by Rich Roberts
Sojourn (l.) and Taxi Dancer were big winners the last two years
64th Newport to Ensenada - There will be a jam packed week of fiesta festivity leading into the 64th Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race begins Sunday, April 10, with the Launch Party at the Newport Nautical Museum.
The public event, starting at noon, will raffle two guest passes on the start boat and feature a dockside display of the last two winners of the race's top prize: the Governor of Mexico Trophy for the fastest corrected handicap time won by the Catalina 30 Sojourn in 2009 and the Reichel/Pugh 68 Taxi Dancer in 2010.
The race will start on Friday, April 15, off the Balboa Pier, keynoted by a watercraft obviously diverse from the fleet. Dennis St. Onge's Da-Woody, flying a giant American flag, is a miniature 12-foot floating replica of a wood-paneled 40s Ford station wagon that has become the pace car of sailing since the mid-90s when it putt-putted onto the scene. Da-Woody doesn't go to Ensenada, but it brings a playful presence to the climax of a week of pre-race activities.
Following Sunday's Launch Party:
Wednesday, 12 noon - The Yachtsman's Lunch at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, featuring North Sails President Gary Weisman as speaker ($14);
Wednesday night, 7p.m. -Tesla Motors hosts a Grand Reception for registered race skippers and their guests, with one awarded a free weekend's use of an electric roadster;
Thursday night, 6:00 p.m. -The Sendoff Fiesta for skippers, crew, family and friends at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club.
If they're left with any spar time, the sailors can brush up online with expert advice from the three March 'Sail to Win' seminars.
The race starts Friday at noon with the first of several class starts at 10-minute intervals, big boats first. Viewing areas include the pier, the beach and the bluffs above Corona Del Mar State Beach that the racers will pass on their way south into a full moonlit night.
Da-Woody will offer its traditional buoyant sendoff. Nowadays, including around St. Onge's hometown of San Diego, it's a mark of a regatta's stature. He acquired his unique vessel back in 1991.
'I noticed it sitting in a yard behind Sea World and the Sports Arena in San Diego,' he said. 'Sea World had built it in 1965 and used it in shows. It was in disrepair in a red color and didn't look very pretty. I thought it was a real car. I asked if they were going to sell it. [A Sea World worker] said, 'I'll have to check,' and he came back and said, 'Seventy-five dollars.'Sold'. It had no motor and needed a ton of TLC, 'So I put it in my driveway wondering what to do with it, and a couple of neighbors came by and said, 'This is incredible!' 'St. Onge said.
Soon he started to sense that Da-Woody had possibilities. He replaced the airbrush headlights with real ones, bought a 30-horsepower motor and gave it a bright yellow paint job. 'Then I took it out to Lake Havasu for the Jet Ski world finals,' he said. 'I didn't even know if it floated.'
He also had doubts about how the funky Da-Woody would be received by the recreational boating community, but he was pleasantly surprised. Even the sheriff's patrol boat was friendly. As for a practical purpose, Dennis hadn't figured that out yet. 'I thought I'd water ski with it [at Havasu], but it barely made it up the canal against the current.'
Later, he got a bigger motor that got the speed up to 'just over 25 mph. The  America's Cup was coming up and that was going to be the next time I took it out. I was taken into the open arms of the America's Cup people. I wound up being on the front pages of newspapers around the world. I was in the ESPN coverage.'
Any doubts about how seaworthy it was were resolved. Returning into the bay after the last day of racing he was running close to a large trimaran when both were swamped by a following surge. The tri took on so much water that it stopped dead, while Da-Woody resurfaced and bobbed along, as it has since.
Soon the legend spread and Da-Woody became part of the N2E adventure. Later, after New Zealand won the America's Cup at San Diego in 1995, Dennis took Da-Woody to Auckland for the next AC in 1999-2000. He was treated like a celebrity and granted a special AC 'super yacht' clearance, as were the visiting 100-foot luxury boats.
'So I had America's Cup super yacht clearance for my Woody---at 12 feet long! I thought, 'How cool is this?'
Dennis, 59, is usually seen perched through the sunroof, shooting pictures and video for his website
'If I were an extremely wealthy person and could do anything I wanted, I would be doing what I'm doing,' he said.
The race is sponsored by the City of Newport Beach, Pirates Lair, the Log, Mount Gay Rum, Vessel Assist, Sailing Spoken Here, West Marine, Marriott Newport Beach Hotel and Spa, Visit Newport Beach, Hornblower Cruises and Events, North Sails and Ruby's Diner.
Dennis St Onge working the start of a Newport-Ensenada Race