40th annual Ocean Festival gets rolling in San Clemente

Veteran dory racer Al Lavayen had advice for his son, Nick, before the San Clemente duo hit the waves in a 300-pound dory boat.

Relax and have fun. Keep your composure and don’t panic. It’s a contact sport – the dory boat will mostly likely collide with another.

“We’re the first father-and-son duo in Ocean Fest history,” said Nick, 19, whose 61-year-old father has been doing the dory race since it started in 1976. “I’m just happy I get the chance to row with my dad.”

The San Clemente Ocean Festival celebrates its 40 year anniversary this weekend.

On Saturday, the dory race saw its first female team, Madison Feldman and Renae Jackson, lifeguards from Huntington State Beach.

And this year marked a last for another: Announcer Charlie Ware is hanging up his beach towel after four decades. He started when the Ocean Festival was just an informal competition among neighboring lifeguards – San Clemente verses Laguna Beach – before it became a full-fledged beach party.

“It was just a friendly competition after work,” Ware, 64, recalled. “Most of us wanted to complete the events and make it over to the barbeque and keg that was waiting for us.”

A Laguna lifeguard at the time, Ware has seen the event grow. There were the years in the ’70s when announcers were up at Fisherman’s Restaurant on the pier, and results were delivered via a piece of paper pinned on a string, to pull it up.

“I remember all the small, quirky things,” Ware said.

Then there was the time in the ’80s when the waves were so big the paddleboard and dory races couldn’t even take place. Then, last year, the beach was evacuated after a lighting storm started, and events were postponed until the next day.

“That was a first,” he said. “That was an unusual occurrence.”

But the best part has been watching the athletes – some considered the best in the world – compete.

“It’s guaranteed to grow and get bigger and get more magnificent every year, ” Ware said. “I would encourage everyone to come to San Clemente to enjoy it. I know I will. Next year, I’ll be able to go up to Fisherman’s and have a cold beer, which I’ve always wanted to do.”

No longer just a way for lifeguards to earn bragging rights, the festival drew hundreds of competitors – from stand-up paddlers to kids participating in ocean swims and runs. A sand castle contest will be held on Sunday, and through the weekend beachgoers can check out classic woodies along the San Clemente Pier.

Saturday was the first time Brazilian stand-up paddler Jonas Letieri has competed in the United States. He charged the waves during a morning SUP surf contest and plans to do the distance SUP race on Sunday.

Letieri, who had both his arms amputated above the elbows, said being in San Clemente was “incredible.”

“There’s no limits, right?” he said. “I almost lost my life, I lost my hands. But I didn’t lose my life, I didn’t lose my dreams.

“Your dreams are always close to you, just keep fighting … I just keep going, keep trying and working hard.”

He wasn’t the only inspirational competitor at the event. Dane Deboer, 52, battled waves in a dory boat just three weeks after having heart surgery. Deboer – who has been doing the race for more than 30 years – and partner James Bray, 31, won the first dory race of the day.

“It’s still surreal,” Deboer said. “My doctor said I should get out there and row and get back to full strength. I feel good. I’m just so glad I’m here and get to enjoy this.

“I’ve had a good life and want to continue to have a good life. Luckily, I got another chance.”

Deboer, who sports a tattoo of a dory boat on his left arm, marveled as the crowd cheered another dory boat as it came into shore.

“Here they come, the first all-female team to compete in the dory race,” he said, watching as Feldman and Jackson finished the race. “It’s just a progression of women doing things that take a ton of strength and agility.”

Contact the writer: lconnelly@ocregister.com

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