Twenty years ago, before its failing finances were rescued by the billionaire Larry Ellison and before it won the America’s Cup, the Golden Gate Yacht Club was just a forlorn building at the end of a quarter-mile jetty. To get there, its members had to pass by the exclusive St. Francis Yacht Club, one of the most prestigious in the world.
The Golden Gate and the St. Francis shared the best views of the bay — the Golden Gate Bridge to the left, Alcatraz to the right, the city perched on hills behind. But in the cloistered world of yacht clubs, they could not have been more different.
The 200 or so Golden Gate members had a key to the building, which meant that its bar was subject to the honor system, but never to last call.
“So you left Union Street with a beautiful lady,” said Bill O’Keeffe, a member since 1972. “And you’d say, ‘How’d you like to come down to my yacht club?’ ”
Dues were $25 a month. Dancing atop the bar was encouraged. Friday night parties sometimes ended with swims in the boat marina, though not always in swim attire — or attire of any kind. Members occasionally lobbed water balloons or shot water guns at boats entering or exiting the marina, especially those flying the colors of the St. Francis.
“It had prestige,” O’Keeffe said of the neighboring club. “We actually shunned prestige.”
That became hard to do when Ellison walked away from negotiations with the St. Francis, where he was a member, to sponsor his quest to win the America’s Cup in 2003. Ellison soon accepted a desperate plea from Norbert Bajurin, the owner of a radiator-repair shop in San Francisco, to join the nearly bankrupt Golden Gate next door.
And when that combination won yachting’s biggest prize in Valencia, Spain, in 2010, on Ellison’s third try, the Golden Gate Yacht Club became the sixth — and unlikeliest — winner in the trophy’s 160-year history.
Golden Gate 1, St. Francis 0.
That day in Spain, Ellison stood behind Bajurin and put his hand on his shoulder as they awaited the winner’s news conference.
“I could feel his beard on me, and I could feel his breath,” Bajurin said. “And he said, ‘I wonder what the St. Francis is thinking now.’ ”
When the 34th America’s Cup begins on Saturday, pitting Ellison’s Oracle Team USA against Emirates Team New Zealand in a best-of-17 series that could last two weeks, the Golden Gate and the St. Francis will sit, side by side, sharing the best views of the races on San Francisco Bay.
In the coming weeks, if the trophy is successfully defended, it will be carried to a party at the little clubhouse at the end of the spit. But first, it will pass the large yacht-club home of corporate titans and Olympic sailors, past a club with an esteemed history of winning every major sailing race in the world, except the biggest one.
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CW senior editor Herb McCormick will be in San Francisco for the big showdown between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand in the 34th America's Cup—check out cruisingworld.com for his updates and photos!