Festas Have Made Sailing, and Winning, a Family Affair in their Groundhog Day Skiffs
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
In Pacific Palisades he is known as the insurance guy, but in Marina Del Rey he has made a name for himself by virtue of success at his “other” office: the open sea.
Rich Festa has had a long love affair with sailing and over the last decade he has passed his passion on to his children, who are part of his crew. On the night of August 5 they participated in what is called a Beer Can Race and, not surprisingly, they won.
Although the coronavirus has postponed the 2020 racing season indefinitely, the Wednesday night tradition has continued on and the Festas are at the head of the class.
“We’ve been racing together as a family over the past 10+ years in various classes of sportboats up and down the California coast and a few World Championships races in France,” says Rich, who went to Palisades High, has been a State Farm Agent in town for nearly 35 years and whose wife Jeanne is a founding partner of White Horse Pictures. “Until COVID brought all organized events to a halt we’d been actively competing in both local handicapped-based racing in a Melges 32 as well as the one-design J/70 fleet, which is now the largest race sportboat class in the world featuring a 23-foot (7 meters) single-make boat.”
Just like his father 26-year-old Tony Festa loves the challenge of the sport as much as the leisure.
“It’s easy to get carried away with the competition,” says Tony, who was raised in the Palisades and went to Marquez Elementary, Corpus Christi and Loyola High before going to college up the road at Pepperdine, where he earned his BS and MBA. “The best part about sailing with dad is that he never loses sight of the fact that we’re out there to have fun and enjoy being out on the water.”
When he’s not navigating the waves Tony works in commercial real estate.
One secret to the Festa family’s sailing success is that they can all push each other.
“Our family is definitely competitive by nature and we all competed in different sports growing up, so it’s great to join forces so to speak,” says 28-year-old daughter Daniela, who attended Marquez Elementary, Corpus Christi and Marymount High before going to San Francisco State University. “We’re also extremely fortunate to be able to get quality family time doing something we all love.”
Daniela is now a professional in the entertainment industry, doing set design on various projects.
According to Rich the Melges 32 was one of the premier classes in the middle to late 2000s through the early 2010s and as that class dwindled and boats aged it has become an accessible boat for local club racing. The Festas have a blast racing their boat, occasionally hitting speeds in the high-teens depending upon conditions. Their mostly hometown crew includes Palisadians Melia Grasska and Peter Drasnin, Palisades High alumni Danny Bailey and Eric Pfahler, and Allie Blecher, Mary Stuyvesant and Dave Whitcroft.
Last year’s Sunset Series held in Marina del Rey provided them months of excitement from March to September and Festa’s crew ended up second overall despite the most wins over the 23+ weeks of racing every Wednesday night.
For 2019-20, their primary focus has been the J/70 World Championship, which they qualified for last summer during Long Beach Race Week. The World Championship race was supposed to have taken place last week at California Yacht Club in MarinaDel Rey, attracting more than 100 qualifying boats from around the world, but the regatta has been rescheduled to 2021. The fleet, being one of the top one-design classes, attracts both professional and amateur (Corinthian) teams.
The five-person crew of Rich (Skipper), Allie (Main Trim/Tactics), Tony (Headsail Trimmer), Mary (Pit/Bow) and Beka Schiff (Tactics/Bow) has been practicing to get as much time in the boat as possible over the next year in order to be one of the top Corinthian teams come the 2021 World Championship.
“We’re lucky enough to have a great team and get to sail with some of the top talent in the area, including the women on board who have various accomplishments to their names including U.S. Sailing Team, College Sailor of the Year and their “Team BAAM” being among the top Women’s match racing teams competing all over the world,” Rich says. “Our boats are all named Groundhog Day since, just like the movie, we try to improve every time we’re on the water.”
Tony elaborates on his team’s all-star crew: “Allie is a few years older than me. We grew up sailing out of California Yacht Club’s summer program along with Melia Grasska. Melia went to Calvary Christian School, Marymount and UCLA and we’ve been close friends since we were about 8. In junior high and high school, Allie was actually our coach before I started focusing more on keelboat sailing as opposed to the junior dinghy classes. In college I coached sailing with Allie for both the CYC junior racing and high school sailing teams for Windward, Crossroads and Pacifica Christian. When we were racing in the Open 5.70 class we used to sail against Peter and then as years passed we’ve stayed in touch with him joining us a few years back. Mary and Beka are both accomplished sailors who Allie has been doing a lot of sailing with over the past five years and through a friend of Mary’s we were introduced to Danny Bailey, who brought Eric along not long after. Dave Whitcroft was also introduced through a mutual friend and Palisadian Tom Leweck.”
Being a confident, competent sailor requires three essential skills: tactics, set-up and boat handling. Tony elaborates: “Tactically there’s so much to consider like boat positioning relative to the others where it’s essentially a chess game and you have to think so far ahead as well as react to what’s going on in the moment. The wind is also never constant with puffs of different speeds and directions which have a huge impact on the tactics both in terms of how to sail around the course from a macro level and how you gain on the boats around you in the short term. The set up is also crucial in close fleets as just like doing an alignment on a race car, there are so many settings that affect the balance of the boat and sail shape. This is a constant learning curve as we try to gain the small advantages on everyone else. Boat handling is more how you make the boat go fast and making sure all your tacks and jibes, sail changes, mark roundings, etc. are as fast and efficient as possible. You can gain so much over the course of a race by having better maneuvers that save half a boat length or more each time.”
The Festas have two boats—a Melges 32 (32 feet) and a J/70, both of which are docked at California Yacht Club.
“Our boats are all named Groundhog Day since, like in the movie, we try to improve every time we’re on the water,” says Rich. “Apologies to our neighbors who saw a lot of boat work going on over the first bit of COVID lock downs.” Asked how much experience plays a factor Tony says it depends on the class: “Bigger boats can spend very big money on the boat, sails, crew and travel. We play on the opposite end where the boat is less expensive, sails last longer and are less expensive. We actually tend to buy a lot of used sails from the top professional teams, which is a huge savings.”
Rich sailed catamarans and learned to sail in the Junior Lifeguard program. He later kept a catamaran on the beach by the Getty Villa and started racing as son Tony got more involved in the sport. Tony started when he was 7 years old in California Yacht Club’s junior program, a healthy alternative to the sports camps he previously attended in the summertime.
Daniela also did some sailing at CYC’s junior program, was a successful tennis player growing up and has been spending more time getting back into sailing on the Melges 32.
Communication among crew members is also a key component to winning races.
“It’s massive,” Tony admits. “As a trimmer, I’m constantly talking about what I’m feeling from the boat, how I’m trimming the sails and how we are compared to the boats around us. Mary is talking about what the wind and waves are doing across the course- looking for the breeze and current lines on the water. Allie is always talking to Rich about where she wants him to put the boat. Rich talks about what he feels in the rudder as a fast boat is a balanced boat that shouldn’t be fighting the driver. We get out there as often as our schedules allow. We just did a three-day practice and training in Marina Del Rey with other local boats in preparation for the World Championship next July.”
The Worlds will take place over four days with approximately three races per day. Each race is about an hour in length depending on wind conditions. Most races the Festas enter consist of two to four days of consecutive racing. They have won three Open 5.70 Pacific Coast and National Championships, a smaller fleet than the J/70, but this latest challenge is the biggest since they are entering an already-established fleet with many highly-competitive teams having years of experience in the boat in addition to a majority of the competitors at next year’s World Championship being professionally crewed boats. In France, meanwhile, sailing is a standardized sport.
“The only difference is the venue—where you sail, the currents and tides” Tony adds. “The wind is unique, especially in St. Malo. We were definitely caught off guard by the massive tidal swings which would effectively drain the marina every day while we were out racing.”
Rich and Jeanne (formerly Elfant, who also went to Pali High and was Miss Palisades) reside in the Marquez Knolls area.
“The Palisades was and still is a fun and relaxed place to grow up,” he says. “I spent every summer day on the beach with good friends. Jeanne and I wanted our kids to enjoy the small town vibe. We always hang out at whatever yacht club is hosting the event for the after-parties.”
Rich (Palisades Class of ‘78) played varsity football under the program’s first coach, Dick North.
“Pali was dominate in football in the 1970s with loads of local talent that came up from the local Pop Warner teams,” Rich recalls before heading to a double-handed sailing race with Tony in Marina Del Rey. “One of my years (1976) we went 11-1, only losing in the City 4A semifinals. I was one of the few players who started both ways (he played tight end and defense end). Coach North was my second father and football is definitely where I got my competitive spirit.”
There is no place Rich would rather be than on the ocean waves. Indeed for him nearly every day is Groundhog Day—and that is just the way he likes it.
“What I love best about racing sailboats is spending quality time with my kids and the company of good friends,” Rich concludes. “We always try to improve our skills while keeping racing fun and upbeat.”
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