Friday Night at the Races

Field notes explores Honolulu’s vibrant and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: Hawaii Yacht Club’s Beer Can Races

photos by rae huo

Boats race to the Diamond Head buoy, then back to Ala Wai Harbor.

What It Is

A weekly yacht race, held every Friday around sunset and open to all comers (as long as your sailboat’s at least 20 feet). Officially, it’s called the Friday Night Champagne Series, but it’s popularly known as the Beer Can Races. Unlike Hawaii’s more serious sailing competitions, such as the Kalakaua Cup or the Sir Thomas Lipton Cup, the Beer Can Races are mainly about getting out on the water to have fun. And probably drink beer. “Basically,” says one sailor, “it’s a boat parade.”

Who Races

People who moor their sailboats at Ala Wai Harbor. Most are affiliated with either the Hawaii Yacht Club, which organizes the race, or the rival Waikiki Yacht Club. Independents sometimes race under the auspices of the Poor Boyz Yacht Club, whose facilities consist entirely of the “PBYC” sign that somebody put up at the Ala Wai Harbor fuel dock.

The crews come from all walks of life, and might include carpenters, doctors, flight attendants, military personnel and itinerant boat bums. Among the skippers, who usually own the yachts they sail, there are plenty of Type A personalities. “They won’t let me drive an IndyCar,” says one, “but I can get out here and go head-to-head with 20 other boats.”

Experience levels range from veterans of the America’s Cup to absolute greenhorns. You might think the greenhorns would get in the way, but in strong winds they can be seated along their boat’s windward rail, or side, and used as ballast to help maintain an even keel. Crew members in this position are called “rail meat.”

Things To Be Avoided

Collisions. Sailing is a non-contact sport. Crashing into another boat will get you disqualified. It can also cause thousands of dollars in damage and knock your rail meat into the water.

Coral. Captains who run aground during the race—or anytime other yachtsmen are around as witnesses—will have the rock on which they grounded named after them.

Outrigger canoes. The sailors share the Ala Wai with several canoe clubs, and conflicts occasionally arise. As one yachty puts it, “Sailboats and canoes get along like lawn mowers and garden hoses.”

Boats jockey for position at the starting line. A handicapping system allows slower boats to start before faster boats. Starting times stretch between 5:18 and 5:42 p.m., separated by two-minute intervals.

Photo: Rae Huo

The Race Course

The preferred course runs from Ala Wai Harbor to the channel-entrance buoy at Honolulu Harbor and back. When there’s shipping traffic outside of Honolulu Harbor, the course shifts to the buoy off Diamond Head. The start and finish line stretches between the flag pole in front of the Hawaii Yacht Club to the tallest coconut tree on Magic Island.

The Prizes

First place: Three bottles of champagne.

Second place: Two bottles of champagne.

Third place: One bottle of champagne.

Pitchers of rum and Coke are typically substituted. The bubbly isn’t the finest. The standing joke goes like this: Third place should get three bottles of champagne, second place should get two, and first place should have to endure just one.

To Get Involved

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Some skippers want seasoned sailors only, while others gladly take novices aboard.