Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle
The San Francisco Model Yacht Club is cheaper than most yacht clubs, perhaps because it doesn’t have a bar. It costs $30 a year, plus a $10 initiation fee for new members.
For that, the price of two martinis downtown, you get to be a kid for the rest of your life.
On Sunday the model boats were running on Spreckels Lake just off Fulton Street in Golden Gate Park. There were model tugs and Monterey fishing vessels, lobster boats and cabin cruisers. There were boats powered by steam and gas and wind. The “freesail” squadron raced on the northern end of the lake — the Model S series has a sail area of 800 square inches while the X series had slightly larger sails, 1,000 square inches.
The wooden model boat parade was extra special this year, partly because it was the 120th anniversay of the club’s founding and partly because the day was an informal memorial for Don Ciucci, a longtime deputy fire chief in Daly City who passed away in late July.
Few cared more about San Francisco’s model boating community than “Cooch,” as he was known, and few did more to keep the club’s traditions alive. His late father Nello, a master cabinet maker, built some of the most beautiful boats in the fleet. Cooch picked up the family hobby, passing it on to his son, Matt Ciucci, and his brother-in-law Jim Wettstein.
Don Ciucci built or restored more than 50 boats in his days — he liked hot rods and cabin cruisers. He liked speed and big engines.
“He hated it when guys would die and their boats would disappear from the lake,” said Craig Carter, the club’s Power Squadron Officer who also grew up in the neighborhood. “He looked at it as history disappearing. He would track down boats that had been here and revive them, restore them.”
The idea of having a biannual parade focused on wooden boats was something that Ciucci came up with about 20 years ago, Wettstein said. “He said, ‘We need to get these wooden boats out of mothballs.’”
The club is the oldest continuously run club of its kind in the United States — opening in 1898. The lake was built in 1904 specifically for the model boats.
Unfortunately, Ciucci died a little too soon for Jim Renfrew, a retired mechanical engineer who came to the city this weekend for the boat parade from his home in British Columbia. Renfrew got to know Ciucci by phone and email but never in person.
Renfrew had seen pictures of one of Ciucci’s boats, a Hacker Craft Cabin Cruiser that was itself modeled on a vessel called The Margie, which is displayed in the club’s clubhouse. Renfrew fell in love with it and reached out to Ciucci, who passed along the plans. Renfrew then built his own slightly smaller model.
He decided he would bring it to San Francisco and show it to Ciucci — he was looking forward to meeting him in person and seeing the boats side by side.
“The day he died was a real sad time,” said Renfrew. “Don was extremely well respected. I didn’t get to meet him in person but I talked to him a lot on the phone. I would call him up and ask him for the angles on the window or something like that.”
Despite Ciucci’s death, Renfrew said he was thrilled to be there.
“This is like Disneyland for me. It’s over the top. There are no other shows that I have seen like this,” he said. “And the people here are terrific.”
Many of the older club members grew up along the Richmond District’s foggy avenues and were taken to see the boats as kids. Maybe they built model boats as kids and took a break as careers and young families interfered. Then they get back into as their kids get older and pass along the tradition.
“When you get a family you have to build houses instead of model boats,” said Renfrew. “Then when you retire you have time to get back to it.”
Jim Hirsch toiled 200 hours to finish up a Bertram 31-inch cabin cruiser for the parade. He named it after his twin daughters Juilette and Jacquiline “as a matter of diplomacy.”
“I spend perhaps more time than I should in my workshop,” said Hirsch. “The family members are much more supportive when you name the boat after them.”
On Sunday, San Francisco Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, a Richmond District native who raised her kids nearby, showed up to thank the club members. The city’s parks director, Phil Ginsburg, also was there.
“You don’t have to have a boat to enjoy them,” said Fewer. “It is so delightful to watch these boats as a bystander. I can’t tell you how many Sundays I came out here with my son and he was amazed at the boats. He would just watch them and watch them and watch them.”
Yacht Club commodore Colleen Strobbe was wearing a Victorian dress and ostrich feather cap in honor of the occasion.
“This in some ways is an arcane sport,” said Stobbe. “But for the enthusiast and for the community, it is a gem. And we keep it going. This lake is a treasure to the city, as is the clubhouse.”
J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @sfjkdineen