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When Small Boats Ruled the Bay and the World

The ’50s, ’60s and ’70s produced an incredible burst of sailing activity around the world and on the Bay. A common theme at the time was the small size and simplicity of the boats. We were reminded of this recently when we came across this photo of over 70 small boats sailing Lake Merritt in the ’50s.

Seventy boats were sailing on Lake Merritt in the 1950s.

The boats racing at the time were El Toros, Blue Jays, Snipes, Melodys, Zephyrs, Coast 13s and Penguins. El Toros and Snipes still remain quite active on the Bay, and Penguins are still found in much of the world.

Despite the decline there is still lots of small-boat sailing, and many small-boat sailing advocates around the Bay. Richmond Yacht Club hosts two “Sail a Small Boat” days every year. The next will be March 2. Our current issue has the story of sailor AJ McKeon, who spent his high school years racing with BAYS (Bay Area Youth Sailing) on 420s and joined Tom Struttmann on his J/105 Arrived! this past season.

AJ McKeon and his skipper Chris Tang ripping it up on a 420.
© 2024 Courtesy AJ McKeon

You also hear the small-boat story in this week’s Good Jibes podcast with Master Mariners Rear Commodore Liz Diaz. In the podcast, Liz describes her 23-ft wooden sloop Kaze, which was one of over 100 Japanese-built offshore racers! This was during the time of the very active Midget Ocean Racing Circuit (MORC), which featured a regular schedule of small-boat offshore races for boats under 30-ft.

In ’60s and ’70s boats were much smaller and simpler, and people sailed much more frequently. The Vallejo Race often had 400-500 boats participating — talk about a good time and a good party! Is there a relationship there? What do you think?

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  1. Charles Sanford 4 months ago

    …Aaaand Mercuries and Thistles! Mercs are still sailed at Encinal. They have races out of RYC, an active trailering schedule, and there was an attempted revival at Santa Cruz Y.C. just before the pandemic.

  2. Chris Boome 4 months ago

    Nice article John, on Jan 14th I crewed on a Lido 14 on Lake Merritt, I had not been there in about 45 years…still shifty and fun. Not too many boats (Lido, Sunfish & El Toros) but they had some cool photos from the old days that brought back memories of some old El Toro legends from when I was a kid.

  3. milly Biller 4 months ago

    There were also 110s in Lake Merritt, in fact- my own boat #445 somehow flipped and swamped there- under her first owner, Gordie Rule ( RIP ). I thinks I have a few photos too, given to me by the Klein clan .

  4. Pat Broderick 4 months ago

    My first boat was a Melody that I sailed/raced(?) on Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa. When I bought a Coronado 25 and began sailing up to the Delta I towed the Melody up and sailed, rowed it as a tender. The hull fell apart but I still have the rig. The mast has made a great flagpole over the years. I learned a lot in that boat! I have a full set of Melody plans if anyone should want to build one. And a mast.

  5. Suzi Beatie 4 months ago

    Wonderful days! I learned to sail on a Mercury ( #40) my dad ( Harry Jacobs) built . Then had my very own El Toro that he built too. Out of RYC . What a way to grow up!

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