Marina del Rey is many things, but nothing without its boaters

By Pat Reynolds

Occasionally tall ships visit Marina del Rey. Here, the Lady Washington, a ship that appeared in “Pirates of the Caribbean,”  is escorted by a small group of enthusiastic sea lions.

Occasionally tall ships visit Marina del Rey. Here, the Lady Washington, a ship that appeared in “Pirates of the Caribbean,”
is escorted by a small group of enthusiastic sea lions.

A day in the life of Marina del Rey begins before dawn with the clocking rhythm of oars shuffling back and forth in paper-thin racing shells. At this hour the water inside the harbor is like a sheet of glass, and as the sun comes up the svelte handcrafted boats can be seen throughout the basins — rowers getting their morning workout in the silence and calm of a new day.

Later in the morning the college rowers appear in 55-foot boats just as thin. Teams of eight plus a coxswain power through the main channel perfectly synchronized, a human machine. They’re likely practicing for the California Yacht Club’s “Head of the Marina,” an annual fall tradition.

Also at this time the fishermen are arriving at Del Rey Landing, commonly known as the Fuel Dock, to prepare for a day in open waters. They may have already filled their bait tanks across the channel but are now experiencing the works part of the fishing addition— fuel at $5 a gallon. But after swallowing that bitter pill, they’re off into the Santa Monica Bay to chase halibut, lingcod, barracuda and bigger game like mako shark or tuna. This past season, unusually warm water made for one of the longest and most fruitful fishing seasons in recent history.

As the sun rises a bit higher, late morning brings day sailors to the docks. The wind will be up around noon, usually a prevailing southwest, and a trip up the coast to Malibu or down the coast to the cliffs of Palos Verdes is never a bad thing. Once past the breakwater, the sails are up, the motor gets turned off and the wind provides the horsepower. Serenity sets in. After a few miles, it’s common to be visited by a pod of dolphins swimming in the bow wake. On a smaller boat, they are seemingly close enough to reach out and touch, but it’s impossible — these highly intelligent and lightning-fast creatures won’t have it.

At many times of the year, a day sail also brings with it an opportunity for whale watching. This year, thousands of gray whales passed close to Los Angeles beaches as part of their migration from the Pacific Northwest to Northern Mexico.

Other sailors have a need for speed. Marina del Rey’s nautical racing community is active on weekends almost year-round, and many racers sneak in midweek races during the April-through-September Sunset Series Sailing Regatta, one of the harbor’s oldest traditions. These close-to-home adventures are known as “beer can” races — as in once around the buoys.

Where there is racing there are yacht clubs. In Marina del Rey, six with facilities — the Cal, Del Rey, Pacific Mariners, South Coast Corinthians, Santa Monica Windjammers and Marina Venice yacht clubs — and a handful of other groups (Fairwinds Yacht Club, Women’s Sailing Association, Pacific Singlehanded Sailors, for example) anchor this nautical community.

These are not only gathering places — they raise funds for charities, run youth programs and generally keep the sport and the camaraderie that goes with it alive. The California Yacht Club has strong ties to the America’s Cup and has run Olympic trial events; Santa Monica Windjammers has raised a small fortune for the City of Hope cancer research and treatment center; the Del Rey Yacht Club has played host to countless gatherings. All of the local clubs have in some form fostered women’s racing, junior programs and outreach to other organizations. This has been tradition since the marina’s formal opening in 1965.

Throughout the day, powerboats of all shapes and sizes patrol the waters in and around the harbor —from 11-foot Boston Whalers to stately trawlers and million-dollar sportfishers with tuna towers that touch the sky. Though powerboaters aren’t as collectively involved in clubs and organizations as sailors are, especially racing sailors, they do occupy about half the slips in the harbor. And over the years Marina del Rey has been home to some great ones, like Johnny Carson’s 130-foot Serengeti that sat on an end tie in C basin for many years. Just this past week, the 215 feet of floating luxury known as Invictus departed Marina del Rey for Cuba.

Powerboats big and small and an equal shake of sailboats flying white mainsails has been the image of Marina del Rey’s main channel for years, but as of late smaller watercraft have become more and more common sights. A proliferation of kayakers and the advent of stand-up paddleboards have reshaped the demographic of the harbor, bringing more diverse and younger-skewing crowds to the water. Ladies in bikinis standing atop 12-foot surfboards, sometimes with little dogs balancing on the front, are now part and parcel of the marina.

Toward the end of the day, it’s about relaxing. The truth is that of the roughly 4,000 boats in Marina del Rey at any given time, most don’t leave the dock very often. People buy boats, use them for a little while and then … they don’t. Maintaining a boat is more expensive, more work or more of a time commitment than they thought. But even idle watercrafts have their charm, hosting small parties or acting as a quiet place of refuge to gather one’s thoughts or read a book. After all, a boat tied to the dock is a nice little spot in the world.