ENSENADA, MEXICO — Before lunch began, Commodore Chuck Iverson sat in the back corner of a restaurant, reviewing the guest list.
It seemed a generic Newport Beach scene: place settings arranged on white tablecloths. Ocean view. Members of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., or NOSA, bedecked in navy blazers and khaki pants, mingling with the mayor.
Still, the group hadn't valet parked their cars outside. They'd arrived by van. And they were greeted with glasses of wine, not from California, but vineyards in Mexico.
Roughly 125 nautical miles from home, the sailors were far from their yacht club dining rooms and trendy Fashion Island restaurants. Responsible for organizing the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race that started the day before, they now anticipated a meal at Belio, an upscale restaurant here.
Iverson continued through the names on the list. The consul general from the U.S. consulate in Tijuana would be joining them. The local mayor's wife was on her way.
Behind the scenes of a regatta known for its drunken rowdiness, leaders in the Newport yachting community and the seaside Mexican town continue to foster a long-standing and deeply meaningful relationship. Ensenada once received icons like Marion Davis, Lucille Ball and John Wayne. But as the romance faded between old Hollywood and the Baja port city, the diplomatic link among the yachtsmen and their political counterparts remained.
Rooted in the event's 67-year history, the bond links cultures, economies and communities that might not otherwise commingle. It offers a stronghold for an event that has suffered in recent years as the economy of both countries dipped and fear of drug violence in Mexico rose.
"This is more than just a yacht race," Tom Kennedy, a NOSA director, said as he walked toward the restaurant.
The friendship renews itself at each springtime sail, bolstered by numerous parties and meals hosted on either side of the border. Glasses had clinked in Newport Beach, and now Saturday's lunch turned hosting responsibility over to Mexico. Again and again, their events would assert a singular message for Newport Beach residents: Ensenada is thrilled to welcome you.
Formality intersects with bacchanalia
While NOSA leaders sat for formal introductions, the jovial race participants grew boozy at the nearby host hotel.
The group helped fill the 147-room Hotel Coral for the weekend, a high-end place to stay that is protected by a wall and security gate. Every room has an ocean-front view.
Lounging in the sunshine, the racers made themselves comfortable, drinking Tecate and regaling one another with tales from their uncharacteristically windy and rainy journey.
Although 168 yachts had registered to participate, in its prime, the Newport to Ensenada race logged more than 600. The party the night before grew so large that the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club eventually stopped hosting it.
As participation numbers have dropped, organizers find themselves re-evaluating how to renew interest in the gregarious sailing tradition.
NOSA volunteers work year-round on improvements for the race. They drive to Ensenada monthly for meetings as the event nears each year.
They also hold safety seminars for participants. Indeed, four men died when their 37-foot boat, the Aegean, splintered upon collision with North Coronado Island, south of the U.S.-Mexican border, during the 2012 race.
"You're not stoppable," Mariano Escobedo, director of International Relations for Baja, California, said at lunch Saturday from a podium where miniature American and Mexican flags waved, "even though it's not always smooth sailing."
Change has come, albeit incrementally, with cooperation between NOSA and local government officials. The race used to end farther south, in the Ensenada harbor. Now, the finish line is marked by boats bobbing in front of the Hotel Coral.
For those who go by boat, NOSA hopes to streamline, if not eliminate, the paperwork needed for travel across the border. For those who drive down, as many family and friends of racers once did, the hotel provides guests with passes to get through the more efficient emergency lane at the border on the way back.
"This is like gold," Penny Rodheim had said, displaying hers, securely fastened in a Ziploc bag, as she and her husband, Ralph, whizzed along Saturday morning.
Sailing off to the race – by car
Earlier that morning, when the Rodheims prepared to head out in their Lexus, the area around their quaint Balboa Island home was just beginning to stir.
At least one of the iconic frozen banana stands had already opened, but the Rodheims' friends sold hot coffee and sugar doughnuts to residents. The early risers walked around in Saturday morning's cool air for the start of the island's annual garage sale.
Rather than explore the retired luxury wares, the Rodheims headed toward a final destination more commonly known for tacos and tequila than Balboa Bars and ferries.
Admittedly, part of the more scenic Mexican toll road collapsed toward the ocean last year, but the Rodheims felt no fear about the drive, stopping to buy Mexican car insurance before continuing across.
They pointed out their favorite spot on the way for lunch and margaritas, and then noted Nuevo Puerto, or Newport, where many like to enjoy a lobster before heading back to the Newport they consider home.
But they too were off for lunch Saturday with the NOSA group, where servers would set forth some of the best cuisine the city had to offer.
"Queremos que se sientan en su casa," said Maria Consuelo Mora de Hirata, wife of Ensenada's mayor, to Rush and Linda Hill, the mayor and first lady of Newport Beach.
As was later translated for the bilingual audience, "We hope that you feel at home."
The idea wasn't farfetched. Sure, Ensenada lays claim to the creation of the margarita and, perhaps, the best fish tacos. But the group would also be encouraged to tour the city's luxury side, visiting the surrounding cheese makers or attending a shellfish and wine festival.
They would be guided toward the finest cuisine the area had to offer, be it a steakhouse or the trendy "Baja Med" cuisine, and reminded to make time for the area's local vineyards in Valle de Guadalupe. Likened to Napa Valley or Temecula, the area is speckled with boutique hotels and features restaurants offering multi-course meals and, of course, myriad varietals of wine.
"Ensenada is more than tacos and Hussong's" — a popular dive bar in town, said Mauricio Parra, who helps promote a local vineyard. "We need people to know the other Mexico."
Pre-race pours in Newport Beach
Already, Mexican wine had been poured in Newport Beach, at a VIP event at Sterling BMW the Wednesday before the start of the race.
"You want to sell more wine in the U.S.? This is the perfect event. This is your target," said Luis Ferrer, consul for cultural affairs in the Mexican Consulate of Orange County, attending along with the consul for press and commercial affairs.
Guests mingled among the new BMWs on the floor at the invite-only affair. There was a drawing for a $950 Black, Starr and Frost watch. While one woman lamented that she was the only one in the trendy crowd wearing a sweat shirt, personal shoppers from Fashion Island displayed the season's newest Sperry boat shoes.
The crowd called to mind the phrase "casual elegance," explained one of the personal shoppers, Ashley Schlick.
"These guys have a great lifestyle," said Sara Aplanalp, another personal shopper. "They have the money. They're affluent, but because of their lifestyle, being on the water, they're laid back."
Councilman Keith Curry encouraged attendees to have fun in his city before they left.
Mayor Pro Tem Ed Selich bid them to enjoy "most of all, a good party in Ensenada."
"It just shows a fun relationship between two longstanding communities that both have a history related to the sea," Mayor Rush Hill said.
And the festivities had only just begun. The next night, Mexican officials joined Newport Beach politicians for a mayor's reception in a garden at the Marriott Hotel.
Among them was Ensenada's own recently elected mayor, Gilberto Hirata Chico.
He echoed Hill's remarks from the night prior: "It's an area of opportunity to continue to strengthen our relations," he said of the yacht race. "We can share sporting events, tourism. We can also share work experience, and also demonstrate the strengths that the Mexican cities have to offer."
After gifts were exchanged, commodores from NOSA met the group to share dinner aboard John Wayne's old boat, the Wild Goose. It slowly toured the city's harbor, passing the public send-off party for sailors at the Balboa Pavilion.
A final kickoff party was held the following morning on the rooftop of Ruby's on Balboa Pier. Then the leaders would jump in their cars, heading to Ensenada, where the parties would build toward a heartfelt farewell.
Saying despedida for one more year
Ninety-three year old Carlos Avila and his wife, Dolores, host a final dinner party at their Ensenada home, per tradition.
They moved the furniture from the living room and dining room into the garage. Rented tables were arranged in their stead, covered with boat print fabric and matching floral arrangements.
When the guests arrived Saturday night, Dolores' friends and nieces were hard at work under her instruction in the kitchen.
"I'm seeing NOSA looks like your second family," Chacha Tejeda, who works with Sister Cities, said to Dolores.
The house represents a sort of museum to the race. Photos arranged on a piano and in the living room mix images of family with images of NOSA members. Plaques commemorating past regattas cover an entire wall, and more are in storage.
"They connect in this very profound way that's really fascinating," said Andrew Erickson, consul general at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, surveying the energetic and warm scene. "There's this incredible and weird and impossible to understand relationship."
He continued, "Gringos come and gringos go, but this is much more profound than that."
After a homemade meal capped with flan the room grew emotional as the requisite introductions were made one last time.
"This event cannot die. This event must continue," Erickson said.
He turned toward Carlitos, as he called him, who was wearing a NOSA name tag (he is an honorary staff commodore) and NOSA tie along with his suit. Erickson congratulated the Azusa native for what he called "legendary contributions" over the past 46 years.
As the pair shook hands, Carlos' head barely reached Erickson's shoulder.
"Forty-six years," Erickson said. "For 46 years, you've been slogging away at building a better relationship between the United States and Mexico through the yachting community."
The port master applauded. The NOSA vice commodores applauded. Iverson applauded.
"I toast to you because you have brought home more than ever the saying of mi casa es su casa," Rush Hill said, as it came to his turn to speak.
Gifts were exchanged. The introductions continued. And Carlos stood up.
"NOSA has been the greatest thing in my life," he said, placing his hand over his heart. "And you can be sure that you are welcome any time."
More cheers erupted and on went the accolades.
Whiskey! someone shouted.
Tequila! shouted another.
Tamales! came a third, and the room filled with laughter.