A night at the races: My evening on the estuary

A night at the races: My evening on the estuary

Michele Ellson
“This is the hardest part of sailing, when the spinnaker is up,” Katherine Ulman says as the Joanna, a 30-foot Irwin on which she is crewing, carves a graceful arc across the Alameda/Oakland Estuary.

The sail in question – which looks like the colorful parachutes children use to toss mounds of plastic balls like popcorn kernels – can be a boon when a sailboat hits a windless patch, or a curse if a strong wind suddenly kicks up, sending the boat skidding atop the waves.

Ulman is part of a crew of five piloting the Joanna around the estuary in one of the Oakland Yacht Club’s Sweet Sixteen Series races, and one of three – including skipper Jemo and Chuck Hostetter – who have sailed together for over 15 years. Ken Whitney and Jane Call are newer members of the group, though you’d never know it from the easy rapport the five sailors share.

“I heard you could show up and start crewing,” says Call, who did just that one day after years of wanting to sail, bringing Whitney – who worked at Svendsen’s Boat Works – along.

Oakland Yacht Club is one of six yacht clubs in Alameda and one of three that hold weekly “beer can races,” which are informal and intended to introduce sailing to the uninitiated. Jemo and his crew quickly and graciously welcome me on board as they prepare for the race.

Jemo has been sailing since the late 1950s, he says, and today he offers calm direction – and a running narrative about sailing, the estuary and the people on it – as we glide through the water, tilting steeply from side to side in the wind.

“Some of us have been racing against one another for a number of years,” Jemo says, dishing out the bona fides of some of his fellow-racers and club members.

The racers line up in different groups, in part to avoid the collisions that occasionally occur. In addition to dodging each other, they must be on the lookout for rowers and other pleasure cruisers in the water on what turns out to be a balmy night with light breezes.

Then the sounding gun starts and over the next 90 minutes, the racers sail around a series of giant gumball-hued markers, in boats that range from 29 feet long to 37 feet.

Being on the water offers a different perspective of Alameda, where a jumble of masts gives way to houseboats and the hulking concrete ghosts of the shoreline’s past, and of Oakland, where a set of empty, weathered plastic chairs give way to the waterfront restaurants of Jack London Square. It’s a view I am so enamored with that I almost slide off the steeply tilting boat as we queue up for the race.

Once things get underway, the patter on the Joanna is audibly calmer than that on some of our competitors, with Jemo offering quiet direction between silences that is followed by the loud rustle and snap of the tarp-like jib. Occasionally Jemo pokes fun at one of his fellow racers or bemoans the bad driving of some of the pleasure sailors, over the insistent whine of a train horn in Jack London Square.

The races end when the sun sets, and I am grateful when Ulman, who met Jemo through a boyfriend who sailed, invites me into the warmth below for a lesson on proper packing of a spinnaker. A tote bag given in honor of the Joanna’s victory in one of Oakland yacht Club’s Rites of Spring races sits on one of the benches below.

Then the crew shares a post-race feast of gourmet sandwiches and cupcakes Call and Whitney bring for Ulman’s birthday, talking and laughing as the club’s lights burn bright above.