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Santa Barbara boasts an array of unique traditions, such as Old Spanish Days and Solstice. It can even take credit for Earth Day, now celebrated worldwide. One less famous but no less historical tradition is the Santa Barbara Sea Shell Association, now celebrating its 75th anniversary. 

Despite its name, “Sea Shells” is not a conch-collecting club; it is a family sailing organization founded by Ray Kieding. In 1948, Kieding was trying to find a small sailboat for his young sons robust enough to sail in the Santa Barbara Harbor. He finally purchased two mail order kit boats from the Hagerty Company in Massachusetts. These boats were called “Sea Shells, and according to Hagery were“ideal for all-around use.” Hagerty sold the boats for $35, and also sold an additional kit to convert the Sea Shell to a sailboat. The 8 foot long Sea Shell could zip along with a youth sailor at the helm, and could accommodate a parent for training purposes.

KIeding’s boats attracted attention. Within a year there were close to a dozen boats, and competition began. As the saying goes, whenever two or more sailboats are assembled, a race is inevitable. Championships were held, and perpetual trophies dedicated to the club. In 1955, Sea Shells was incorporated as a non-profit corporation to carry on the traditions started by the Kieding family. It has carried on those traditions ever since.

Most Sundays between April 1 and October 31, the club meets at the boat ramp at the harbor to launch, sail over to “Sea Shell Beach” between Stearns Wharf and the harbor, and run a series of races. Sea Shells “skippers” – girls and boys ranging from 7 to 16 learn seamanship – build confidence, and develop all of the skills attendant to small boat racing. None of this would be possible without dedicated parents to run races, captain safety boats, and keep the organization running. Of course, parents get to hold one “adult race” each Sunday, so kids don’t have all the fun, and non-sailors can enjoy an afternoon on the beach. 

For many years, the first task for any new family joining Sea Shells was to purchase a kit and build their own boat. Over time, the Sea Shell kit became harder to obtain and woodworking skills less commonplace. Sea Shells evolved, first acquiring fiberglass Sabot dinghies, and more recently beginning the process of transitioning to rotomolded modern polymer and composite boats including the RS Tera, RS Feva, and O’Pen Skiff. Sea Shells makes these boats available to sailors to rent each season because it is no longer possible to obtain a sailboat for $35 or anything close to it!


Since Sea Shells was founded, other organizations have taken on the mantle of teaching youth sailboat racing in Santa Barbara, particularly where the competitive racing scene is concerned. But no other organization shares Sea Shells’ specific mission to provide an opportunity for families to learn and enjoy sailing – together – and for an affordable annual fee. And no other organization has as much fun doing it, such as during the “dinghy jamboree” where sea monsters and pirates have been known to appear.

As a non-profit dedicated to making sailing fun and accessible, Sea Shells charges minimal dues and relies on fundraising and donations to continue. It has endured as part of our community for the past 75 years due to the dedication of its families and alumni.

As Commodore for the 2023 season, I hope to carry on the wonderful tradition started by Roy Kieding and that Sea Shells will continue for another 75 years. I invite any family with children and interest in sailing or the sea to consider becoming a part of this tradition. 

Sea Shells registration will open in February. More information about Sea Shells and how to become a member is available on our website, Scholarships will be made available to families with demonstrated financial needs. 


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