At Lake Tahoe, longstanding Beer Can Racing events hold plenty of tradition — and decorum
Ryan Summerlin July 31, 2014
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the 2014 summer edition of Lake Tahoe Magazine, available now throughout the Lake Tahoe and Truckee region.
The name Beer Can Racing speaks for itself.
Combining beer and sailing is borderline genius, which is why Beer Can Racing exists on nearly every large body of water in the U.S. Lake Tahoe is no exception.
Every Wednesday, once the weather and water warm up, Tahoe sailors meet on either the South Shore or the North Shore for a Beer Can Racing showdown. The Lake Tahoe Windjammers Yacht Club, located in the Tahoe Keys, hosts the South Shore race, while the Tahoe Yacht Club in Tahoe City holds a similar sailing soiree across the lake.
The combination of cold brews along with a fun, social racing scene draws sailors of all skill levels. The crews range from seasoned skippers to first-time sailors, said Steve Katzman of Lake Tahoe Windjammers.
“It helps to have racing experience, but it’s not required,” Katzman said. “Really all you’ve got to do is flounder out there with a boat and be there roughly at 6 p.m. on Wednesday night.”
Katzman started sailing in the Windjammers’ Beer Can Races in the 1980s, but said Lake Tahoe’s version of the race started in the early 1970s. This was right about the same time that Beer Can Races were popping up all across the U.S.
The history of Beer Can Racing is perhaps more sailing lore, but the rumors paint an amusing picture of how the race earned its nickname as it got under way during a less environmentally conscious decade.
The story goes that the course was set by the empty beer cans tossed into the water by lead sailboats. The rest of the boats would follow the empties.
Those beer-laden courses of the ‘70s are long gone, but the original racing spirit is alive and well in the Tahoe sailing community.
“There’s a reason they’re not called Coca Cola races,” Katzman said. “It’s not blue blazers and white linen slacks. It’s about learning how to sail and learning your way around a race course and having fun.
“But although much is said about Beer Can Racing, it doesn’t do to get sloppy drunk. You need to hold your liquor like a lady or a gentleman. You wouldn’t drive drunk, and the same goes for sailing. There’s a certain amount of tradition and decorum.”
Safety is a big part of that tradition. Sure, beer cans are too, but Katzman doesn’t mention the good times without giving a safety shout-out. Both are of equal importance for a classy Beer Can Racer, and for good reason.
Racers will need their wits about them since there are usually 20 to 25 boats racing during the height of the season, which runs May through October at the South Shore and May through August at the North Shore.
The course is always four or five miles long. The South Shore course starts at the Windjammer Yacht Club, goes to Camp Richardson before heading downwind to Round’s Mound and then back for a club finish. The North Shore races take off from the Tahoe Yacht Club in Tahoe City.
Boat size and model doesn’t matter in Beer Can Racing. All sailing vessels are welcome.
“That’s one of the beauties of beer can racing — you run what you brung. Any kind of boat you’ve got, bring it out there,” Katzman said.
Boats aren’t required either. Interested racers can get in touch with the yacht club and find out how to get on a crew. Check out the individual yacht club websites and surf to the Beer Can Racing pages for more information on the Wednesday shindig.
“It takes a certain amount of tenacity to do it, but if you really want to learn to do it then it’s like skiing or boarding,” Katzman said. “You really fall in love with it if it suits you.
“I think about all the sunsets I’ve seen and all the people who have sailed on my boats with me. I rarely miss a Wednesday night.”
Becky Regan is a freelance writer living in Truckee. She is a former sports editor for the Tahoe Daily Tribune and a former San Francisco Giants beat reporter for www.mlb.com.