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Sailing club helps land lovers find sea legs

By Tracy Chocholousek Special to the Daily Planet
Monday May 07, 2001

There may not have been any battening down of the hatches, but plenty of jibing and tacking took place off the shores of the Berkeley Marina on Saturday. Bay area land lovers and sea farers alike gathered to take advantage of the free sailboat rides offered by the Cal Sailing Club during the first full weekend of each month.  

Extraordinary in its kind, the Cal Sailing Club is a non-profit yacht club without the costly membership dues.  

Two hours of volunteer time, $50, and a desire to learn, earns anyone a three-month membership which includes access to all club equipment and unlimited lessons in sailing and windsurfing. 

Practically all functions of the club are operated on a volunteer basis. Some people trade instruction or maintenance work for membership.  

Senior member Malu Lujan stresses that the club’s main priority is to teach and make available sailing and windsurfing for the general public. They provide hundreds of free sailboat rides and lessons to underprivileged youth as well as to community members during the weekend open houses.  

“We try to put the word out in places you wouldn’t expect, like homeless shelters,” Lujan said. “A lot of people view it as a rich white man’s sport, but it’s especially not true of our club.”  

And it’s not all hard work. Membership perks include Sunday races, occasional clinics and lectures, women’s classes and summer cruises to San Francisco. 

Established initially by a group of university students almost 60 years ago, the club relocated from Aquatic Park to Lake Merritt in its early years, then finally settled into the Berkeley Marina about 40 years ago.  

Despite its longevity in the Berkeley community, smooth sailing does not come about automatically. The club is a cooperative that thrives on the reciprocal efforts of its fluctuating 300 to 1,500 volunteers and members. While a structured curriculum may be lacking, a handful of qualified mariners are always available.  

“If you want to learn to sail here, you will, but you have to be patient,” member and Berkeley resident David Fraser said.  

The casual atmosphere amongst this amphibious group is precisely what draws in some of the club’s most loyal members. 

As Rear Commodore Jolanda de Boer explains, with each lesson it’s likely you’ll have a different teacher.  

From weathered skippers to newly certified rookies, each instructor will have new and different skills to teach.  

“Instruction is a little bit of a controlled chaos. We have formal times set up for instruction, but we don’t have formal instruction,” said four-year member Wayne Van Liere.  

Van Liere, who knew virtually nothing about sailing before his participation in the club, is now a dinghy instructor.  

“The best way to learn something is to teach someone else how to do it,” he said. 

The Cal Sailing Club allows people with an interest in sailing and windsurfing to assess whether such sports are just a simple whim or a lifelong passion before they invest in the costly equipment.  

“The rates are ridiculously low,” said James Wai, a two-year member. Wai is currently in charge of the day leader program, which is organized through the work-study program at UC Berkeley, but the club is not otherwise affiliated with the university. Day leaders represent the only paid positions within the club and act similar to lifeguards by monitoring the members’ safety in the water.  

“You can learn every aspect of having your own boat, and learn it at no risk,” Lujan said.  

Brian Herlihy, who holds the second vice commodore position on the executive committee, leads the windsurfing program. Herlihy also learned from scratch at the Cal Sailing Club. 

“I got addicted and I decided to pass the addiction along,” Herlihy said. “Besides, this is the cheapest way to start windsurfing.”  

Herlihy explained that to acquire all the essential windsurfing equipment on your own, not including lessons, would require approximately $3,000 up-front.  

Testing the waters of his whimsy, Frederick Malcalm of East Oakland has always been interested in learning more about sailing. 

“I work on the docks, I see the sailboats come and go all the time. I came (to the open house) on a whim. When I found out about the cost, I joined today,” Malcalm said.  

The club has established its own rating program in which new members, such as Malcalm, must demonstrate proficient knowledge in hands-on sailing and rigging as well as pass a written test before climbing the ladder from Junior to Senior to Cruising Skipper ratings. Beginners learn on one of about 20 dinghies. A dinghy is a smaller, capsizable sailboat. Once mastered, members can sign out various classes of equipment including one of six of the larger, more stable keel boats.  

“Our theory is that if you go out in a boat that can capsize, you will learn to hone your skills,” Lujan said.  

The Cal Sailing Club is open year-round from noon until sunset on weekdays and from 9 a.m. until sunset during the weekends.  

“If you learn here, in the San Francisco Bay, on a tiny boat, you can probably sail almost anywhere,” Fraser said.  

For more information on Cal Sailing Club membership visit the clubhouse in the Berkeley marina, call 287-5905, or go to their website, .org. Or join them at the marina for free sailboat rides from 1-4 p.m. during the first full weekend of every month.