Joe Burcar has been sailing almost since the day he was born. Today, the Bellevue resident still participates in the sport — both competitively and recreationally.
Joe Burcar was baptized into the sport of sailing before he was born, literally, when his sailboat-racing father and mother — pregnant with Joe — capsized their 17-foot Thistle sailboat mid-race in the chilly waters of Gig Harbor Bay. One competitor joked that the yet-to-be-born baby Burcar surely would end up a sailor.
He was right.
By the time Burcar — now a Bellevue resident who serves as the interim section manager of a group of environmental professionals at the Department of Ecology — was 9 years old, he was racing 8-foot El Toros in the South Sound waters of Gig Harbor and Wollochet Bay. El Toros are part of a sailing category known as “one-design” racing. That means all the boats are exactly the same. The racers therefore rely on skill and technique, not mechanical or structural differences, to succeed.
Since there were few youth racers in the late 1970s/early 1980s, he often competed against adults. Big people didn’t faze him.
To the young Burcar, sailboat racing was all about the competition. The beauty of the Puget Sound and the smell of the salt were lost on him. He just wanted to win.
“As a family, we spent all of our time on the weekends sailing, cruising, sometimes taking longer trips,” Burcar, 44, said. “We always felt like we were part of a team getting the boat ready.”
In high school, Burcar eventually moved on to race the three-person-team Thistles.
Before he was even able to drive, Burcar and his racing buddies (who were old enough to drive) were traveling around the Northwest — and sometimes the country — racing in competitions. He traveled to cities in Oregon, Montana, and California, and to a national race in Cleveland.
He’s sure his parents, Larry and Judy, must have had some sleepless nights while their 15-year-old was traveling and racing around the country. But at the time, a group of teens traveling alone wasn’t as out of the ordinary as it may seem today. Burcar and his two teammates would simply camp or stay at the home of a host family while participating in the race.
“Most of the time, we didn’t even have a plan until we got there,” he said. “We’d figure it out as we went along. It was such a growing experience. We’d have to figure out our own meals, where to stay. I feel like I learned a lot at an early age through those experiences.”
It was during those years that Burcar grew to truly appreciate the sailing community, a community in which competitors quickly become friends because the same groups often attend all the same races.
“That really adds to the social side of racing,” Burcar said. “That’s the fun part of it.”
In college, Burcar sailed on the racing team at Western Washington University. After graduating, he worked as a “sailmaker” for North Sails in Seattle, where he sold and repaired sails. He often sailed with customers on the weekend.
Though he’s glad he had the opportunity to earn a living with his hobby for a couple of years, he realized it was difficult to maintain a work/life balance while doing so.
“The job provided me with a lot of opportunity to sail while making a living, but I found I missed the opportunity to do my own sailing,” he said.
So, he eventually left the sail shop and, later in his 20s, he began racing a single-person, one-design 13-foot Laser sailboat.
In 2010, he raced in the Laser Master Worlds in Hayling Island in England. In 2011, he competed in the same race in San Francisco.
The race community in England and San Francisco was similar to the social environment he remembers growing up.
After his now-4-year-old daughter, Charlotte, was born, Burcar stopped traveling to far-flung races, though he still competes.
Once a year, he tries to get down to a race hosted by the Columbia Gorge Racing Association. He also is a member of the Seattle Laser Fleet, which races every Thursday from April through September in Shilshole Bay.
Though friendly, Burcar said, local races still are competitive.
“Fitness and core strength are important,” he said. “You have to use your body to balance and control the boat. Fitness makes a big difference, and so does age.”
Now, Burcar also appreciates the family lifestyle of sailing.
He and his wife, Rebecca, own a 36-foot sailboat with two other families. With jobs and family commitments, it’s rare that there are any sharing conflicts. Occasionally, all the boat owners, which include Joe’s brother and his family, take a day-trip excursion together.
“Sailing is an escape from all of life’s stresses,” Burcar said. “When I’m out on the water, I’m pretty focused. However, lately I have found that I really enjoy just being out on the water with my wife and daughter. It’s a different experience, but can be an adventure for all three of us.”