The Master Mariners Regatta became a part of the Fourth of July festivities, and San Francisco Bay’s reliable summer afternoon wind guaranteed an active race. Thousands of spectators watched from the top of Telegraph Hill where the bay spreads out in a magnificent panorama. Some of the fleet was nearly always visible to the spectators. The original races started between Goat Island and the foot of Telegraph Hill, headed towards Hunter’s Point, then in a reach off toward the mouth of Oakland Creek. Beating back toward Telegraph Hill, out to the Gate, and ending the race in a pleasant run back. The boats were timed as they left the starting line, and again when finished, so starts could be delayed without penalty. Thirty to forty schooners participated, many guests were invited aboard, spirits were high, and the bottle was passed around from one to another as they fought to win the race.
Right-of-way encounters, and individual duels were usually settled by bare knuckles, the throwing of coal, or with buckets of sea water, but there seems to be no record of a committee who sat in judgement of carefully drawn protests. These rugged workmen of the bay came forth not for the trophy, but to put on a show for their city, display their pride in their country, their boats, their companies, and to exhibit their skills as seamen.
The climax was the evening ball where winners were announced and prizes distributed. Losers were awarded the more tangible prizes, winners gained custody of a silken, gold-tassled, red, white and green banner decorated with a strutting gamecock and the word “CHAMPION” emblazoned across it.
In 1878, the first time since 1867, there was no regatta. In 1879 it was revived, but not again until 1884 and 1885. In 1891 only 13 vessels showed up for the start. The spirit of the Fourth had changed. Engines were appearing on the scene, and the workboat skippers had lost interest in sailing for fun.
In 1965, the Master Mariner’s Regatta was again revived in honor of National Maritime Day. Where the boats in the 19th century races were big lumber schooners, hay scows and other workboats, today most are traditional pleasure yachts. Sponsors, rather than owning the boats, were drawn for the entrants at an annual luncheon held at the St. Francis Yacht Club. In 1971 and 1972 the evening dinner was held at the Sausalito Yacht Club where the trophies were awarded and the drawings were held for the donated gifts. In recent years the annual luncheon has been held at the St. Francis Yacht Club, and the post race festivities have been at the Encinal Yacht Club.
The House Flags, furnished by the sponsors and flown by the vessels, the classic lines of the entrants, and the general spirit of fun and good will all enhance the feeling of stepping back in time to the Master Mariners Regatta.