Yachts Ahoy! : Just Another Day in World's Largest International Regatta

Mott is a free-lance writer in Orange County

Hey, sailor, new in town?

-- Absolutely the dumbest question anyone can ask in Ensenada next Saturday.

Figure on not sleeping. Figure on spilling at least four or five drinks in the crush. Figure on getting kissed by at least half a dozen strangers. Figure on noise and silly laughter and dancing through the night and more Carta Blanca and cheap tacos than you've ever seen in your life and the shaggiest sea stories ever to pass two lips.

Just another day in yacht racing heaven: Ensenada in Baja California, at the end of the annual Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race.

It's the largest international yacht race in the world and it begins at noon Friday off the jetty in Newport Beach and officially ends at 11 a.m. the following Sunday. However, most of the racers--sailing about 550 boats--usually arrive down in Ensenada sometime during the day on Saturday, ready for a bit of uninhibited shore leave.

If you want to get in on the fun, and you're not lucky enough to be crewing on one of the racing yachts, you can still make a land trek south to Baja California and join the salty set at play at several favored locations around Ensenada.

The serious partying actually starts in Newport Beach before anyone hoists a sail. On the night before the race, bars, restaurants and yacht clubs all over town fill with racers and would-be racers. For non-racers who want to see some of the yachts that will participate the next day, the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, 1601 Bayside Drive, allows the public to have a look at the vessels at its docks.

The best place to watch the start of the race, scheduled for noon Friday off Newport Beach jetty, is from a boat. If you don't have one--or just don't want to brave that maelstrom of yachts jockeying for position--striking views can be had from the beach at The Wedge, from the jetty itself, or across the channel at Big Corona beach. In fact, the line of yachts heading for Mexico makes an impressive sight from almost any vantage point along the Orange County Coast.

The fastest boats--generally the multihulled yachts--usually cross the finish line off Baja California and motor into the harbor at Ensenada in the early morning hours of Saturday. And from that moment on, two specific locations in Ensenada begin to throb: the Bahia Hotel and Hussong's Cantina.

The Bahia, at Avenida Lopez Mateos and Avenida Alvarado, has for years been the official race headquarters. It is where the committee from the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn. (NOSA), the organizers of the race, sets up shop and tabulates results. It's also where, several times a day, friends of sailors drop by to scan the big results board that is set up in the hotel courtyard to see if particular boats have finished and if their friends have officially arrived in port.

"It's absolutely the center of the shore activities," said Lorin Weiss, president of NOSA.

A lot of folks find it difficult to make it past the Bahia Hotel bar, which is guaranteed to be crowded with celebrating winners, celebrating losers, celebrating landlubbers and loud music.

If, however, all that fun at the Bahia starts to get monotonous, many make the trek a few blocks to what is likely the most famous saloon in Baja California, Hussong's Cantina.

(WARNING: Making the walk to Hussong's--or to anywhere else in Ensenada--with an alcoholic beverage in your hand is likely to land you in jail, say race organizers. The local statute against liquor on the streets of Ensenada, loosely enforced in past years, will be strictly interpreted this year, according to local authorities. There is a rule of thumb: "If you follow the laws of the United States, you will not get in trouble in Mexico," said Weiss.)

Hussong's, a not-so-large, ramshackle bar on Avenida Ruiz north of Avenida Lopez Mateos, likely will dispense more tequila and beer on race weekend than any other watering hole in town. On Saturday, it is in a sense like the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, where it is said that if you sit there long enough, the entire world will pass by you.

But, of course, eventually you have to eat something. And, over the years, the yachting crowd has turned to a handful of favorites:

* El Rey Sol, 1000 Avenida Lopez Mateos. French food with a Mexican touch.

* Casamar, 987 Boulevard Estero. Seafood.

* Tortilla Flat, above the sportfishing terminal. Sea views with live music and dancing.

* Kiki's, Boulevard Costero and Avenida Sangines. A favorite for breakfast.

* Las Cazuelas, Boulevard Costero and Avenida Sangines. Mexican specialties, steaks and seafood.

* Papas & Beer, Avenida Lopez Mateos and Avenida Ruiz. Favored by the younger yachting crowd.

* La Cueva de los Tigres (Tiger's Cave), one mile south of Ensenada at Playa Hermosa. Abalone with crab sauce.

If you're thinking of staying in Baja California in a downtown Ensenada hotel or motel for race weekend, you're probably out of luck by now, said Weiss, since most in-town rooms usually are booked well in advance.

However, he said, there are several motels just off the beach about five miles north of Ensenada that may have openings. There is a smaller cluster of them south of town as well. Representatives of the Ensenada branch of the Mexican Department of Tourism said, however, that most rooms, even in motels outside of town, often are reserved by the week before the race.

You may have better luck if you're driving an RV. You may be able to reserve a spot for the night at one of a handful of RV parks in the area. (To call Ensenada phone numbers from Southern California, dial 1-70-667- and the listed number.) Among the parks:

* Joker Hotel and RV Park, three miles south of Ensenada on Highway 1. Reservations: 6-7201.

* California Motel, Trailer and RV Park, at kilometer 103.7, off Highway 1 just north of town. Reservations: 4-6033.

* Ramona Beach Motel and RV Park, at kilometer 104, off Highway 1, north of town. Reservations: 4-6045.

* Outdoor Resorts of America/Baja-Ensenada Resort, at kilometer 72, off Highway 1, north of town. Take northbound U-turn at Alisitos exit. Reservations (toll free): (800) 982-2252.

To check on availability of hotel and motel rooms and RV park spots, call the Department of Tourism at 6-2222.

If you have a place to stay and want to stray a bit, one of the area's most spectacular natural sights is 23 miles south of Ensenada: La Bufadora. And, said Weiss, if the tide is right the sight can be spectacular.

La Bufadora is a natural blowhole on the tip of La Punta Banda, which is the southern arm of Todos Santos Bay. When the waves crash ashore, the water sprays straight up through the hole high into the air. You can get close enough to get wet. Parking at the site is $1.

Driving notes: Obtaining Mexican auto insurance is a must for driving into Baja California, since American policies do not cover your car south of the border. You can buy insurance from any of several companies just north of the border in the Chula Vista/San Ysidro area. Most of them are located just off the I-5 Freeway. Minimal insurance for 24 hours is about $6 and with it you get a small map of Tijuana and Ensenada.

The best road to Ensenada is the Ensenada Cuota, or toll road. It's smooth and well-maintained. There are three toll stops between the border and Ensenada.

The race's trophy presentation is held at the Bahia at 3 p.m. Sunday and, said Weiss, "95% of the people go home after that because they have to go to work the next day." The result of the mass exodus from Baja California is often a wait of two hours or more in the line of cars backed up at U.S. Customs in Tijuana.

There is a solution, however, known to many yachting types who spent most of the previous night on the receiving end of the Carta Blanca bottle: Call in sick and sail home.

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