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The Santa Barbara Sea Shell Association gives kids an opportunity to hone their sailing skills at the Santa Barbara Harbor. (Cheryl Muir photo)

One mother affectionately calls it “a mass of pandemonium” — dozens of families meeting at Santa Barbara Harbor to rig their sailboats, prepare their skippers and sail to the beach for their weekly Sunday afternoon race.

The families are part of an all-volunteer organization called the Santa Barbara Sea Shell Association, a youth sailing group for kids ages 8-15.

“With the crazy lives we all have, this is perfect,” said Kathy Hensley, SBSSA volunteer parent. “It’s not like AYSO games; you don’t have to go every Sunday and parents get a chance to meet other people in the community.”

The races aren’t a drop-off-your-kid activity. Families pack picnic lunches and socialize on the beach while their children sail.

Each skipper has his or her own sailboat, one of two models — either the original wooden Sea Shell or the bathtub-like US Sabot, introduced to the group in 1991.

The idea of having youth sailors race in the Sea Shells was inspired in 1948 by Ray Keiding, who found the model worked perfectly for his sons in the Santa Barbara Harbor.

“It’s neat, because this has been around for so long and you get dads who were in Sea Shells as kids and now their kids are doing it,” Hensley said.

The season runs from April until October, with races every Sunday. Once rigging is done at the harbor, the boats are sailed to “Sea Shell Beach” between Sterns Wharf and Sea Landing for a mast meeting before the races begin.

Racers are separated into four levels of expertise — novice, C, B and A. To advance from novice, a sailor must complete 10 solo races — meaning in the boat alone.

“After they get their first 10 they get their own Timex watch,” said Hensley. “When they go to the mast meeting they synchronize their watches because it’s a staggered start.”

The watches are useful at the races, which start at three-minute intervals separating the different levels of skippers. “A” racers begin first, followed three minutes later by the “B” racers, then the “C” racers and finally the novice racers.

Parents run three kids’ races, after which the kids run one parent race.

“(Parents) race in the kids’ boats,” said SBSSA commodore John Long. “They go through the same courses and the kids run the races. It’s kind of a role switch thing.”

The parent-run board of directors is presided over by an elected president, referred to as the commodore. Parents not only organize the weekly races, but also social events and monthly “hut” meetings at Foothill School.

“We have pizza, salad and cookies, plus some instruction for kids or adults,” Hensley said of the hut meetings. “There will be a guest speaker talking about things, it’s just another way to get community together and teach them more about sailing.”

The kids also get involved in the organization end of things, appointing several “historians” to document the year in photographs and put together an annual scrapbook to remember it by.

Although SBSSA usually stays in Santa Barbara, the organization does have a couple of annual sailing trips. The group camps out for the Lake Lopez Regatta and also travels to San Diego for the Mission Bay Yacht Club race.

Because SBSSA is completely run by volunteer parents, fundraising is another aspect of its success. Ninety percent of its funding is provided at the annual Wine Tasting & Yacht Tour, now in its 26th year.

The event includes wine tasting from eight California wineries, hors d’oeuvres, desserts, a silent auction and opportunities for guests to climb aboard some of the classiest crafts in the Santa BarbaraHarbor.

“People who don’t even have kids think it’s a wonderful evening,” Hensley said. “Who doesn’t like tasting good wine and walking through beautiful yachts?”

Tickets are still available for Saturday’s event at the Harbor-Marina One from 4 p.m. until sunset. For more information, contact Kathy Hensley at 805.965.5795.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at