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Tasting Life

Sea Ray Owners Enjoy the Santa Barbara Wine Festival

Story by Jamie Elvidge | Photos by Chuck Place

"Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves," says Sue Haber. She and her husband, Al, are enjoying their first outing with the Channel Islands Sea Ray Club, a voyage and two-night stay at the Santa Barbara Wine Festival. But it's not the 400 premium label tastings being offered at the event that's making the couple feel as if they're dreaming. It's the boating culture and sense of camaraderie that came with their new Sea Ray. "Everyone is so friendly and generous," says Sue of their new lifestyle. "We're having such a fabulous time."

The Channel Islands National Park lies just off of the California coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara, and consists of five wild, remote islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara. To the south, Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas Islands are also a part of the same volcanic chain, though not parts of the park system. The protected isles and surrounding waters are stomping grounds for 2,000 species of plants and animals, 145 of which are found nowhere else on earth. This vast marine sanctuary also happens to be the beloved playground of one of the most active Sea Ray Clubs on the planet, a flock of more than 30 boats that nest in mainland marinas as far from the National Park as Newport Beach, and as near as Oxnard. At least once a month they meet on the open sea for adventures that range from multi-day trips to technique-freshening workshops. "We're really not so much an organization as we are a loose federation of friends," says Commodore Tom Petersen. "There are no dues, and all the planning is done on a volunteer basis."

The "Reds, Whites and Blues" California Wine Festival is a perfect venue for this fun-loving group. Held right on the beach at Chase Palm Park, it has become the club's most popular excursion, and it's not difficult to understand why. Santa Barbara, with its posh serenity, enchanting mission-style architecture, calm shores and undulating, oak laden hills, is the perfect backdrop for any event. Add a ticket to imbibe 400 premium wines, presented by more than 100 California wineries, and you have yourself a capital-D Destination. In addition to the wines, there's a ton of local cheese, artisan breads and appetizers being served by crafters and restaurateurs, plus beer sampling for those who prefer grains to grapes. Local blues bands playing right there on the beach complete the festive scene.

Club members Gary and Sheri Sutton made arrangements for the group to dock at Stearns Wharf. Built in 1872, this touristy pier rarely reserves slips, though officials made an exception for the Channel Islands troop of Sea Ray boats, known to be so elegant in stature and their owners, exemplary in nature. The Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce even presented each Sea Ray owner with a gift bag of goodies and gadgets.

"We came last year and had such a great time," reports Tom, "that this year, thanks to the planning of co-chairs Lee and Bobby Orgel and Sheri and Gary Sutton, we doubled the number of boats and participants."

In the evening, as the sun sets, the group gathers aboard the Commodore's 55 Sundancer, Valkyrie, for a leisurely toast to their good fortune at a reception sponsored by Newport Boats, before enjoying a formal dinner at the Santa Barbara Yacht Club. Newport Boats is one of Southern California's favorite Sea Ray dealerships; the place most of these owners found their dream boats. Newport's premier sales rep, Anita Mays, is the shop's star Sea Ray salesperson, her customers' unfailing cheerleader and also a genuine member of the Channel Islands club, showing up at almost every event with her own 320 Sundancer.

"She is fabulous," says Sue. "I cannot believe how caring she quality oriented." Al and Sue were looking for a new lifestyle when they visited the Los Angeles boat show. They walked directly to the Sea Ray display to find it. "We were ready to retire and wanted a big boat. We'd owned a Sea Ray ski boat for years and had a very good experience, so we knew that's the brand we wanted. We fell for the 310 Sundancer at the show, so we walked up to the first friendly-looking Sea Ray representative, and it was Anita!"

Before long the Habers were going over the particulars of a 310 on the Newport Boats docks, and Anita made Sue laugh by saying, "You guys are going to be so satisfied with this product you will end up buying three boats from me." Then Al said: "But wait Anita, we're not that young, we might not have time to buy three boats. So maybe we should just skip to the second sale now and buy that 38 Sundancer over there instead."

The Habers couldn't be happier with their spacious sport yacht. "We love the stability of the boat, and its capability to very comfortably carry another couple aboard with us," says Sue. "Usually that's my son and his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. We went out fishing one day and there were about 30 dolphins playing in our wake. Our little granddaughter just giggled and giggled like she was seeing Disney's ‘Nemo' movie come to life."

"This is the first year I've seen a lot of Humpback and Blue whales out in the Channel Islands area," adds Tom, who entertains clients or friends aboard Valkyrie nearly every weekend. "You always see Grays in the winter, but these bigger species, especially the Blues, are unusual and so exciting to watch." Tom also reports that big game fish seem to be flourishing in and around the marine sanctuary, with massive swordfish putting on quite a show this season.

Saturday is the big day for the wine event, with corks popping around 1 p.m. Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay? Or how about something more exotic: a Cuvee, Rio Samba, Viognier or Roussanne? The Channel Islands Sea Ray Club tastes the afternoon away, gathering some favorites to stow onboard. Around 5 p.m. most owners slip into the quiet of their floating fiberglass cocoons for a little drawdown time. Later on the group treats itself to an "outrageous" taco bar at Chuck's Waterfront Grill, another fabulous meal organized by Bobby and Lee Orgel.

On the departure morning the group gathers once again on Tom's 55 (not many boats will comfortably hold 34 adults!) for a continental breakfast hosted by Newport Boats. Santa Barbara is still crawling from under a heavy blanket of night fog as the 14 ocean-going Sea Rays slip their ties and throttle south toward home harbors, dolphins in chase and enormous whales preparing to breech somewhere off starboard.

A notch in the belt for veteran members, and the trip of a lifetime for brand new boaters like Sue and Al, the foray to the Wine Festival was certainly a sensation. And such a tasty one, too!