Beer Can Racing

Urban legend has it that casual, weekday racing earned its name because most of the participants didn’t know how to read the race rules and couldn’t tell a windward mark from the starting line; they simply followed the empty beer cans tossed overboard by the leading boats. It’s probably apocryphal, much like the story of the submarine surfacing in the middle of the racing fleet on San Francisco Bay, but it does emphasize the informal character of the Friday night races.

Container ships on Oakland Estuary, photo by Laura A. Watt
Container ships berthed on the Oakland Esttuary.
Photo attribution: Laura A. Watt

The beer can races in the Oakland Estuary were sponsored by the Encinal Yacht Club. Encinal wasn’t as officious as most yacht clubs and the Oakland Estuary wasn’t really an estuary. It was a tidal channel that separated Oakland from Alameda, deep enough to barely permit the navigation of large container ships that berthed at the Oakland wharves.

Through much of the 1980s I worked for charter fleets and sailing schools on the Oakland Estuary. Working on the docks of Alameda made the Friday night races convenient. We’d knock off work early, fill the cooler with beer (Corona mostly), and sail for the starting line. Usually someone arriving late would make a pierhead leap for dramatic effect.

The boat was most often a J-29. The J had an outboard motor but it was rarely worth the effort to mount it on the transom. Typically it remained in the dock box and we sailed the boat out of the slip. In light air we’d hang on the shrouds and alternately pitch our weight outboard, rolling the boat like a big dingy to gain steerageway.

The starts were made exciting by the narrow starting line which was rarely set athwart the wind. Sometimes it was a beat, other times a reach, and occasionally a dead run. At least once we crossed the start with spinnaker set.

Ships turned end-for-end in the Oakland Estuary.
Photo attribution: Laura A. Watt

Container ships arriving from trans-pacific ports added to the excitement. The big ships were too large to turn mid-channel so the tugs would accompany them to the turning basin at the end of the Estuary where they were turned end-for-end, then brought back up the channel to their berth. In one race the first boats had just rounded the windward mark near the Rusty Pelican and set their chutes when a huge ship with the Hapag Lloyd line steamed through the fleet. The boats working to windward were constrained to less than half the width of the channel, short tacking viciously. The boats sailing downwind were hard pressed to steer clear of the boats close hauled and the pilot onboard the container ship must have been near cardiac arrest, small boats disappearing from his view on beam and bow. It was chaotic. Perhaps not as bad as a submarine…

Sailing downwind, Oakland Estuary. Photo by Laura A. Watt
Downwind run on Oakland Estuary.
Photo attribution: Laura A. Watt

The story is that boomers—the big submarines that carried ICBMs and lurked for months in the depths, waiting for the dreadful call to action—often came through the Golden Gate submerged to maintain secrecy, surfacing only as the bottom of the bay shoaled near Alcatraz Island. This particular boomer surfaced in the middle of a racing fleet on a spinnaker run in a fresh summer breeze. A summer breeze on San Francisco Bay is typically 20 knots. The sudden presence of a ship in their midst caused some consternation. The fleet was scattered like bowling pins. Boats broached and gybed all standing. There were knock-downs and death rolls.

Supposedly the sailboats were too quiet for the sub to hear with passive sonar. It’s pretty unlikely but even less likely things have happened with submarines. More than one ocean-going tug has been towed under stern first when its towline has been fouled by a submarine. But that’s another story.

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3 thoughts on “Beer Can Racing”

  1. I thought an surfacing submarine was required to shoot a green flare before surfacing. I guess the military doesn’t HAVE to do anything but there’s no point in secrecy in one of the most photographed bodies of water on the planet.

  2. Edward, I suspect the submarine story need be taken with more than a grain of salt – more like a mouthful. It’s probably one of those stories that sailors tell each other because it sounds plausible and, hell, even if it didn’t happen, it should have.

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