An ocean of choices awaits water sports enthusiasts at Mission Bay Aquatic Center

Whether on a board or boat, water sports are a big part of life for many Pacific Beach residents. So for the past 50 years, Mission Bay Aquatic Center has strived to make such activities accessible to all.

Sailing, wakeboarding, surfing, rowing, kayaking, windsurfing and more are just some of the sports offered at MBAC.

“The center is open to the public. Even without owning a boat, surfboard or other gear, the community can access 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 have become life-changing for others.

Andrew Feynman described his hours there as “the most fun you can have while getting paid.”

Fineman first visited the center in 2004 as a 6-year-old camper.

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Mission Bay Aquatic Center

address: 1001 Santa Clara Place, Mission Beach

telephone: 858-488-1000


Work time: every day from 9 am to 7 pm

Good to know: Scott Leason has a GoFundMe page to help defend his world title at

“Literally every camp they offered, I did,” he said. “Out of the 11 to 12 weeks we had for summer vacation, I would spend 10 weeks downtown.”

He explained that although his family had a boat, it was mostly for hanging out; “never left the dock.”

By the time he was in high school, Feinman was learning the other side of camp through his counselor training program, which prepares students to become camp counselors.

“I would be at the camp all day, leave to go to my actual job, come home at 11pm exhausted and come right back at 6am to do it again the next day,” he said.

Andrew Fineman poses with a board outside the Mission Bay Aquatic Center.

(Courtesy – Andrew Feynman)

Feynman was hired as a sailing instructor right out of high school. He still teaches wakeboarding and sailing lessons, 18 years later.

“The MBAC is one of the few constants I’ve had in my life,” he said. “Now I’m an engineer in Carlsbad, but I still hang out with my friends downtown and work at the camps when I’m free. Money is not important; it’s the homely element of being there so much and the family element – ​​some of the staff have been there all my life and watched me grow up.’

Windsurfing appeals to adults of all ages.

Windsurfing appeals to adults of all ages.

(Courtesy – MBAC)

The center began in 1970 when San Diego State University student Glenn Brandenburg signed up to take a sailing class at the dilapidated city-run sailing center, which the instructor immediately claimed was a ghost.

Brandenburg not only took over teaching the class, but merged SDSU and nearby UC San Diego. In 1973, they entered into a lease with the City of San Diego for the building and the Mission Bay Aquatic Center was born.

MBAC is a non-profit organization jointly owned and operated by Associated Students of SDSU and UC San Diego Recreation. It is a student-run corporation and is not run by any campus. Their students can take classes for credit and receive discounts.

More than 25,000 people a year go through MBAC, and equipment fills the facility to the ceiling. The 24,000-square-foot center features more than 20 motorized watercraft, 50 sailboats, 100 surfboards, 15 windsurfers, 90 kayaks, 70 paddleboards and 20 rowing shells.

Classroom instruction takes place in one of two indoor classrooms or one of several outdoor classrooms just outside the doors. Group lessons, party packages and private lessons are available.

The fact that MBAC is ideally located on the waterfront, combined with its university connections and variety of programs, make it world-renowned.

One such class is wakeboarding. While water skiers ride two long skis pulled by a boat; wakeboarders ride one long board. The goal is to glide over the water and follow the wake of the boat, hence the name.

“Wakeboarding is a very popular sport among adults and older adults, with a growing segment of the sport now being wakesurfing,” Waldick said. “With the boat going 9 to 10 mph, you can surf a high wave forever without having to wait for the right conditions. And you can still go out on the bay in big or slow surf.”

He added that it’s not uncommon for people to ride their bike downtown, wakeboard early in the morning, then go to their office for a day’s work.

Kevin Waldick, assistant director of the Mission Bay Aquatic Center.

Kevin Waldick, assistant director of the Mission Bay Aquatic Center.

(Courtesy – MBAC)

Sailing – once reserved for those with a boat – is also available to the public, whether people want to take a class for a ride or have bigger goals.

“Our sailing classes are always really booked,” Waldick said. “Some people want to learn to sail to take their friends out for a fun weekend. But we also had a student who moved to the Caribbean and started his own sailing school.

“You can take it as far as you want; you can travel the world and enter a lifetime of sailing,” Waldick added.

Moonlight paddle trips are also in high demand.

“Participants met at sunset for a night tour. They can go out on the bay when it’s dark and the water is glass, and it’s just a new beautiful experience,” he said.

MBAC emphasizes safety and swimming assessments are required before many of the water sports classes and lessons are taken.

Its mission to provide access to water sports for all includes people with disabilities or limitations. In a typical year, more than 575 people with disabilities have had the opportunity to participate in water skiing, kayaking and sailing thanks to the organizational partnerships, specialized equipment and training provided by the center.

For example, wakeboarder Scott Leeson didn’t let his blindness stop him from becoming the 2019 World Wakeboard Champion and 2021 National Wakeboard Champion in the World Wake Association.

    Scott Leeson didn't let his blindness stop him from becoming a champion wakeboarder.

With the help of the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, Scott Leeson didn’t let his blindness stop him from becoming a champion wakeboarder.

(Courtesy – MBAC)

Leason said he started surfing at age 10 and did some water skiing in high school. In 1993, he went blind after a robbery at his workplace. A few years later, he decided he wanted to get back on the water.

“About 17 years ago, I had a goal to ride slalom; I wanted to compete in the 2006 National Paralympic Water Ski Competition,” he said. Connections with the former Kiwanis Club of Torrey Pines (now the Kiwanis Club of Scripps Ranch) suggested he contact Waldick.

After Leeson told Waldick of his goals, a training regiment and team was formed, and they’ve been working together ever since.

Although he competes in triathlons, surfing, snowboarding and water skiing, Leason said wakeboarding is one of his favorite water sports.

“For my other sports, I’m always tied to someone; there is always someone to help,” Leeson said. “I love wakeboarding because it frees me from blindness. When I’m on the line, it’s just me and my individual sport.”

When he’s in the water, Leeson said his coach tells him the surf conditions and advises him on general direction, then Leeson is on his own.

“No blind wakeboarders have competed in the last 35 years and it all started with the support of MBAC,” he said.

Leason added that his association with MBAC has not only allowed him to continue to enjoy the water and compete, but also the fans of his dog Doc, a black Labrador retriever.

“Doc is my newest watchdog, but he already knows his way from the lobby to the launch area and everyone there knows him,” Leeson said.

While aquatics is the main focus of the center, classes are offered in many other areas. For example, year-round youth courses include STEM studies Think Like A Scientist, Remotely Operated Vehicle Design Challenge, Ocean Literacy and Conservation, Microscopic Mysteries, and Seining for Science.

Caring for the environment that consumers enjoy is also high on MBAC’s list of priorities. Beach cleanup days are usually well attended and result in the removal of hundreds of pounds of trash and recyclables.

The Mission Bay Aquatic Center celebrated its 50th anniversary in May. Some of the staff were there for at least half the trip. Waldick, as well as center director Kevin Straw, have worked there for 25 years.

Brandenburg is now director of facilities and sustainability for the Associated Students. In 2019, he was recognized for 45 years of service to SDSU and the community.

It is not difficult to understand the longevity of the staff or the facility.

“You can’t beat this environment,” Waldick said, referring to the beach and ocean right outside MBAC’s doors. “Studies show that being close to water leads to a better lifestyle and greater happiness. And if you live here, you don’t have to travel to have these experiences and discover these benefits.”

Feynman agrees.

“Some people need to breathe – I need to get wet,” he said. “The center was nothing but endless possibilities. Everyone has fun and you leave with a memory.”

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