When a blue-and-white flag is lowered from a boat in middle of Folsom Lake, it's one minute to regatta race time.
Before the flag was fully down and the starting horn blared Saturday, nine Santana boats jockeyed for position under light winds and what ensued looked like a chaotic traffic jam of sails and hulls.
Such was the scene in Folsom Lake during the first of nine races that constitute the 2012 Camellia Cup Regatta run by the Folsom Lake Yacht Club.
In the starting race, skipper Mark Erdrich would be the first to position the 20-foot monohull boat named Fusion at just the right angle to pick up the most wind and take it away from boats inching up close by. The result was a brash pull-away from the pack during which Erdrich seized the lead that he would never relinquish.
A slate of races divided boats by type Saturday, and another slate of races will follow today, with boats launching at Brown's Ravine Marina in Folsom. But the Camellia Cup trophy will be awarded to only one champion sailor at the end of the two-day event.
The regatta marks the opening of the boating season in the Sacramento region. This year a sense of excitement is palpable because of the region's proximity to the 34th America's Cup Final, which is coming to San Francisco Bay for the first time in 2013.
Some expect that historic and prestigious race to create a buzz about the sport, which could lead to more enthusiasts taking up sailing.
Folsom Lake Yacht Club has 60 sailors as members, mostly in the middle-age demographic. Saturday's regatta had only 29 entrants.
"Back in 1990 we had up to 70 entrants," said Karen Preston, regatta scorekeeper and former Yacht Club commodore. "And even before then there used to be more than 200 boats for the (Camellia) cup so participation has really dropped."
Nationally, participation in recreational sailboating is holding steady. In 2000, the Coast Guard pegged sailboaters at 10.9 million. It projects there will be 11.4 million recreational sailboaters by 2020.
"I wonder if people think sailing is not a dramatic enough sport," Preston said. "It's not fast like some other things but this is something that is changing."
That change will be evident at the 2013 America's Cup, where speed is the watchword. Gone will be the monohull boats. Competing in the challenge the first since 1995 to be in the U.S. will be high-tech 72-foot catamarans with crews of five, which will ply San Francisco Bay at a fast clip of up to 40 knots.
Others say it remains to be seen what effect the world's premier sailing event will have on local public interest in the sport.
"Part of the challenge with Folsom is that there is so much more demand on the water now," said Lowell Richardson, who owns Catalina Direct in Rancho Cordova.
Since 1986 the state demand that more of Folsom Lake's capacity be available for flood storage has affected its water levels.
"Years ago at Folsom Lake, you assumed your boat was going to be in the water year round, and there would be sailing year round. That has not been true since '86," Richardson said. "That makes it challenging for the club to maintain interest."
And interest in other watercraft has been a factor.
"Some people have taken to sailboarding or kite surfing," he said. "Those are young people that are, potentially, interested in sailing, but have chosen something other than just traditional sailboating."