Rituals: Yacht Club Opening Day

Why do Orange County’s sun-kissed sailors ‘break the ice’ to kick off yachting season?

Since the only ice in our harbors this time of year is floating in our margaritas, it might come as a surprise that local yacht clubs employ loud cannons to “break the ice” so the boating season officially can begin.

That centuries-old ritual of the yachting community persists wherever there are sailors, even though we on the West Coast have jettisoned so many other East Coast traditions. It doesn’t really matter that yachting season never closes in Southern California. Every yacht club must have its Opening Day, or it just wouldn’t be, you know, a yacht club.

So Opening Day ceremonies at the county’s dozen or so clubs will begin at the end of this month and continue in earnest through April and May. As usual, they’ll feature cannon shots over the water (to cut the ice we don’t have), the seasonal debut of white pants and blue blazers (even though we never stopped wearing them), visiting “dignitaries,” regattas, great food, Champagne, masts adorned with colorful flags, and bagpipes (some believe the tradition began in Scottish waters).

But this being Orange County, most yacht clubs also add their own customs to a celebration that already makes no sense. Some groups—including the venerable Newport Harbor Yacht Club, which turns 100 next year—really put out the red carpet, with fine wines and tents with children’s games, and dozens of members docking their boats.

“I’ve never seen anything like it on the East Coast,” says Balboa Yacht Club general manager David Robinson of his club’s annual kickoff party. Each year he imports extra floating docks because members traditionally bring all their boats together for Opening Day, making for a boat hook-up party attended by 800 people. (Here’s hoping they also bring extra bumpers.) Robinson, with his yacht club experience in Michigan, Florida, and San Francisco, had one question when members told him about Opening Day ceremonies: “When was Closing Day?”

The Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Newport Beach has an answer for that. Every year, the night before they celebrate Opening Day, about a hundred members gather on the dock to celebrate Closing Day. The commodore delivers a speech that generally goes something like this: “There’s fog in the bay, icebergs have been spotted, and we’re closing for the season. Last one out of the club tonight, sign this cocktail napkin, and leave it under the door.”

Club officers are expected to travel to openings at other clubs. So many deviled eggs are consumed at yacht club openings that, among officers, the tradition has come to be known as “the deviled-egg circuit.”

“We do hunks of lobster in ours,” says Phil Ventura, junior staff commodore of Huntington Harbour Yacht Club. He adds that Opening Day helps unify club members. “If you didn’t have it, you’d just be a social club, and that’s definitely a line in the sand. You don’t just come here and eat and drink and see your friends. That’s what the Elks and the Shriners are for.”


To find the first opening day in Orange County, which begins this month, I travel 700 feet above sea level to the Lake Mission Viejo Yacht Club, which will celebrate its 38th Opening Day ceremony. The rain is steady, and the dockmaster has to make sure there are no thunderstorms before he’ll let us go out.

At the helm of our 14-foot rental Capri is Frank Roberts, a connoisseur of yacht club openings. He doesn’t remember how many openings he has attended, or at how many clubs. We’re heading away from the dock toward a storm over Saddleback. The mountains seem close, like blue volcanoes, when Roberts points out where he had his most embarrassing Opening Day moment.

The lake already officially had been declared “free of ice.” The scent of grilled tri-tip was floating up off the dock, and scores of dignitaries and fellow yachts-people were lining up for the feast. That’s when the Santa Ana winds picked up, and Roberts turtled his sailboat in front of everybody, soaking him in his Opening Day whites.

This day, the wind does all kinds of crazy things to our sail, changing directions, dying, whipping up again in another direction. The rain is stinging our faces. Roberts tells me shifting winds up against the mountains make it challenging to sail on the lake.

He shows me where the club shoots off its foot-long cannon, “the loudest thing you’ve ever heard.” I glance at the sky, which is dark and stormy. I ask him how deep the lake gets. He tells me it’s between 60 and 70 feet to the bottom.


The rain stops for a bit, and we tack across the lake, passing one mini-mansion after the next. The many homes surrounding the lake give it a slightly European feel. Roberts tells me some Opening Days are like a High Mass, while other clubs don’t take them as seriously. He has met people from all around the country, and he once saw a club hoist a rubber chicken and a Jack Daniels bottle up the mast. You can tell the true East Coasters, he tells me, because they’re likely wearing pink pants. But don’t call it pink. Coral, really. It’s called Nantucket. Nantucket something. It’s raining so hard it blurs my notes, so I can’t read his quote exactly.

Roberts wonders if we hang on to archaic traditions such as Opening Day because we need them, since we’ve already let go of so many practices here and cling to the ones we still have. I think he’s right.

We may bend our rituals, we may even celebrate the irony in commemorating them. But we don’t let them go, because they mark the passage of time in a place where nature doesn’t always do it for us.

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