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Field Notes: This Honolulu Yacht Club Sails Miniature Radio-Controlled Boats

Field notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: the Honolulu Model Yacht Club.


Photos: Aaron Yoshino 


The basics

Yachting is a notoriously expensive, time-consuming sport. If you don’t have the dough to spend on a real sailboat, why not get some of the thrill of the wind and the waves by piloting a miniature radio-controlled version? Many of the members of the Honolulu Model Yacht Club are former sailors, but no experience is necessary to join. There are only two knobs to control these craft: the rudder and the sail. Like a true sailboat, the RC versions don’t have motors and rely only on the wind to keep them moving. Plus, toppling over is virtually impossible because of the bulbous keel, the weighted fin at the bottom of the boat. 


Still, RC sailboats can be just as technically complex as the real things. “They must be just like the big boats,” club leader Jan Wonso explains, “or they will not be able to compete effectively when they race against each other.”


Most members of the Honolulu Model Yacht Club sail one of two types of sailboats: The first is a U.S. One Meter Class, which is customizable, lightweight, fast and responsive—and can cost anywhere between $500 and $1,000. The second is a Dragon Force 65, an inexpensive “boat in a box.” Beginners can get started with a Dragon Force 65 for around $175; all it needs to get going on the water are eight AA batteries—and some wind.


The scene

Weather permitting, the club meets every Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon at the Diamond Head end of Ala Moana Beach Park, directly across from the Hawai‘i Yacht Club. They’ll occasionally rub elbows with the Yacht Club members, but usually the unassuming bunch just quietly sails its boats in the pond for a few hours, controlling their moves from a park bench. Occasionally, they’ll organize races. Either way, they draw in passersby who stop to photograph the little boats with their phones. 


“Sometimes, people will even come over here to picnic and watch the boats,” Wonso says. “I don’t know if they know what’s going on, but they all have a good time.” Once, member Ed Burns says, an artist stopped to capture the activity on canvas, “the skippers and spectators, enjoying a lazy, laid-back Sunday morning.”


The people

There was a point when the club had more than 20 members, but today, Wonso typically sails with a group of five to 10. He is determined to spark interest in this unique sport and grow the club’s membership to include sailors of every age and gender. “This is a great hobby for anyone,” he says. “It’s wholesome entertainment and a really fun thing to do on a Sunday morning.”


Among the current regulars are Burns, Al Eckel and the club’s “master boat builder,” Tommy Kawamura. “Anytime someone has a broken boat, Tommy comes out and fixes it,” Eckel says. “He’s a really cool guy.”



The history

Though the Honolulu Model Yacht Club has only been around for about three decades, the hobby of model yachting has been around since the 1800s, when the Prospect Park Yacht Club first set sail in a large lake in Prospect Park, Long Island. Today, the 40-year-old American Model Yachting Association is the national governing body for model yachting. Wonso, as well as a few of his counterparts, are AMYA members.


The Sailors

Jan Wonso, 72, retired sales engineer, University area

“I just fell in love with model sailboats. Once you get hooked on this, it’s hard to put down. And it sails just like a regular sailboat.”


Al Eckel, 79, retired industrial designer, Kāne‘ohe

“It’s a challenge to chase the wind. When we get a big group together [to race], it gets exciting. It’s like a Chinese fire drill; everybody’s trying to get over first.”


Thomas “Tommy” Kawamura, 85, retired repairman, McCully 

“I figured I was too old for cars or speed boats or airplanes, so I went with sailboats. You can make a mistake with sailboats, but you still won’t crash them.”



Did you know? There are more than 30 model yacht classes. The smallest, called a footy, is a mere 12 inches long.


The Honolulu Model Yacht Club welcomes new members. Interested? Email Jan Wonso at dragonforce65honolulu@gmail.com.


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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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