December 21, 2006
Alter Kayakers make waves in Newport Bay
Every Thursday morning, 11 supremely fit old men come thundering into Newport Bay, rounding up all the good rental kayaks on the Balboa Peninsula and singing at the top of their lungs.
Most are major fundraisers for Heritage Pointe, Orange County's Home for the Jewish Aging, and they call themselves the Alter Kayakers.
The name was a natural, said Stan Sackler, 70, of Newport Beach, a retired fuel dealer, who was already a member of a Jewish cycling group in Fullerton called Shlemiels on Wheels.
Sackler and Steve Fienberg, 67, of Irvine assembled the group four years ago, and let Howard Weinstein, 72, of Corona del Mar coin the name. They've never had a slow moment since.
"I look forward to this all week," Weinstein said. "I can't wait for Thursday." Not that Weinstein, or any of the other Alter Kayakers, lives in the slow lane the rest of the week.
Weinstein hiked and rode horseback through Patagonia for 18 days last fall. He plays tennis four times a week, works out with a personal trainer twice a week and he'll have to miss the Alter Kayakers' February cruise to Mexico because he'll be in Botswana.
"I figure that if I stay active when I'm 72, I'll still have a life when I'm 92," Weinstein said.
The Alter Kayakers stand out for their awesome endurance and robust bearing, and they cram their days with endless bicycling, hiking, tennis, martial arts and river rafting. But no one has to quit when his abilities falter.
Seymour Lobel, 77, a retired auto financier from Corona del Mar, for example, has lost much of his vision. Other members of the Alter Kayakers drive him to Newport Bay each week, and in the water, someone always keeps an eye on his kayak.
Members love to reminisce about their Kern River rafting trip last September, when the raft overturned and all the members were dumped into the churning river's Class 4 rapids. Stronger members helped stragglers get back onto the raft, and the team spirit that prevailed made even these tough men of steel mist up for a moment.
Two seconds of sober reminiscence passed, and then Weinstein said, "Stan Sackler, wearing a hearing aid, came damn close to getting electrocuted."
Ephie Beard, 75, a Newport Beach resident of 13 years who owned car auction businesses in Anaheim and Fontana, introduced the Alter Kayakers to whitewater rafting.
"I'd been doing it for 21 years," he said. But the day the raft flipped, he said, "it was pretty scary for some of those guys."
But all this running around without performing a few mitzvot is against Alter Kayaker rules.
"We all try to do something for the Jewish community," said David Stoll, who owns a boat engine business in Newport Beach. "Most of us are Diamond Donors to Heritage Pointe in Mission Viejo. My personal feeling is that you have to pay your Jewish dues. If you don't pay the community back, it really gets on our nerves."
Two of the Alter Kayakers aren't Jewish, but they're treated like Members of the Tribe. Stan Angermeir, 67, a nursing home operator who lives on Lido Isle, belongs to Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana with his Jewish wife. Wayne Harmon, 69, of Corona del Mar, the other non-Jew in the group, has a serious relationship with a Jewish woman.
"Believe it or not," joked Stoll, 68, "we made Wayne our treasurer."
"But we don't have anything in the treasury," added Stackler, a former director of the Orange County Jewish Federation.
Every year, the Alter Kayakers hold an awards ceremony.
"Everyone wins first place in something," Stoll said. "Wayne Harmon won first prize for looking the least Jewish."
Most of the Alter Kayakers are retired or semiretired professionals or businessmen.
Arthur Friedman, 71, of Balboa was a dermatologist. Sid Field, 77, who lives in Newport Coast, was a dentist. Robert Baker, 64, of Newport Beach and Fienberg were lawyers.
Weinstein was a pharmacist who became a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Harmon was an executive with J.C. Penney. The rest were entrepreneurs.
When they gather, they are sure to sing "Kayakers' Spirit," their own anthem, sung to the tune of the "Illini Fight Song." Field, a University of Illinois alum, wrote the words. The anthem concludes their weekly Thursday ritual, which starts with a 4-mile, one-hour kayak expedition into Newport Bay and progresses to lunch at Newport Landing Restaurant. "Same seats or we forget the name of the guy next to us," Sackler explained.
Same menu, too, it turns out: A half portion of Caesar, Cobb or chicken avocado salad. Ironmen feasting on salad fragments?
"Some members are on diets or too cheap to buy a whole salad," Weinstein said. "One member who shall remain nameless orders a sandwich off the menu, and he is penalized by getting a separate check."
The Alter Kayakers say they don't accept new members.
"Our membership is now closed because the group has such good chemistry, and we don't want to tamper with it," Fienberg said. "Also, the place we rent kayaks from only has about 11 good kayaks, and more than 11 for lunch is a bit much."
They also discourage lunch guests.
"You must be mishpachah," Weinstein said. "You can be a ninth cousin, but you have to be in the family."
All but one of the Alter Kayakers are married, nearly all to their first wives -- Stoll for 42 years, Baker for 41.
"My wife loves it," Weinstein said. "It gives me an opportunity to socialize with the boys and to go out and exercise."
There are no greens fees or memberships to eat away at the family budget; it costs $10 to rent a kayak.
So far none of the Alter Kayakers' wives has taken to renting a kayak of her own. "My wife came out with me in a tandem in Newport once," Sackler said, "and loved it as long as I did the paddling." Next year, the Alter Kayakers will be rafting Oregon's treacherous Rogue River. They'll leave the wives behind in Ashland to attend the city's Shakespeare Festival.
"We love this group," said Bobbie Beard, wife of Ephie Beard. "While they're kayaking, we go to a spa."
Despite their raucous attitude, the group's environmental record is squeaky clean. No Alter Kayaker participates in a sport that consumes fossil fuel.
When they traveled from their Orange County homes to Langer's Deli in downtown Los Angeles, they took the train from Fullerton and the Red Line from Union Station. Their delight in the joys of nature is palpable.
When he's out in Newport Bay, Weinstein said, he's at one with the egrets, the blue herons and, on a truly lucky day, the porpoises. Sackler likes to drift off from the pack and head to Back Bay with the ospreys.
The Alter Kayakers even have a live-and-let-live motto when it comes to sea lions, the great nemesis of most kayakers. In the farther reaches of Newport Bay, six or seven chunky sea lions have been known to conspire to turn over a flimsy one-man kayak.
The Alter Kayakers just say no.
"We don't allow them to turn over our kayaks," Weinstein said. "They're not members of our club."
Sackler tried to drive the sea lions away by singing to them. That failed. Then he proposed luring them out to sea with gefilte fish.
"But the Harbor Patrol told us that the sea lions were endangered, and feeding them was prohibited," he said.
So the Alter Kayakers made the sea lions their official club mascots, trying to win them over with love. As the members see it, that's the Jewish way.
Next project for the Alter Kayakers: A calendar. Each man will be assigned a month, and December will feature a group picture.
"If we can raise money for charity, why not? We could be pinup boys in every Jewish old-age home across the country," Sackler said.
And what will they wear?
"Only shirts," Sackler said. "We'd cover up the rest with our paddles."