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Which Yacht Club Should You Join?

By Catherine Bigelow

St. Francis Yacht Club members revel in opening day festivities on a sunny spring afternoon. (Spencer Brown)

From Brisbane east to Benicia and Alviso north to Vallejo, the storied maritime history of the San Francisco Bay is reflected in a riot of clubs devoted to sailing and racing.

San Francisco Yacht Club, the oldest on the Pacific Coast, raised its sail in 1869 near Mission Rock and now calls Belvedere home — it’s a long story. In 1927, some City members (weary of the wake-ridden commute) broke away, founding St. Francis Yacht Club atop Panama Pacific International Exposition landfill that created the Marina Green shoreline.

For some, yachting may connote cliché images of crisp navy blazers or lock-jawed sailors spouting antiquated phrases to describe a pretty boat (à la Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story): “She sure is yar.” Yet locally, none utter anything that silly. Nor are members required to actually own a boat. But knowledge of key words like “commodore” (the club’s top dog) is as crucial as correctly enunciating burgee /bər-jē/: a three-sided pennant bearing the club’s emblem or colors that also tastefully adorns your Musto racing gilet.

St. Francis Yacht Club Commodore Paul Heineken gazes north. (Spencer Brown)

Bay racing, and youth sailing programs, are serious endeavors among Bay boat clubs. Especially for St. Francis Yacht Club, which, according to Commodore Paul Heineken hosts numerous championship regattas: “With our West Coast weather, St. Francis has one of the most active racing seasons in the world.”

South of McCovey Cove, the Bay View Boat Club exudes a saltier vibe — redolent of the era when our waterfront was dominated by the maritime industry, not electric scooters.

“We’ve always been old-school San Francisco: Our members are electricians, contractors, working-class. But as Mission Bay changes, so does that demographic,” notes Commodore Lizzie Winsor. “Another change that’s pretty cool: more female commodores.”

Golden Gate Yacht Club Commodore Leslie Iacopi enjoys a laugh among friends. (Spencer Brown)

Golden Gate Yacht Club Commodore Leslie Iacopi thumbnails her America’s Cup-winning club as highly diverse, with a friendly Cheers-like bar: “Our port captain is a retired plumber and his son is an SFFD battalion chief. We’ve got all types of members: sailors, social, bluebloods and blue collars.”

The Big Kahuna

St. Francis Yacht Club 99 Yacht Road, SF; stfyc.com

Located on a Spanish Revival-style clubhouse on a sliver of land fronting the Marina Green, the St.Francis Yacht Club is considered one of the most prestigious in the world. Its membership boasts world championship sailors, Olympians and old money. Once you’re inside its classic wood-paneled clubhouse, the vibe is friendly and sportif. Just put away your phone in the main dining room. Bonus points: Tinsley Island, a private paradise on the Delta available to club members; one of the world’s finest collections of wooden ship models; and Commodore Heineken’s spicy “Fish Burger” recipe on the club’s restaurant menu.

Founded: 1927

Famous members: Larry Ellison

Annual membership: The club does not release those figures. But it’s quietly estimated that initiation fees begin at five figures; that’s excluding membership costs and monthly dues.

The Working Man

Bay View Boat Club 489 Terry Francois St., SF; bayviewboatclub.org

A funky waterfront redoubt, the Bay View Boat Club is proud to describe itself as the “workingman’s” boat club — its atmosphere is akin to WildWest meets bohemia, as many members are arts-oriented and the club often hosts gallery shows.Full members need only own a 25 percent interest of a boat. But 15 percent of the club’s membership comprises non-boat owners who are “active boaters” (kayakers, fishers, rowers).

Bonus: Live jazz every Tuesday with former San Francisco Symphony bassist and club member Don Prell and his SeaBop Ensemble.

Founded: 1961

Famous members: City Attorney Dennis Herrera

Annual membership: Initiation: $325; dues, $250

The Auld Mug

Golden Gate Yacht Club 1 Yacht Road, SF; ggyc.com

Now known as the “club of record” thanks to two America’s Cup wins, the club was established on an old barge as a gathering place for fishermen. In 1989, the barge was destroyed by the earthquake. Members rebuilt only to discover a few years later that their club was on the verge of financial ruin. That’s when then-Commodore Norbert Bajurin, a radiator mechanic, improbably joined forces with billionaire Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison (who chose GGYC when he and the St. Francis club couldn’t agree on Cup details) to win the America’s Cup (fondly referred to as “The Auld Mug”) in 2010. Three years later, they returned the challenge to the States, winning on the San Francisco Bay. Not surprisingly, the club received a major boost and aesthetic facelift.

Founded: 1939

Bonus points: Sunday brunches with bloody marys

Famous members: Larry Ellison (sense a pattern?)

Membership: Initiation (regular members): $2,500; associate initiation: (age 21-30): $250; other fees applicable; sponsorship by three regular club members.

The Hobbyist

San Francisco Model Yacht Club Spreckels Lake, 36th Avenue at Fulton Street, Golden Gate Park, SF; sfmyc.org

For boat-loving landlubbers, this is your place. Located near the serenely navigable (and shallow) Spreckels Lake, the Model Yacht Club is devoted to the building and sailing of working model yachts (sail, power, radio-control) of all stripes (cabin cruisers, woodies, fishing boats). It’s believed to be the oldest U.S. venue for free-sailing yacht races. The club is housed in a historic 1937 WPA building that features a collection of handmade models. Its Sail Squadron holds “freesailing” races and regattas most weekends during the March-October season. In August, the club hosts the 2019 National Championship Regatta for 10 Rater class boats. Membership is open to all comers — at a price point that can’t be beat.

Founded: 1898

Bonus points: The Biennial Wooden Boat Parade, slated for September 2020.

Annual membership: Senior members (18 and over): $40; one-time initiation fee: $10

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