Ron Young and Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
In a recent talk at the Sausalito Yacht Club, racing historian Ron Young pointed out that following the Gold Rush, half of all the people who came to SF came via square-riggers. They had just spent five or more months at sea, so it’s not surprising that many were comfortable on the waters of San Francisco Bay.
In his illustrated lecture entitled “They Came for the Gold, They Stayed for the Yachting – The Birth of Racing on SF Bay,” Ron, Chairman of the St. Francis Yacht Club Wednesday Yachting Luncheon and Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association Historian of the Year, also noted that when these sea-hardened 49ers transformed a sleepy village of 850 into a brawling boomtown of 50,000, the town had no businesses to serve them; so an entrepreneurial spirt arose which stokes the Bay Area to this day. Abandoned square-riggers became stores, bars, restaurants and hotels before they were buried under landfill. Some of those successful entrepreneurs began building, racing, and betting on yachts they couldn’t have afforded a few years earlier.
An 1855 edition of the Daily Alta Californian contained the first written account of one of these wild and wooly competitions:
“A yacht race came off, yesterday between the schooner Olivia and Kate Dodge. The stake was $1,000 [$35,000 in today’s money, according to Ron]. Capt. Avery commanding the Olivia and Capt. Johnson Kate Dodge. The former belonged to Simm & Co.’s Sacramento line. The fastenings were let go from Clay Street wharf at 10 o’clock, in presence of a large number of spectators. They were accompanied by the schooner Alexander, Capt. McKenzie, of Peckham & Davis’ Stockton line. The race was made up for the doubling of Mile Rock, at the entrance of the harbor, and back to the point of starting. The wind was fresh from the northwest and the waters of the bay quite smooth. The little fleet had scarcely got under way when the superior sailing qualities of the Olivia began to display themselves. But the Alexander, though not in the race, appeared to be a competitor for the honors of the day by no means to be despised. She sailed twice around the Olivia who was far ahead of the Kate before they had reached Fort Point, where her throat halyards parted and she allowed her antagonist to get a mile in advance, but all being made ship-shape again she speedily overtook her rival. The Kate now seeing that there was no chance for her, withdrew from the race which seemed tacitly given over by both sides and the affair resolved itself into a mere pleasure party.
“When all were satisfied with the day’s sports they shaped their course for the city. The fleet came dashing onwards with every stick of canvas spread to the breeze. They came in as follows: First, the Alexander, she shot through the fleet of anchored merchantmen, and luffing sharp up off the end of Clay Street wharf, lowered her sails at 10 minutes past 3 P.M. Next came the Olivia, far to the windward of the Kate Dodge, she brought up on the opposite side of Clay Street wharf at 3 o’clock and 5 minutes. At a quarter past three the Kate Dodge came up. The two boats first arriving went loudly cheered as they came in by the crowd upon the wharf. The day was a remarkably favorable one for the sport, there bring just enough time to admit of crowding all sail without danger.”
However, Ron maintains, “When they came back, everyone was asking, ‘Who won the race?’ So they decided to have another race with real rules,” inspired by East Coast and English sailing traditions.
That led to the 1869 formation of the San Francisco Yacht Club, “to create a more orderly form of racing.” The original anchorage and clubhouse of the oldest yacht club on the West Coast were located near Mission Rock, but development forced the club to change locations a few times, until it moved to Sausalito in 1877, where Trident is today.