Rich Club, Poor Club

Published on September 4th, 2013

By John Branch, NY Times
San Francisco, CA – 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 more 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.’” – Read on

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