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Newport Yacht Race Taxes, Enriches Port of Ensenada

Times Staff Writer

The fat lady in the blue lounge pants, shiny silver blouse and beige beret was pounding the table again.

“Gimme another one. C’mon. Gimme one of them cervezas (beers),” she commanded a Mexican waiter in his 20s, as she then shouted, “Mas sir-vey-sass!”

The young man, already perplexed at the boisterous crowd from the north that the woman came in with, needed help. Full of beer, they were now singing the third verse of “Memories.”

“What’ll I do with them?” he pleaded in Spanish to an older, more seasoned waitress.

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She turned and said calmly, “Hurry and bill ‘em so they’ll get out.”

Each year, the annual Newport to Ensenada yacht race brings thousands aboard hundreds of sleek sailing craft to the port city of Ensenada, the “crown jewel” of Baja California, according to Mexican tourist officials.

Thousands more drive down to pick up a husband, wife or friend, and, of course, stay for a night on the town.

Some Mexican food, a cerveza, more food and another cerveza and . . . you get the idea.

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For the Mexicans, attempting to survive this year’s 35% drop in tourist dollars, peso devaluation and a sluggish fishing industry, the sight of billowy sails turning into Ensenada Bay means money. Those interviewed said they would put up with almost anything--even drunken rowdiness--if it meant tourist dollars.

But to Xavier Martinez, a hotel security officer, “They’re all crazy.”

Although Ensenada also hosts off-road races such as the Baja 1,000, Rodolfo Golyri Solorzano, Ensenada Chamber of Commerce president, said, “This is it. This is the most important one for us.”

City and race officials estimated the Americans, often referred to locally as gringos, would spend $400,000 to $500,000 during the lucrative three-day event.

“These yatistas (yachtsmen) are different,” Golyri said. “They’re from a different class. They’re, how do you say it? High class?”

Robert M. Wheeler, president of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., which coordinated the race, said more than 600 yachts with crews averaging from seven to eight people were entered for the 38th annual event. Another 5,000 to 6,000 people converged on the city by land, many from Newport Beach, where the race began Saturday at noon.

Bertha Balcazar, a waitress at Cafe Victor’s, said she hoped more gringos would acquire a taste for hot spicy Mexican food, instead of just “tequilas and beer to go with their meat and papas fritas. They sure like (french) fries.”

“That way, we would have more inside here,” she said.

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But Balcazar, who has seen the gringo at his worst and best during her 34 years as a

waitress in Ensenada, was nonchalant about the yacht people who often stream by the cafe in Topsiders, trendy shorts and sun-burned faces.

Although the boaters drink, Balcazar said, they’re not as rowdy as the “heepies” (hippies) whose drinking escapades often end in fistfights or other violence.

“Sometimes it’s just not safe to go out on the streets at night,” Balcazar said.

But during the weekend, owners of hotels, restaurants and liquor stores along 1st Street, Ensenada’s main street, consider the boater royalty.

In fact, for two nights, hotels and motels--even some with suites that cost $120 a night or more--were able to hang “no vacancy” signs. Hotels like El Cid, El Cortez and La Bahia, which was the race headquarters, found they were turning away gringos with wallets full of money and credit cards.

“This race is very important. Our economy these days is not well, and we place importance with those people who come a few days before the race and stay a few days after it,” said Carlos Gallegos Quiroz, president of the Ensenada Tourist and Convention Committee. “They’re happy. They just want to enjoy the town.”

Ensenada officials said privately they fear a potential tourist backlash because of the death of Enrique S. Camarena, a U.S. drug agent found slain March 5 in the Guadalajara area. That attitude is pervasive among Ensenada officials and filters through the ranks of the city’s police department. A police captain, asked if he had seen any signs of hostility, threw up both hands and said: “Here? With the yacht people? Sir, we have no problems. Everything is peaceful.”

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However, a 19-year-old American woman was pulled off the sidewalk and beaten Saturday night, according to race officials. They said witnesses’ statements made them believe the attacker was from the yacht race, but no one has been arrested.

In the past, problems such as public drunkenness and assaults have persisted, race and city officials admit. One tourism official said he still remembers the drunken yachtsman who walked into the police department one morning to report that his Mercedes-Benz had mysteriously vanished.

“He came in and told us it had disappeared. We laughed so hard. But the next day we found it for him,” in the parking lot where he left it, the official said.


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