Editorial: Yachtclub - Publication: LA Weekly - Date: July 2013

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Opulence In Miniature - The Echo Park Yacht Club

It’s a sunny day on the banks of newly renovated Echo Park lake and a gaggle  people are defying  the elements in bulky vintage nautical garb (circa1920- 1940).

No they’re aren’t a group of merchant bankers or corporate millionaires, slumming it on route to a property viewing. This seemingly misplaced group are in fact devoted yachters, members of an elite group called The echo Park Yacht club.

Traditionally synonymous with six figure salaries and social elitism, yacht racing is a pastime generally out of reach for the average Angelino. Yet this group of enterprising east siders are bucking tradition and infiltrating the domain of the elite - at least in their own scaled down way.

 Rather than globetrotting to exotic locales and tackling the high seas on 100 foot craft, The Echo park Yacht Club instead launch their own scale version vintage sailboats  (one twelfth to be precise) on the city’s inner city lakes, including lake Balboa and Echo Park Lake.

As the club name suggests, against a backdrop of ice cream munching families and Echo Park’s lake’s pluming fountain,  members regularly gathered to race model yachts since the mid 2000’s on select weekends.

Saturday June 15 marked the Echo Park yacht Clubs return to home turf after a two year sabbatical due to the lake renovations. Reunited members were duly impressed with it’s $45 million facelift  and salubrious look, a stark contrast to its former rundown state.

From a newly created bridge to the exotic new plant life and water with an uncharacteristic turquoise hue,  the reopening was definitely a winner with the club and the general public overall.

Thousands of sun kissed admirers showed up to celebrate the reopening. Families strolled its banks, others chose to picnic, while the area’s signature hipsters frolicked, toked weed  and played croquet, ultimately all and sundry seemed to embrace a chill vibe thankfully devoid of any oafish territorialism.

Perched on the south side of the lake a group of around twenty members launched their boats, while members of the public looked on in awe. In  the first twenty minutes he and the club spent at the lake, head of the club Nic Onassis was approached by fifteen curious onlookers, excited children  with moms in tow being the key demographic.

Six year old Sammy from Compton, was ecstatic after trying out one of the clubs boats. Operating its remote with some instruction from Onassis Sammy mastered the boat after a matter of minutes. “Where can I get one.” he shrieked, with his dutiful mom Carole (32) by his side. “Craigslist is the best deal,” revealed Nic confiding to Carole that a boat can be bought for around $200 online as opposed to around double that in a store.

Another equally enthusiastic observer was Tim, a 75 year old retired lawyer. a sailor himself, with his own boat moored in Marina del Rey. “That was in the 1980’s, prior to my divorce.” Tim added

Also offered a turn at operating one of the boats by generous Nic, Tim lent his skills to navigate the tiny craft, something he said was a “magical.” experience. “This is a great thing, its fun and gets you outside, wonderful. Its excellent for kids, it might even get them away from their computers and out into the elements.”

Echo Park yacht Club’s President and “Admiral,” Nick Onassis, was so overwhelmed by the public’s response and enthusiasm towards the boats, he’s decided to investigate  the legality and viability of establishing a boat hire business on the lake . Something similar to an existing operation in New York’s Central park on its namesake lake.

“This is a huge hit with pre teen boys and old men,” revealed Nic. “We’ve had more people approach us today than we ever have had before. I guess its had something to do with the fresh renovations, its great to be back on the lake, we used other venues like Lake Balboa in East LA, though no other area has the atmosphere that the lake has.”

“I think a boat rental business would work well on Echo Park Lake. I think it wouldn’t be so much about making a huge amount of money, but more in creating something for the people in the community. Today’s level of interest definitely suggests it would be a thriving thing for the lake,” Onassis said.

While the reopening of the lake on June 15 saw the club approach things more casually, meeting days are generally more structured and officious, with a strict code in play.

What are the rules to scale yacht racing ? Onassis reveals, “we abide by the rules laid out by the American Model Yacht Racing Association. We also get into nautical styling and lifestyle, dressing in appropriate garb, and addressing one another by various rank. Members also have names for their vessels which include vintage schooners, skipjacks, and other scale models.”

In keeping with  the EPYC’s progressive approach and aim to address yachting’s patriarchal bias, the club’s beacon of femininity, Brandie AKA Captain Sweetness offers some insights. “The great things about the club is that its not aligned to gender, we are all in it equally and compete based on our boating skills. Sure there are ranks but that’s playful bonding, its just a fun role play kind of thing.”

When not conquering the currents of Echo Park lake with her shining mahogany  schooner named Pharaoh,  EPYC member Brandie AKA Captain Sweetness is a freelance photographer and  “obsessive gourmet.”

Asked about the appeal of racing toy boats the 27 year old Echo Park resident reveals. “Its fun and quirky, and without sounding cheesy, a healthy way to socialize. We have a bunch of pretty girls and boys eating great food and drinking excellent wine while racing,” she says

Paying homage to a bygone era, members of the Echo Park yacht club are passionate about nostalgia. A typical meeting for them resembling a silent black and white film. Uncanny, considering the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other Hollywood scenesters from that era also raced model craft on Echo Park Lake back in the day.

Gathering with pals on lakes in Echo Park, as well as Brea and Long Beach for summer afternoons of sailing and bonding with friends was apparently a wholesome balance for Chaplin, whose lifestyle was otherwise  dominated by late night debauchery.

Onassis reveals, “Charlie would attend sermons at Angelus Temple, home of the Foursquare Church that were given by its then leader Dr Rolf K McPherson.  The pair struck up a friendship and Charlie and his friends would join Dr Rolf for model boat racing afternoons on Echo Park Lake.”

Chaplin apparently took to model boating with great enthusiasm. An avid yachter, who had his own boat moored at Marina Del Rey in the 1920s and thirties he would often take weekend trips with pals to Catalina and beyond.

According to Onassis, Charlie was a big fan of  boat racing pre”RC,” (remote control,) using instead a fixed rudder and guiding poles to navigate the 1500 foot lake.

Onassis explains, before the days of radio control, boats raced via a method called “free sailing.” This involved adjusting and trimming the vane gears that steered free-sailing boats. A free-sailing boat, whether pursued from a skiff or sailed from side to side of a pond, by fixed rudder and sail setting when reaching across the wind or beating (tacking) to windward,”  he adds.

 While today’s members of The Echo Park Yacht Club are sticklers for authenticity, Onassis says current technology is one of the rare modern enhancements the club embraces.” Purists adhere to the use of fixed rudder and launching poles, though the club uses RC (remote control) technology for efficiency’s sake.”

“While we wanted to remain true to tradition,” Says Nic,  “fixed rudder racing was just too time consuming. We had boats stranded in the lake and impatient sailors abandoning their borrowed boats to be later retrieved by angry owners. So ultimately we opted to equip boats with RC, though in terms of design they are all built according to plans drafted in the early 1900s.”

Asked why they think they are involved in the club, Brandie and Nic become decidedly deep and meaningful . “EPYC is a metaphor, a yearning for authenticity, a hunger for a bygone era that pre dates online obsession with dating gaming porn or selfies. Its linked to a collective affinity for recycling and retro fashion, music and cars, a kind of new age consumerism that blends both style and substance.”

Brandie nails it when she offers the incisive comment “Dante (the Italian 12th C poet) said there is no connection without intimacy, and compared a lack of connection and presence to hell. Racing these boats is about being social and bonding, getting back to something real, something romantic, it’s about passion really. Today, many things have an illusion of intimacy and connection, but we really do bond with one another in a very special way.”


Written by Craig Stephens

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