The view from the beach this past week was a gang of 41 little white triangular sails, clumped together, going back and forth for no apparent reason. But up close and inside the start line, the reality was a North American Championship for one of the oldest racing classes in sailboat racing history, the Star Class.
These long, thin, elegant 22-foot vessels are some of the fastest and most graceful sailboats competing today.
Their classic design, first developed in 1911, still remains virtually unchanged.
Equipped with a very large sail plan and weighted by a keel, the Star boat is a blend of art and power.
It’s these attributes that make the Star class so popular and attractive to some of the hottest sailing talent the world has to offer.
The Keane Star Class North American Championship, hosted this year by California Yacht Club, is one of the most important contests in the country for this class.
As anticipated, the competition that arrived was at the highest level, with two-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Reynolds, gold medalist Bill Buchan, gold medalist Hal Haenel and other top-ranked crews from across the nation all in the hunt.
This prestigious event also had entrants from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.
The four-day regatta held true to expectations as the marquee names all stayed within reach of each other until the final day.
Skipper George Szabo, with Eric Monroe, was tied at 16 points with Rick Merriman and Rick Peters at the end of the regatta, forcing a tiebreak.
Because Szabo and Monroe had superior standing throughout the individual races, they were awarded the victory.
Szabo is one of the most well-respected small boat sailors in the country, with major championship wins racked up on Lidos, Snipes and Stars.
This is his second North American title, but it nearly was a catastrophe in the final race.
“The fitting holes on our lower shroud broke on the run,” Szabo said. “We had to lash that up and jury-rig it.
“If it had happened close to the leeward mark it would have been disastrous.”
This winning pair, out of San Diego, who have been sailing together for about a year, watched their competition closely on the final day of the regatta.
It was still anyone’s race as they watched Merriman and Peters head far off to the left in the last race.
“We weren’t in a position to cover him,” said Szabo. “He was the only person out there — if it worked, he was going to win big, but if it didn’t work and we followed him and got hosed, then it would have been the end of our regatta.”
As it turned out, Szabo/Monroe won the race largely due to their downwind prowess through the course of the week.
On one of the races, the duo passed about ten boats on the downhill leg.
“We’ve been working on her downwind speed a lot. Going to Argentina for the Worlds this year [helped]. The South Americans really know how to go downwind very well.”
“It’s frustrating,” Merriman said of the second place finish, “we had our opportunities and we missed ’em. In the race today [Sunday’s race] we should have gone a little harder left.
“Our scores showed we were conservative — we needed to take a few more risks.”
The conditions for the regatta were typical Marina del Rey variety — light and variable, then steadily building.
“More and more sailors are finding out that Marina del Rey is a great venue to sail in and a tough venue,” said Alex Benson, general chairman of the Keane Star North American Championship. “You have to sail in it awhile and it’s not always predictable, like some people believe.
“Typically, along the Southern California coast, you want to go right early in the leg when going upwind in order to get that shift.
“But the breeze [around here] can become quite shifty, as it was in these last four days, so the right [strategy] didn’t always pay.”
At the awards ceremony, barefoot sailors, along with their spouses and children, applauded their compatriots, laughed and congratulated each other in a warm-spirited closure to a hard- fought competition.