Although the local yacht clubs in Marina del Rey hold their opening day in March to “officially” welcome the yachting season, the real opening day for local racers is the first race of the Berger/Stein series hosted by Del Rey Yacht Club.

Last weekend, Santa Monica Bay was packed with competitors for the first race of this year’s season.

The competitions in this series are some of the most anticipated races on the calendar — especially the first race.

A likely reason for this anticipation is the fact that these races consistently draw large turnouts full of top-notch competition.

The other element in the success of the series, at least in the case of the Berger, is the popularity of the course itself.

Each of the five races are long-distance affairs. Two involve a trip to Catalina Island and two are up to Malibu. The other race is to Topanga and back.

This first contest, which ran to Malibu and back, boasted the highest participation numbers in Berger/Stein history with 127 boats involved.

“We had a great draw on this,” said race operator chair Sterling Tallman. “On Friday night, we had about 106 boats registered, then there were a lot of last-minute entries and we wound up with 127.”

In addition to its loyal local devotees, the Berger/Stein is gaining more and more popularity with out-of-town sailors.

Some reputable yachtsmen are attending the Berger on a regular basis, making it a stop on their tour of other important competitions.

The start line is an exciting place to be when these elegant, brightly-colored thoroughbreds glide through the pack with their small army of busy crew working maniacally and systematically.

Santana 20 national champion Steve Washburn, Newport to Ensenada winner Randy Reynolds in his R33 catamaran Cat Attack, and the always competitive Doug Baker sailing his Andrews maxi-sled Magnitude 80, were amongst the prominent out-of-town players.

Baker was first over the line Saturday evening, winning in the PHRF (Performance Handicap Racing Fleet) AA class on both elapsed and corrected time sailing Magnitude 80, which was one of four boats that recently broke the Transpac Race (L.A. to Hawaii) time record.

Baker won the race in spite of being over early, forcing him to return and re-enter the race. The seasoned skipper took the aberration in stride and after re-crossing the start line headed out far offshore looking for wind.

“If you’re aggressive on the starting line, you will be over every once in a while,” said Baker calmly. “We had a new bow guy and he just wasn’t used to it. It was okay. We just had to come back — that’s just the way it goes.

“Sometimes you’re over, but it’s a long enough race where you can recover.”

Magnitude 80 went farther offshore than any of the other racers and found wind while others went stagnant. As well as finding this wind, Baker also found himself with a favorable lay line to the mark.

“We were the farthest boat out by far,” said Baker. “[The other boats all] kind of compress when you get close to the buoy, but we didn’t have to tack and we saw some of the other boats did have to tack.

“After we rounded the buoy, we didn’t see any other boats round for quite a while, so we figured we’re looking pretty good.”

While Baker and others went outside to find wind, some racers tried their luck closer to shore and got skunked.

A good number of boats called it quits when they got a couple of hours into the race and found themselves floating and flogging. Del Rey Yacht Club race chairman Roberto Cordero was one of the wind’s victims.

“We went inshore and got into a hole with no wind,” said Cordero, who opted out of the race.

“We were not moving for quite a long while. We finally started moving a little over a knot [nautical mile per hour], but it didn’t look promising from where we were. A lot of the boats around us all quit at around the same time.”

After 7 p.m. in very little wind, out of the evening sky, distant red bow lights began to appear as actual boats as they approached the finish line near the detached breakwater.

Barely moving, sailors milked all they could from the faint breeze in a slow-motion attempt to pass their competitors.

“We had an amazing finish, with about 25 boats finishing in the dark all grouped together,” said Tallman. “The wind shifted around to an off-shore breeze of about three or four knots and these boats were all moving about one knot per hour — just ghosting across the finish line.

“Looking out towards the southeast, you could just see a sea of red lights coming in. It was an amazing finish, truly magical.”