There’s More Than a Race to This Event

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Hundreds will be watching Friday as the boats depart for the start of the Ensenada Yacht Race, but few will probably see the departure of another Ensenada-bound contingent: the two tractor trailers loaded with donated supplies for the area’s poor.

Race sponsors point to the “Hands Across the Border” donation drive as proof that the 42-year-old race has become something more than a “bunch of sailors going to Mexico to raise hell.” More than a “tequila derby"--or even just the largest international yacht race in the world--the Ensenada Yacht Race today means a week’s worth of events that range from posh receptions on either side of the border to a visible anti-drug campaign.

“There is no question about it,” says Doug Wall, president of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., sponsor of the race, “this event has come a long way. The effort has doubled in complexity and sophistication over the past few years.”

Consider the numbers for the race itself. This year more than 600 boats, crewed by about 4,000 sailors--among them former TV anchorman Walter Cronkite and America’s Cup skipper Dennis Conner--will participate in the 125-mile event. Another 200 or so volunteers will be in 32 support boats, aided by U.S. Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol vessels, to help with the logistics.


But the donation drive, according to Wall, is just one example of how the Ensenada race in particular and yachting in general have become more community-minded.

A trailer to collect donations for Ensenada’s poor is now, as it is the week before the event every year, parked across the street from the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Corona del Mar.

The drive originated with the 1978 race as an effort to aid Ensenada residents left homeless after a devastating flood. Under the direction of the yacht club, a committee was formed to collect food, clothing, bedding and toys to help the flood victims, according to Wayne Gary, chairman of the “Hands Across the Border” drive. Over the years, the project grew, becoming an official event of the race and run by NOSA.

Ensenada officials now give the association a list of what is needed, and volunteers attempt to collect those things, Wall said. Recently, there has been a need for medical equipment and supplies, he said. “This year we have an entire operating room that has been donated.” In fact, Gary said, local organizations, hotels and clubs now donate items year-round.


Trucks, drivers and storage space are provided by U.S. Delivery, a trucking company in Fullerton owned by Doug White, who is a NOSA member. The distribution point is at the military hospital just outside of Ensenada.

Another example of the community service side of the race, is the anti-drug message--Drug Use Is Life Abuse--on the pennants that will fly on each participating yacht. Wall gives credit for that idea to Harry Gage, Orange County’s harbor master, saying that Gage encouraged the sailing association to join in the anti-drug campaign being run by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

On the purely social side, there will be a public reception at the Newport Beach Nautical Museum at 5 p.m. Wednesday. This event, begun last year, is co-sponsored by the museum and NOSA. NOSA adopted the museum as its official curator just before the 1988 race, according to Wall. Race plaques, patches, photographs and other memorabilia will be on display at the museum in honor of the race.

Multihull sailors will be honorees at this year’s reception. The guest speaker will be Rudy Choy, a veteran catamaran sailor who has won the first-to-finish trophy more times than any other competitor. Other multihull sailors expected to attend include former NOSA President Mike Kane, who has sailed in the TransAtlantic race for catamarans; Bob Hanel, whose boat, Double Bullet, holds the Ensenada race record for the fastest time (10 hours, 22 minutes); Victor Stern, who has sailed in the past 27 races, and actor Buddy Ebsen, a former Newport Beach resident and multihull sailor.

The VIP Yachtsmen’s Luncheon, sponsored by the Newport Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce, will be Thursday at the Balboa Yacht Club. Cronkite, who will be a crewman on Harry Thomasen’s 59-foot yacht, Ms. Blu, is scheduled to attend. Cronkite is also scheduled to serve as a trophy presenter during the awards ceremonies April 30 in Ensenada.

On Friday, race day, the action will begin around 10:30 a.m., when more than 600 boats ranging from 24 to 75 feet long leave the harbor and crowd toward the starting lines, darting, dashing, turning and, occasionally, colliding as they attempt to find some open water. The race itself will begin at noon as the first two classes of boats cross the two starting lines just off the Newport jetty.

From noon until 1:20 p.m., there will be two starts every 10 minutes, until the last of the boats have crossed the lines. The horizon south of Newport Beach after the start of an Ensenada race presents a breathtaking sight as hundreds of white sails fill nearly every square inch.

The fastest of the boats--depending on the wind and weather--may cross the finish line in Ensenada 11 or 12 hours later (the slowest are lucky to cross by the official race completion time of 11 a.m. Sunday, 2 days later).


Nearly 100 trophies will be handed to the winners of the various categories during the awards ceremonies April 30 at the Bahia Hotel in Ensenada.

“For some sailors, the race is a social thing,” says Lorin Weiss, NOSA vice president and general chairman. “But others compete intensely. Some people spend $10,000 on this race.”

And that’s another thing about the Ensenada race that is changing, Doug Wall says. “People take this race more seriously.”