By Craig Stephens
It's a sunny day at Echo Park Lake, which is finally reopening after its $45 million facelift. Some families stroll its banks; others spread out picnics. The area's signature hipsters frolic, toke weed and play croquet. The vibe is chill, with no oafish territorialism in evidence.
On the south side of the lake is a group of about 20. They don't look like the families, who wear flip-flops and tank tops. They also don't look like the hipsters in skinny jeans.
They're wearing nautical gear straight out of the 1920s. And they're launching yachts. Miniature yachts, it goes without saying — 1/12th scale.
Since the mid-aughts, members of a group calling itself the Echo Park Yacht Club have gathered on the shores of this lake about once a month to race these model boats. This sunny Saturday marks their return after a two-year sabbatical.
They attract no small amount of attention. In the club's first 20 minutes at the lake, its "admiral," a carpenter/set designer named Nick Onassis, is approached by 15 curious onlookers, mostly excited children with moms in tow.
Six-year-old Sammy Walker is ecstatic after trying out one of the club's boats. With Onassis patiently providing instruction, Sammy masters the remote control in a matter of minutes. "Where can I get one?" he shrieks.
"Craigslist is the best deal," Onassis says. He tells Sammy's mother that a boat can be bought for around $200 online — about half what you'd pay in a store.
Another enthusiastic observer is Tim Le Grice, a 75-year-old retired lawyer. A sailor himself, he says he used to have a boat moored in Marina del Rey, adding, "That was in the 1980s, prior to my divorce."
Onassis offers him a turn at operating one of the "yachts," and the attorney lends his skills to navigating the tiny craft. "This is a great thing," he says.
Mini yachts on Echo Park Lake long pre-date this club of enthusiasts — going back all the way to Charlie Chaplin. Gathering with pals alongside the lake, as well as Hollenbeck Lake in Boyle Heights, apparently was a wholesome break from late-night debauchery for the filmmaker.
The story goes, Onassis says, that Chaplin would attend services at Angelus Temple, home of Aimee Semple McPherson's Foursquare Church. There he struck up a friendship with Dr. Rolf K. McPherson, the famed evangelist's son and heir apparent, who introduced him to the model yachts.
An avid yachter, Chaplin had his own boat moored at Marina del Rey in the 1920s and '30s. He apparently took to model boating with the same enthusiasm.
According to Onassis, Chaplin was a big fan of boat racing "pre-RC," meaning without a remote control. He instead used a fixed rudder and guiding poles to "free sail" the 1,500-foot lake.
"While we wanted to remain true to tradition," Onassis says, "fixed-rudder racing was just too time-consuming. We had boats stranded in the lake and impatient sailors abandoning their borrowed boats, to be later retrieved by angry owners. So ultimately we opted to equip boats with [remote controls], though in terms of design they are all built according to plans drafted in the early 1900s."
The club takes a casual approach on the day of the lake's reopening. But meeting days generally are more structured, with a strict code culled from the American Model Yacht Racing Association. "We also get into nautical styling and lifestyle, dressing in appropriate garb and addressing one another by various ranks," Onassis, 35, says.
But Brandie Eve Allen, a captain in the club, insists it's not quite that hierarchical: "Sure, there are ranks, but that's playful bonding — it's just a fun role-play kind of thing."
Allen, 27, is a freelance photographer and "obsessive gourmet." "Racing these boats is about being social and bonding, getting back to something real, something romantic," she says. "Echo Park Yacht Club is a metaphor, a yearning for authenticity, a hunger for a bygone era that pre-dates online obsession with dating, gaming, porn or selfies."
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If the public response on this Saturday is any indication, the club's members aren't the only ones feeling that hunger. They get such an enthusiastic reaction from people checking out the newly refurbished lake that Onassis decides to investigate the legality of establishing a boat-hire business here, similar to an operation in New York's Central Park.
"This is a huge hit with preteen boys and old men," he marvels. "We've had more people approach us today than we ever have had before."
The club sailed on other bodies of water while Echo Park Lake was closed, he says, including Lake Balboa in the Sepulveda Basin. But, Onassis says, "It's great to be back on the lake. No other area has the atmosphere."