An ocean of choices awaits water sports enthusiasts at Mission Bay Aquatic Center
Whether it’s on a board or boat, water sports are a big part of life for many residents Pacific Beach. So for the past 50 years, the Mission Bay Aquatic Center has strived to help make such activities accessible to all.
Sailing, wakeboarding, surfing, stand up paddling, kayaking, windsurfing and much more are just some of the sports available at MBAC.
“The center is open to the public. Even without owning a boat or surfboard or other supplies, the community can have access to water sports rentals, classes and programs,” said Kevin Waldick, assistant director.
While enjoying some time on the water is simply the goal for many who participate in the center’s programs, learning advanced skills and gaining confidence in one’s own abilities has become life-changing for others.
Andrew Fineman describes his hours spent there as “the most fun you can have while getting paid.”
Fineman first attended the center in 2004 as a 6-year-old camper.
“Literally every camp they offered, I did,” he said. “Of the 11 to 12 weeks we had for summer break, I’d spend 10 weeks at the center.”
He explained that although his family had a boat, it was mostly to hang out on; “it never really left the dock.”
By the time he was in high school, Fineman was learning the other side of camp through its counselor-in-training program, which prepares students to become camp counselors.
“I would be in camp all day, leave to go to my actual job, get home at 11 p.m. at night exhausted and get right back up at 6 a.m. to do it all over again the next day,” he said.
Fineman was hired as a sailing instructor right out of high school. He still teaches wakeboarding and sailing classes, 18 years later.
“MBAC is one of the few constants I’ve had in my life,” he said. “I’m now an engineer in Carlsbad, but I still hang out with my friends at the center and work the camps when I’m available. The money isn’t important; it’s the element of homeyness from being there so much and the element of family — some of the staff has been there my whole life, and they’ve watched me grow up.”
The center started in 1970, when San Diego State University student Glen Brandenburg signed up to take a sailing class at the dilapidated city-run sailing center, which he said the instructor promptly ghosted.
Brandenburg not only took over instructing the class, but brought together SDSU and nearby UC San Diego. In 1973, they entered a lease with the City of San Diego for the building and the Mission Bay Aquatic Center was born.
MBAC is a nonprofit, jointly-owned and operated by Associated Students of SDSU and UC San Diego Recreation. It’s a student-run corporation and not run by either campus. Their students can take classes for credit and receive discounts.
More than 25,000 people a year come through the MBAC, and equipment fills the facility to the ceiling. The 24,000-square-foot center includes more than 20 motorized watercraft, 50 sailboats, 100 surfboards, 15 windsurfers, 90 kayaks, 70 paddleboards and 20 rowing shells.
Classroom instruction is held in one of two indoor classrooms or one of several outdoor classrooms right outside its doors. Group lessons, party packages and private lessons are available.
The fact that the MBAC is ideally located on the water’s edge, combined with its university affiliations and variety of programs, have made it world renowned.
One such class is wakeboarding. While water skiers ride two long skis as they are towed by a boat; wakeboarders ride one long board. The goal is to glide above the water and ride the boat’s wake, hence the name.
“Wakeboarding is a very popular sport among adults and older people, with a growing segment of the sport now wake surfing,” Waldick said. “With the boat traveling 9 to 10 mph, you can surf a high wave forever, without having to wait for the right conditions. And you can still get out on the bay in big or slow surf.”
He added it’s not unusual for people to ride their bike to the center, wakeboard in the early morning, then go to their office for a day’s work.
Sailing — once reserved for those with a boat — is also accessible to the public, whether people want to take a class for an outing or have bigger goals.
“Our sailing classes are always really booked,” Waldick said. “Some folks want to learn how to sail to take their friends out for a fun weekend. But we’ve also had a student who moved to the Caribbean and started their own sailing school.
“You can take it as far as you want to; you can travel the world and enter a lifetime of sailing,” Waldick added.
Moonlight paddles outings are also in high demand.
“Participants met at sunset for a nighttime tour. They get to get out on the bay when it’s dark and the water is glassy and it’s just a whole new beautiful experience,” he said.
MBAC places an emphasis on safety, and swim assessments are mandatory prior to taking many of the water sports classes and lessons.
Its mission of ensuring access to water sports for everyone includes persons with disabilities or limitations. In a typical year, more than 575 people with disabilities have been able to take part in waterskiing, kayaking and sailing thanks to the organizational partnerships, specialized equipment and training provided by the center.
For example, wakeboarder Scott Leason hasn’t let his blindness stop him from becoming the 2019 World Champion and 2021 Wakeboard Adaptive Standup National Champion in the World Wake Association.
Leason said he started surfing at age 10 and did a little water skiing in high school. In 1993, he became blind after a robbery at his workplace. It was several years later when he decided he wanted to get back into the water.
“About 17 years ago, I had a goal to slalom ski; I wanted to take part in the Disabled Water Ski Nationals in 2006,” he said. Connections with the former Kiwanis Club of Torrey Pines (now Kiwanis Club of Scripps Ranch) suggested he contact Waldick.
Once Leason told Waldick of his goals, a training regiment and team were set up, and they’ve worked together ever since.
Although he participates in Triathlon, surfing, snowboarding and waterskiing, Leason said wakeboarding is one of his favorite water sports.
“For my other sports, I’m always tethered to someone; there’s always someone there to help,” Leason said. “I love wakeboarding because it frees me from the blindness. When I’m on the line, it’s just me and my individual sport.”
When on the water, Leason said the coach tells him the surf conditions and advises him of a general direction, then Leason is on his own.
“No blind wakeboarder has ever competed in the past 35 years, and it all started with the support of MBAC,” he said.
Leason added that not only has his relationship with MBAC allowed him to continue to enjoy the water and compete, those there are also fans of his seeing eye dog, Doc, a black Labrador retriever.
“Doc is my newest seeing eye dog, but he already knows how to get from the lobby to the launch area, and everybody there knows him,” Leason said.
While water sports are a major focus of the center, classes are available in many more areas. For example, youth classes offered year-round include STEM explorations Think Like A Scientist, Remotely Operated Vehicle Design Challenge, Ocean Literacy and Conservation, Microscopic Mysteries and Seining for Science.
Taking care of the environment its users enjoy is also high on the MBAC priority list. Beach clean-up days are usually well-attended and result in hundreds of pounds of trash and recyclables being removed.
The Mission Bay Aquatic Center celebrated its 50th anniversary in May. Some on staff have been there for at least half the journey. Waldick, as well as center director Kevin Straw have both worked there for 25 years.
Brandenburg is now the Associated Students’ director of facilities and sustainability. In 2019 he was recognized for 45 years of service to SDSU and the community.
It’s not hard to understand the longevity of the staff or the facility.
“You can’t beat this environment,” said Waldick, referring to the beach and ocean right outside the MBAC doors. “Studies show that being near the water leads to a better lifestyle and better happiness. And if you live here, you don’t have to travel to have these experiences and find those benefits.”
“Some people need to breathe — I need to get wet,” he said. “The center has been nothing but endless opportunities. Everyone is having a good time and you leave with a memory.”