At 86 years old, George Koch of Carmichael would seem to be an unlikely athlete. Yet, this month he defeated 43 younger sailors on Folsom Lake to become the 47th Camellia Cup champion.
Following the grueling two-day regatta, Koch reminisced about his achievement, saying he didn’t imagine he would win against so many other great sailors, and admitted that the effort was exhausting. Though, the name of his boat, Poco A Poco, said a lot about how he approached winning. “The name comes from the expression “’Poco a poco se va mucho’” he said, “which means, ‘Little by little, one goes far.’”
Koch has been sailing this way most of his life. He recalls 30 years ago when the Camellia Cup would attract 300 boats. “They were mostly small boats, back then. There weren’t many keel boats.” Baby boomers were just entering the workforce and couldn’t afford a J22, the keelboat Koch sailed to win Camellia Cup.
So, they bought small, light boats that they could carry atop or inside the back of a station wagon. New materials began being used. Hand-crafted expensive wooden boats were being replaced with less-expensive fiberglass, foam and aluminum. The brand names of these new boats evoked carefree fun… Lido, Sunfish, Banshee. These dinghies were the aquatic equivalent of the popular vehicle of the day, the Volkswagen Beetle. They democratized sailing, allowing anyone to own a yacht, even if it sat covered in the side yard.
As Baby Boomers aged, they starting young families, and many stopped sailing. A few moved up to family cruising boats like the Catalina 22, though many stored their dinghies. They left them hanging from rafters inside garages or covered with a tarp in a side yard. The dinghies soon became coated with dust, bright colors faded and once-crisply white sails became molded and decayed from neglect.
However, the thrill and freedom of sailing bred reaching dinghies up onto an exhilarating plane or sailing a Hobie Cat up onto a beach wasn’t entirely forgotten by those who could then afford a yacht. Their purchases encouraged the evolution and multiplication of marinas along the California Coast from decaying wooden piers and boardwalks to sleek, concrete and steel refuges where bay and ocean racers and cruisers reside. Few of the 25-foot to over 100-foot yachts in these new marinas spend much time away from their docks. The harbors of San Francisco Bay, Marina del Rey, Balboa, Long Beach and San Diego are forested with the silver masts of boats waiting to be sailed.
Though when these boats do sail, their bays and seas come alive with white triangles. Packs of racers move deliberately across aquamarine froth toward a blaze orange mark. Individual cruises advance purposefully over the blue surface, their passengers enthralled by the spectacle surrounding them.
Although all of the sailors competing in Camellia Cup have sailed in coastal waters, they sail most often on inland waters. Inland sailing occurs most actively at Huntington and Millerton lakes near Fresno, at Lake Yosemite in Merced, at Clear Lake, Whiskeytown west of Redding, the Port of Stockton, Lake Almanor and throughout the Delta. El Dorado County’s prime sailing venues are Lake Tahoe and Folsom Lake. Sailing also occurs at Sly Park Recreation Area in Pollock Pines.
A used boat can cost from a few hundred to $20,000 and more. The biggest ongoing costs are storage (a marina slip or storage yard unless it fits on your property), replacing sails (every few years unless damaged), licensing the boat and maintenance. The bigger the boat, the more the maintenance; the same for any boat stored in the water. An old joke among power boaters is that a boat is a hole in the water in which you throw money, though inland sailors rarely say that. More commonly, they’ll say as a loud power boat passes, “Do you hear the money being spent?” As sailing is relatively affordable.
Of course, most sailboats rarely move much faster than 10 mph. Yet, in a breeze, the experience can be knuckle whitening. A sailboat heels to the side, tilting the deck so that it feels as if the boat might capsize. You hold onto a rail or sit over the side to steady yourself and balance the boat. The hull shudders as it hits waves, sending chill sprays of water over the boat’s passengers. Rigging groans and whines. Sails ripple and snap. As racing boats approach one another, their skippers shout for the right to pass, “Starboard!” or acknowledge they will turn away, “Hold your course!” A tense moment passes as one boat crosses ahead of the other.
To an experienced skipper and crew, this is all normal. They know that a sailboat must fight its way ahead against forces that seek to push it away. It is that conflict that allows the boat to sail upwind. Wind moves along the curvature of the sail and its keel or centerboard like that across an airplane’s wing, providing lift that advances the boat.
Sailing is both visceral and intellectual. With years of experience, it becomes instinctive. What’s needed most to become a great sailor is time on a boat. George Koch has invested a life sailing. So, as Camellia Cup – the county’s largest sailboat race – began, the other competing sailors knew George Koch was the most experienced sailor on the water, and one to beat.
Today, people expect to get their thrills instantly and socially. Turn a key and the motor starts. Gather socially to spray one another with chalk on a color run or get muddy on a challenge course. It takes practice and time to get as good as George Koch.
There was hope on the water at Camellia Cup, however. The youngest skipper that day was 7-year-old Katie Deutsch of El Dorado Hills. She trimmed the mainsheet of Four Sirens, a Santana 20 during racing and later presented trophies to the winners: another unlikely athlete, soon to be a champion.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.