’s also a little younger than the average Marina Venice member, but he’s hoping to change that soon.
“We want to be known as a welcoming yacht club,” he said. “Instead of waiting until you’re retirement age, come in now and have fun.”
The lower price points of smaller yacht clubs may help in that mission, but how long they can maintain their current facilities has come into question.
During their Opening Day speeches, commodores of smaller clubs communicated anxieties that recently announced county plans to remodel Marina del Rey could result in smaller clubs being forced out or relocated to make way for more intense residential and retail development.
Solomon said the Pacific Mariners, who built their clubhouse 51 years ago, have been offered an upper floor of a parking structure planned for the grounds of the former Marina Fitness Club, but the leaseholder they rent from has control of the property for another 50 years.
“Our membership likes being 20 feet off the ground, not four stories up. It’s a negotiation,” he said.
The South Coast Corinthians, founded at the Santa Monica Pier in 1932 and located in Marina del Rey since shortly after the marina was dredged in the 1960s, have already turned down an offer to relocate to an upper story of a new West Marine store planned for a short distance away.
“Although what they were proposing was very nice, what they failed to recognize is that we’re boaters. The access to water is what’s important. We’re not just a club who wants a place to go drink. At a bar above West Marine, the club would essentially die because it wouldn’t meet the needs of its members,” Sampson said.
One new idea is the possible construction of a clubhouse and boatyard on the other side of the Marina. The future remains uncertain, but “this wave of change is going to hit us sometime,” Sampson said.
The Santa Monica Windjammers clubhouse, which sits on land the county would like to open up as green space, is on a year-to-year lease agreement that runs out in three years.
“In the long term, what [county officials] were thinking is to create a common facility shared by one or two small yacht clubs, but clubs have their pride and would like to have their own facilities,” Weinhart said.
It’s become part of Weinhart’s mission this year to demonstrate that the clubhouse provides value for more than a select few. He hopes to remove fencing that separates the club from an adjacent grassy area and organize several public events, including open houses and even outdoor concerts and dinners, to invite the community in.
Could the invitation-only pomp of Opening Day also use a reboot?
“One of the things we’re trying to do is maybe be a little less stuffed-shirt,” Weinhart said. “That’s the perception we’ve been giving people, but we’re really not.”