64th Newport to Ensenada: Cabrillo never knew how much fun it would be

Steve Fossett - only boat ever to finish before sundown - Newport to Ensenada International Race
64th Newport to Ensenada is a tradition Don Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo could never have imagined when the Portuguese navigator brought the first two foreign vessels into lonely Todos Santos Bay on Mexico's Baja California peninsula in 1542.

Nearly five centuries later Cabrillo's joy of discovery will be replicated again this spring on a much larger scale in the Newport Ocean Sailing Association's 64th International Yacht Race from Newport Beach April 15-17. The total of boats competing over the years is more than 20,000 and counting. Don Juan would have been blown away.

The high was 675 in 1983, long before the convenience of online entry. It's easier now. Those looking to join the crowd can click here. The entry fee for sailboats—large or small, monohulls or multihulls---is $175 until March 31. The late entry fee is $225.

The schedule of 10-minute starting sequences fires off from Balboa Pier at noon Friday, April 15---faster boats first. Depending on the wind, those chasing records probably will finish before dawn Saturday.

A handful of high-tech ocean racers have finished before midnight, led by the monohull record of 10 hours 37 minutes 50 seconds by Doug Baker's Magnitude 80 in 2009---just 7 minutes 3 seconds faster than the late Roy E. Disney's Pyewacket III in 2003.

Only one boat has finished before sundown the same day in Ensenada. In 1998 the late Steve Fossett clocked 6:46:40 on the 60-foot catamaran Stars & Stripes just before passing a moored cruise ship in the fading light.

As recounted by former NOSA commodore Bud Desenberg in his 1978 book, 'The Ensenada Race: Thirty Years of Silver and Gold,' it's a unique event that compliments the résumé of any serious sailor pursuing competition and adventure. At 125.5 nautical miles, it's not the longest offshore race but features challenges for amateurs and professionals who say they've never sailed any two alike … offshore breeze one year, inshore breeze the next; often shifty along the way, warm weather and cold.

Speed isn't everything. Tactics and timing also weigh heavily, especially in picking the right way to go. The course can be sailed in a straight (rhumb) line, but often it's better to seek more favorable breeze offshore or inshore. Another critical decision is when to change course to enter the bay. Too soon and you lose the wind blocked by the hills; too late and you sail unnecessarily too far.

It was new for everybody in 1948. When the Pacific Ocean turned true to its name after World War II a handful of restless Newport Beach sailors led by George Michaud planned to mark the moment by racing to the little farming and fishing settlement 60 miles south of the border. Cabrillo never knew how much fun it would be.

There had been no enduring races to Mexico until the N2E. The organizers guessed that 25 or 35 boats might show up. When 117 signed on, they figured they might be onto something.

As Desenberg recounted, 20 entries had second thoughts when 'boisterous winds … eliminated 20 day-sailors' before the start and only 65 finished the race, led by movie producer Milton Bren sailing Pursuit.

But the tales told by the early competitors of sailing an overnight race to a foreign country to join their families and friends in fiesta fun surged enthusiasm for the event.

In ensuing years they were followed by celebrities such as Buddy Ebsen, Humphrey Bogart, Roy E. Disney, Walter Cronkite, James Arness and Vicki Lawrence.

But even the not-so-famous have notched their marks. Lew Comyns of the Long Beach Yacht Club sailed 51 N2E races---most on his durable Cal 40---before his death. Dr. Vic Stern of Long Beach, a key organizer of the ORCA multihull class, has done 44.

Early on the race developed into an array of big boats and small boats, keelboats and multihulls, some wooden and some fiberglass, of every practical size and speed---or lack of---sailed by West Coast sailors. From the start, handicap systems have rendered size and speed incidental to how well a boat was sailed relative to its potential.

Luck also plays a part. Small boats regularly beat big boats for the trophies. In 2009 when the wind increased after the faster boats had finished, the slower boats' handicap time cut into the big boats' speed advantage. That allowed Cleve Hardaker's modest Catalina 36 from San Diego's Silver Gate Yacht Club, sailing in the race's slowed-rated class K, to win the race's overall top prize on corrected handicap time.

That's what the N2E is about. Anyone can win.

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