The Big Race: Fun, Frolic--and Some Even Come to Sail

Times Staff Writer

On board their 30-foot sloop Friday morning, Brian Rorering and his wife, Karen Greengard, had packed most essentials for this, their maiden voyage in the Newport-Ensenada International Yacht Race. Not much room, of course, for anything but the basics: safety gear, foul-weather garments, Chips Ahoy cookies, cocoa, canned chocolate pudding and almost every brand of potato chip available.

At noon, the couple and four friends joined America's Cup skipper Dennis Conner and about 4,000 other sailors as they glided out of Newport Harbor in a dazzling flock that filled the ocean horizon for miles.

The 550-yacht spectacle drew hundreds of spectators to the sea, toting picnic baskets and binoculars, from the business-suited to families packed into RVs. By the time the armada of racers had vanished from sight, at least a few million dollars had been left in their wake--at Newport Beach restaurants, markets, hotels, boatyards and hardware stores.

Whether they win, place or never cross the finish line at the Mexican port, participants in the 42nd annual race anticipated a salty, sassy time along the way.

The Prospectors, a rowdy crew of San Francisco doctors, lawyers and business professionals who regularly enter the race, got started early Friday morning. With loudspeakers perched on the bow of their 47-foot yacht, the Prospectors listened to an Austrian three-piece combo playing at dockside. The sailors downed champagne in their now-standard crew uniforms: tuxedo shirts and tails with loud shorts.

Although they have proven sailing skills--one crew placed eighth in its class some years back--the Prospectors put heavy emphasis on having a wildly good time.

"We have a seven-man crew, but there's about 150 people here to party," said skipper John Roveda, who has taken part in the race for 14 years. "We try to stay out of their way so they can race if they want to," he added with a smirk.

Picnic Food? Nope

While more competition-minded sailors feed on barbecued chicken, fruit and juices, the Prospectors steer away from picnic food.

Head chef Derek Knudsen, a San Francisco lawyer, described the crew's menu: Friday night dinner was to begin with a lovely 1987 Edna Valley Chardonnay--three cases of it--followed by Belgian endive salad topped by anchovy dressing, and a seafood pasta dish with prawns, scallops and lobster. An exquisite Pinot Noir would complement the big hurrah--filet mignon.

Breakfast today would be simple: eggs with lox and bagels plus Bloody Marys. Lunch was to be something called Hussong's gut bombs (French roll, sauerkraut, ham and cheese). And if they don't arrive in Mexico tonight, frozen pizzas have been stocked as backup. It seems unlikely they will run dry of booze.

Since the race started in 1947, alcohol has been at the heart of the event, often dubbed the "tequila derby." The race has become as legendary for the drunken celebrations after the sail as it has for the journey itself.

A Serious Side

But officials of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., which organizes the race, would like that image to fade like a late-summer suntan. Pennants saying "Drug Abuse Is Life Abuse" were tucked into each boater's registration packet.

"Unfortunately, I think that image is hard to shake," said Lorin Weiss, the race's general chairman.

The race is a logistical nightmare for organizers. Besides determining with video and computer equipment and cameras who finishes when, the 230 race officials must account for each of the 547 boats that were entered in the derby. There are strict rules and safety regulations that boaters must follow, and an important one includes informing race officials whether or not you finish the race.

For a veteran like Don B. Ayres Jr., the rules, requirements and preparation are second nature.

Owner of the Countryside Inn in Costa Mesa and patriarch to an Orange County racing family, Ayres has a 68-foot yacht, the Drumbeat, that is loaded with computers that tell the 12-man crew the boat's location, wind speed "and about 25 different things," and spit out weather maps. The boat is roomy and impressive but spartan. There is no liquor on board. The restroom is covered only by a canvas door to lighten the load.

"We did win the race with my dad several years ago," Ayres said, standing outside his waterfront home as his crew of sons and friends began arriving early Friday.

Remember Everything?

But for first-time racers, trying to remember all the gear and details can be daunting.

Rorering and Greengard had to conquer "flag protocol"--a detail that the Irvine computer sales manager had almost let escape him. Turns out that the couple had "the wrong type of American flag" for the race and "we needed to get a Mexican flag that you have to throw up on the starboard (side) when we get into international waters," Rorering said. Then you must tack on the boat's classification flag, the official race flag and the "Drug Abuse Is Life Abuse" pennant--well, you get the picture.

An hour before race time, there was the matter of Greengard's "humongous" duffle bag which, Rorering said, threatened to be a storage problem (curiously, it was the same size as his own). And yikes! There was no beer!

Those emergencies averted with tongue planted in cheek, the merry crew of the Q.E.D.--short for a latin term meaning yet to be proven--unpacked brand new main and spinnaker sails and arrived on time at the starting line near the entrance of Newport Harbor.

"My fear is not performing well in the race," Rorering said with a grin. "I'm worried about the little stupid things . . . like where to anchor? How do we get ashore? Where's the finish line?"

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