Sea Star Base program teaches the sport of sailboat racing
Every Wednesday, a dedicated group of members gather at the Sea Star Base Galveston for one purpose — to race. Some are accustomed to the intricacies of the sport, others are still learning.
But for all the divergent backgrounds, everyone is on equal footing once they get out on the water, divided into teams of seven, using the base’s 23-foot Sonar keelboats.
“They’re really designed for racing and teaching,” said David Gaston, adaptive programs director at the base, about the boats. “We can put as many as six people on a boat, but we like to have three for a race.”
The base’s boats, though kept in good condition and relatively new-looking, were actually built in the 1980s, Gaston said. And the Sonars have something of a storied history.
Canadian Bruce Kirby — also famous for designing the renowned Laser dinghy — first envisioned the boat in 1979 for easy day sailing and for use as a racing vessel, according to the Sonar Class Association. There are more than 800 of the vessels in use across the world.
The boat became the Paralympic keelboat starting in 1996 and is the leading choice for sail and racing programs at yacht clubs, according to the new builder of the class of boat, Rondar Raceboats. The Sea Star Base program is open to all, but the Sonar is especially well-suited for disabled sailors because of its large and open cockpit.
Simple features, including Dacron sails, a deep keel and rudder and a self-draining cockpit, among others, also make the Sonars relatively inexpensive to maintain and a good choice for those learning how to race, Gaston said.
“We have a shop in Hitchcock that keeps them maintained,” Gaston said. “They are still a very popular racing class.”
Officials in 2004 inducted the Sonar into the now-defunct American Sailboat Hall of Fame, an organization meant to honor the best sailboats built in the United States. The Sonar was part of the hall’s last induction class.
“It’s just fun to watch,” Gaston said.
Learning the basics of racing is relatively simple using the Sonars, but a lot of strategy goes into the intricacies of racing, determining wind speeds and figuring out how best to sail in proximity to other racers, said Mike Janota, director of the base.
“It’s basically chess on the water,” Janota said.
Each team takes a turn with each of the seven vessels, Gaston said. Although they’re using essentially the same model of boat, racers quickly learn every single vessel has its own particularities.
At the end of the day, the racers then gather to trade tips, share stories and joke during a social — often one of the most important parts of the process, Gaston said.
The base also hosts less formal racing events on Saturdays for those who aren’t members, but think they might be interested in learning, Gaston said.