Berger-Stein Regatta begins with a rainy round trip from Marina del Rey to Malibu

By Julia Michelle Dawson

Steve Davis’ “Vela” (left) and Jim Puckett’s “Amazing Grace” make their runs toward the Malibu mark | Photos by Tami Rae (

How long does it take to drive to Topanga Beach in Malibu from Marina del Rey?

At midnight, 21 minutes. (On a Saturday afternoon in summer, don’t even consider it!)

How long does it take to sail there and back in January?

As much as five hours, 15 minutes and 35 seconds. At least that’s how long some sailors endured competing in the cold rain last Saturday for the first of five races in the Del Rey Yacht Club’s annual Berger-Stein Regatta.

I know what you’re thinking. Why? Why Julia? Why tolerate this? Why not cancel the race, sit by the fireplace, break out the rum, slap a patch on your eye and pretend to be a pirate? Yes, that sounds much more civilized, but in the spirit of ocean racing very few races are canceled — and definitely not for a little rain. It’s part of this adventurous sport. As California Yacht Club Race Committee Chair Rory Mach tells me, “sailing is a sport that occupies an overactive mind.”

The Berger-Stein isn’t just some little local regatta. Sailors came from yacht clubs throughout Southern California, and races continue in March and May before culminating in June with a Saturday race to Cat Harbor and a Sunday race back to the marina. Among the 71 watercraft that started the race just outside the Marina del Rey breakwater were some of the West Coast’s most amazing big boats, including Roy Disney’s 70-foot “Pyewachet,” Jay Steinbeck’s “Margaritaville 1.5,” John McEntire’s “Encore” and Robert Lane’s “Medicine Man.”

Rick Ruskin is the event chair for the race sponsored by the Del Rey Yacht Club. Bill Stump of the California Yacht Club was the PRO (Principal Race Officer), and orchestrated the race from the committee boat at the start line and the finish at the south end of the break-water entrance.

In this regatta, there are generally two types of boats that participate: “cruisers” and “racers.” Cruisers are your rich uncle’s idea of yachting: state-rooms, refrigerators, bathrooms, microwaves and plenty of fancy storage spaces for booze (plus the bilge space, of course). Racers have lean hulls functionally used for storing sails and lines and maybe an ice chest, but not a bathroom or champagne glass to be found.

In each class, boats of many manufacturers are represented. A French Beneteau boat will be heeling over next to a classic California Catalina cruiser. To even the playing field there’s a complicated handicap system called PHRF: Performance Handicap Racing Fleet. (Sounds like an acronym created by a committee of overactive minds.) This system functions best for the losers at the bar after the regatta who can boldly claim they would have won … if only their handicap rating were fair.

The PHRF ratings system is the reason elapsed time does not necessarily correspond with the winning place — it’s not just another one of my typos. The perfect example of such inconsistency is the 55-foot Beneteau “Ruby d’Eau.” Ruby was first across the start line in the Cruising A Class. Her big red spinnaker was first around the weather mark in Malibu, and she crossed the finish line first. End result: correcting to fourth. Line Honors are great but it’s not always the biggest fastest boat that makes it to the winner’s podium.

OCEAN RACING 101: “A Start Line in the Water?”

How on earth (or on the water) does a race start when it is impossible to paint a start line on the ocean?

There is an imaginary line between a buoy and the race committee boat. For the five minutes before the start of the race, competitors jockey for position by sailing back and forth behind the start line as a timer on the boat shouts out the decreasing seconds. The objective is to cross the line at the exact second the horn blasts from the race committee boat. Yachts literally come within inches of each other.

The exception to this start tactic is the “Vanderbilt,” in which a boat sails back and forth across the line at an angle to the line when everyone else is going parallel — crazy! No one knows if Vanderbilt invented the tactic because he thought it was brilliant, figured with his big boat he could just intimidate his smaller rivals, or was just plain out of his mind. Needless to say, the beginning of a race can be extremely dangerous and potentially enriching for your local yacht repairperson.