The spectators arrive by accident, not yet aware of the roles they’re about to play at Spreckels Lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
A group gathers at a picnic table. A couple takes a seat on a nearby bench. A young woman sinks onto a blanket and pulls out a book. They show up for any number of reasons, none of which are to cheer on Rob Weaver and Jim Harrold, friendly rivals and titans of their sport.
With remote controls attached to straps hanging around their necks and their thumbs pressed gently against their joysticks, they pace the pavement along the 950-foot-long lake, steering their boats around buoys as they duke it out in the Infinity 54 class of the San Francisco Model Yacht Club.
“We get a lot of people watching us,” said Weaver. “Sometimes, we hand them the controls. Once they get a boat and start racing, they get hooked. They get obsessed.”
Spreckels Lake glimmers on this sunny Saturday. Sun-soaked ducks swim near the shore on the west end, as giggling children watch. The east side of the lake is protected by tall eucalyptus trees that force the wind to go around them, creating tricky and often unpredictable patterns for the sailors to navigate.
The northern side is where the action unfolds. Several members of the Model Yacht Club compete here most days, often with Weaver, a multi-time champion and the commodore of the century-old club, in attendance.
By day, he’s an attorney who could just as well retire, but he reckons his wife never will, and he doesn’t want to be the only one not working. He used to sail big boats on the Bay, but now he spends three days a week down at Spreckels Lake.
Today, his primary opponent is Harrold, a retired butcher and former sailor who got tired of looking for things to do around the house, so he started racing model yachts. That was eight years ago. He’s since won the Infinity 54 class two years running. Weaver has been hot on his tail.
Harrold arrives early in the morning, meticulous about race preparation. He lifts his yacht onto a stand and, closing one eye, measures the precise angle of his sails, adjusting them to suit the wind that day.
Today there are five racers: Weaver; Harrold; Bob Gallagher, a regular; Steve Ma, a longtime skipper who prefers building the boats over racing them; and Craig Fields, a rookie.
They drop their 54-inch boats in the water, and someone flips on an automatic timer, a voice warning just one minute remains until the first race of the day. The five boats swirl around the buoys, careful not to cross the starting line until the horn sounds.
Then, they’re off!
Harrold and Weaver are out in front with a gust of momentum, with Gallgher and Ma a bit behind, and Fields is lost at sea.
On most days, 94-year-old Jason Spiller is out there, too. Spiller, the godfather of the club, has won dozens of times since his first victory in 1995, and continues to outpace the field to earn the prize everyone covets: his name etched on a plaque at the boathouse.
“He’s competitive until he gets tired,” Weaver said. “So we wear him out. But he doesn’t give an inch. He still wins races.”
As the skippers make their first turn, Weaver has a slight lead until he clips a buoy, a devastating mistake that requires him to spin his yacht in a 360-degree turn as a penalty. Harrold’s boat takes advantage, swiftly moves past Weaver’s and sails around the buoy, then back towards the starting line on the other end of the lake.
It’s a sight to see, all five guys with their heads tilted sideways, eyes on their boats, thumbs on the controls as they pace the rim of the lake, carefully reading wind patterns but aware enough to avoid pedestrians moseying by.
“This is how we get our exercise, up and down the lake,” said Harrold, smiling as he speeds down the pavement, guiding his boat to an easy victory.
The skippers regroup for the second of eight races. Some guide their boats back to shore for adjustments. Weaver offers his controls to a newcomer and explains how it works. There are two joysticks: One moves the rudder left and right, the other moves the sails. And it’s definitely not as easy as it looks.
If Weaver’s lucky, he’ll recruit an interested spectator to join the club, but recruiting young people has been near-impossible. They’re happy to watch when they happen upon a Saturday regatta. Hanging out with retirees on weekday afternoons? That, Weaver said, is a harder sell.
Model yacht racing has been around since at least the mid-1800s, though they weren’t remote controlled until much later. Until Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first radio-controlled boat in 1898, there were only free sailing yachts. A sailor set the boat’s course, dropped it in the water and hoped for the best.
Adolph Spreckels, the wealthy Bay Area businessman who ran the Spreckels Sugar Company, was an avid model yachtsman. As the story goes, Spreckels grew tired of googly-eyed lovers rowing their boats on Stow Lake, where his model yachts would get steamrolled by inattentive Casanovas. Spreckels, who owned all of Golden Gate Park west of 25th Avenue, built a pond specifically for model yachting in 1904, then eventually donated the entire park to the city of San Francisco.
The city named the pond Spreckels Lake and continues to maintain its functioning.
The model yachts are stored in a boathouse just south of the lake. It was built in 1937 with federal funds issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, another model yachtsman. Today, the boathouse is kept up by the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, as well as members of the model yacht club.
“This is by far the best boat house in the world,” said Michael Fischer, one of the members.
The boathouse is as beautiful as it is welcoming, with signs everywhere encouraging passersby to step inside, say hello and catch the bug.
“You’ve got to be careful. It bites you,” said John Super, a former sailor who took up model yachting a few years ago. “If you like competition, you could spend the rest of your life doing this.”
Most of the members are retired sailors who find it easier and more enjoyable to take a miniature version of their boat to Spreckels Lake, where they can enjoy a beautiful day on the water without so much effort.
Still, they try to recruit younger folks, and Super hopes the same kids who are eager to grab their video game controllers might one day see that they could have just as much fun controlling a model yacht.
The club’s membership ranges from 150 to 180 members, but “unless you get new people into it, it eventually dies out,” Weaver said. “That’s our fear. But you look at it on a worldwide scale, and it’s really popular. It’s popular in Croatia. Germany is a hotbed. England is a hotbed. New Zealand and Australia. And Thailand.”
These days, a brand new model yacht costs $500 and is ready to sail out of the box, though many of the members enjoy building their own sail and powerboats.
“I started last summer,” said Dave Klinger, a retired engineer who built satellites for Lockheed Martin. “I came over here to have lunch, and they were running the power boats on the far side, then I saw these sailboats over here. I walked over, sat down on one of these benches, and Michael came up and asked if I wanted to sail the boat. I said, ‘Sure.’ He gave it to me, and I got hooked.”
Klinger recruited his old Stanford professor, Dave Powell, and now the two Daves meet every Wednesday morning in Half Moon Bay, then make the drive to Spreckels Lake, race their yachts, have lunch and head home.
“We reconnected several years ago as part of a hiking group,” Powell said. “I would say this is bringing us together much better.”
It’s as much a social club as it is a sporting club. The newbies enjoy learning, and the veterans are happy to share their wisdom. The same skippers tend to win most of the time, but a tiny mistake could open the door for a fresh winner once in a while.
“Wouldn’t you like to play baseball against Willie Mays one inning? Or pool against Willie Mosconi?” Super said. “Hell yeah. I’m proud to lose to these guys.”
At best, a new member might get a taste of glory. At worst, they spend an afternoon out on the water.
When Klinger returns to his retirement community after his races, his friends rush to ask him if he finally won.
“Not yet, but I came in second,” he’ll tell them. “I look forward to it every time I come out here. You never know what it’s going to be.”
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