A casual driver navigating Bayside Drive in Corona del Mar and admiring the spacious waterside homes that line the curving street might mistake the Balboa Yacht Club for a residence, at least at first glance. It’s roomy but not grandiose, shipshape but not showy. In a word, it’s homey.
And so it is, and has been since 1922, when the clubhouse was located on Balboa Island— a disarmingly casual home away from home for lovers of good food and drink, good company and good times, but always—and often mainly—good sailing.
“We’re a little bit more casual, more family-oriented,” says David Robinson, the club’s general manager. But to be a member, “you have to be a sailor or a boater. This isn’t a restaurant with a marina; we’re a yacht club. Applicants don’t necessarily have to own a boat. They can be active on a crew, for example. So they’ll be joining the club for more than just having a place to eat and drink in the dining room.”
In fact, the Balboa Yacht Club is part supper club, part neighborhood bar, part trophy case, part museum, part family playground and part marina. It sells aloha shirts and ball caps emblazoned with the club burgee rather than double-breasted, brass-buttoned navy blazers, and there are far more Napes sabots—tiny entry-level sailboats—in sight than massive yachts, the better to accommodate the club’s younger members.
The nautical/social nature of the BYC is obvious from the first step through the front door. Just inside is a massive trophy case containing an array of mostly large racing awards sculpted in everything from various metals to decorative chunks of coral. And one of the smallest is one of the most significant, says Robinson. It’s a small disc hanging from a ribbon: a sailing gold medal from the 2008 Paralympic Games in Qingdao, China, won by club member Nick Scandone.
Scandone, suffering from ALS, co-piloted a boat in the games. “Not only was he the flag bearer for the U.S. team,” says Robinson, “he won the gold medal. When he came back we had 100 members over at John Wayne Airport greeting him with banners, and we did a big party here at the club for him. He was a true hero to this club.”
Scandone passed away three months later.
Nearby is the Governor’s Trophy alone, a testimony to the BYC’s commitment to youth sailing programs. Granted the name by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California, the trophy is awarded to the best pair of young sailors—age 21 is the cutoff—who compete in the race using specially designed club-owned boats. The race, says Robinson, is known internationally and each year teams arrive from throughout the world to compete. The talent pool is deep. Some of the young sailors, he says, have gone on to compete in the America’s Cup.
There are few surfaces—walls, cabinets, floors, staircases—that aren’t decorated in some way or that don’t contain a bit of club history, such as the floor-to-ceiling mural by local artists Paul Darrow, Phil Dike and Rex Brandt, painted over the course of two weekends in 1961, or the painstakingly correct half-hull models of the sleek boats belonging to the club’s staff commodores in the dining room.
Photos of the commodores themselves fill the walls of the main staircase, the faces dating back to the first, Isaac Potter. In the club’s first year, 1922, Potter insisted that the club’s burgee—a small pennant that club boats fly to identify them with the club—employ orange and black as the colors. “Isaac Potter,” says Robinson, “was a Princeton graduate, and those are Princeton’s colors.”
There are about 200 burgees from yacht clubs throughout the world hanging from the beams of the Burgee Bar, the club’s cozy watering hole, all obtained by members in trades for the BYC’s burgee.
“When a member from another club comes here, the first thing they do is this,” says Robinson, mimicking a visitor frantically searching the pennants. “And nine out of 10 times they’ll find their burgee.”
“Yes, the club has many serious sailors, but the potential for a good time underlies much of what the club is about,” says Robinson. For example, the premier yachting event of the year, he says, is the Longpoint race, held in conjunction with the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. The BYC and the NHYC own adjacent beach properties on Catalina Island, and once a year they race from the mainland to their Catalina homes away from home to race and party, party and race.
“We’re bringing over our staff, food and beverage for two days and 400 people to party 26 miles out in the ocean,” says Robinson. “The partying is the biggest part of sailboat racing. The skippers and a couple of the crew take it seriously, but the rest are there to celebrate. It’s a serious event, and it can be risky because you’re out in the middle of the ocean, but boy, they have fun.”
“Yes, the club has many serious sailors, but the potential for a good time underlies much of what the club is about.”