A yachting way of life fades

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The Malibu Yacht Club was in existence for 60 years, when dwindling membership and rough seas ended a once vibrant sport in Malibu waters.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

One upon a time, the beaches of Malibu were flecked with dozens of sailboats anchored in the sand. Catamarans, dugouts, little sabots and other wind-powered boats were lined up on the sand all along the coast.

In the 1970s, between 50 and 70 catamarans were kept at the Malibu Yacht Club, a vacant lot on the strand just east of the Malibu Pier. “Beer can” races (named after the prizes) were held every weekend.

“It was wonderful, a paradise,” said Bill Schultz, remembering the sailing, the races and the parties.

Special regattas had 200 homemade catamarans navigating the ocean near Surfrider Beach, he recalled.

It was in 1946 that the Malibu Yacht Club was founded by a group of sabot sailors- sabots basically being dinghies with sails. Club members soon began playing with exotic, multihull homemade boats called “catamarans.”

“Our club president, Warren Seaman, had been to Hawaii and [had] seen the native outriggers,” recalled longtime yacht club sailor and former Malibu resident Jerry Smith. “Pretty soon, the whole Malibu coast had all these experimental boats made out of resin and plywood.”

A new variety of homemade sailboat, called the Malibu Outrigger, was invented and perfected along this coast. On most weekends, the horizon was marked with sails.

Today, it’s rare to see a sail on the Malibu coast. And since the landing of powered watercraft along the city’s 27-mile coastline is illegal, that means recreational boating is all but moribund in Malibu waters.

Old salts say the relative popularity of boating ebbs and flows, and right now it’s growing again. Record attendance is reported at the Los Angeles Boat Show, which is open at the Convention Center downtown through this weekend. Business writers say Californians, flush with refinance cash from their escalating house values, are snapping up boats.

But in Malibu, having a boat these days means having a trailer, or renting a slip 20 to 30 miles away at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, or in Marina del Rey. The local geography means the nearest marinas and boat launching ramps are too far from Malibu to allow for day sailors to reach local waters.

“And people are not just sailing the little boats anymore,” said yacht broker Steve Curran, who at one time was the Hobie Cat dealer in Malibu. Curran said he sold dozens of the small catamarans during the 1970s and ’80s “They had the speed, they had the colors, they had the styling and they were cheap. People just dragged them up on the beach.”

Mike Inman, another boat dealer, said the small boat sailing market may have been a victim of its own success.

“People got the taste of sailing on a small cat, and the first thing they want is to go to Catalina and sleep on the boat,” he said. “You can’t do that on a Hobie.”

But in the 1970s, people did just that, wrapping a sleeping bag in a waterproof sack and charging off from Malibu, out through the waves and crossing 40 miles of open ocean to camp on Catalina Island, Schultz said.

“If you had the speed, which those boats do, you could push off the beach, set the sail, snap down the rudders and just blow through the waves,” Schultz said. “And coming on with the waves, you could surf them. Man, that was fun.”

The bigger boats favored by people nowadays need slips or launching ramps, and cannot negotiate the Malibu surf, Inman said. And the city of Malibu bans power craft, including little boats commonly called Jet Skis, from landing on public and private beaches within city limits.

But why do few pleasure boats travel along the picturesque Malibu coast, when hundreds of them float off Venice or Manhattan beaches on lazy sunny days?

“Malibu is so far from Marina del Rey, and Catalina Island is only a little bit further. Plus Malibu is straight upwind from the marina, and you really get beat up coming up there,” said Inman. “It takes a lot to get to Malibu.”

Nevertheless, that does not deter a small flotilla of yachts and sailboats from routinely anchoring at Paradise Cove during summer months, when waves and winds are less forceful and a boat anchor will hold. Winter storms will take almost anything at anchor, and there are no fixed buoys for pleasure boats anywhere in Malibu.

Last December’s high waves washed away a few catamarans beached at Paradise Cove, taking nearly the last small boats that remained on the local scene.

The closest marina to Malibu is not Marina del Rey, but is Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. Slip rental there is about $350 a month, although boats can be stored on land there for a third of that cost.

That leaves trailer boats as the last alternative for Malibu boat fans, Inman said. He sells a sleep-aboard sailboat called the Macgregor 26M, a flat-bottomed sailboat that trailers easily and yet is safe and big enough to sleep six onboard at Catalina Island.

But few teenagers sail anymore, Inman said.

“Computer games, iPods, all sorts of alternative entertainment things [take their attention],” he said. “They just aren’t that interested in sailing anymore.”

The Malibu Yacht Club lost its lease 20 years ago, and moved to a windier spot at Trancas. Smith, who has been a member since 1969, said the rougher surf at Trancas was a factor in dwindling membership.

“They were all a bunch of sissies, they didn’t like crashing out through the surf,” Smith recalled with a laugh.

Winter storms in 1998 washed the remaining sailboats and the storage container housing sails into the ocean, ending the club’s official presence after 60 years.