The annual Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race has long been to competitive sailing what Olympic swimming would be if Michael Phelps shared the pool with a gaggle of guys in inner tubes towing a keg of beer.
Some take what’s billed as the largest international yacht race seriously. Most, however, treat it as a floating party. Running out of wind at sea is an obstacle second to running out of adult beverages.
Not this year. The sinking economy and a fear of Mexico’s drug violence have buffeted the 62nd annual race. The number of entries is down -- about 270 are expected compared with nearly 400 last year -- and the crowd of people who have traditionally driven to Ensenada for a weekend of partying is expected to be considerably thinner.
If the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and spiraling narco wars weren’t enough, organizers are dealing with a third headache: a long-simmering feud between a handful of sailors that will boil over into public view at 11 a.m. Friday, an hour before the race begins.
That is when more than 100 boats will take off from Newport Beach in the inaugural Border Run. Billed as the beginning of a “new tradition,” the race, which finishes with a party in San Diego, is the outgrowth of a dispute between a Huntington Beach boat designer and the nonprofit Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., which denied him entry into its Ensenada race.
At issue is whether Randy Reynolds’ R33 twin-hulled catamaran -- likened to a Ferrari on water -- is unsafe because it is prone to capsizing. The Newport sailing association believes it is. Reynolds insists it is not.
Ensenada race officials say the Border Run -- which has been promoted, in part, as being “safer” than venturing into Mexico -- is a crass and bitter attempt by Reynolds to undermine a venerable Southern California tradition.
Reynolds said he is only trying to promote competitive sailing by offering an option that welcomes all boats. He dismisses the men who run the Newport sailing association, who are on the down slope of middle age and use the salutation “commodore,” as “the blue blazers” -- an old-guard out of touch with today’s adrenaline-fueled action sports.
“We’re the crazy people,” said Reynolds, who is 53 but comes across as having the aggressiveness of a 23-year-old. “We like speed.”
Critics say Reynolds is being uncorinthian -- a smack-down that would leave most landlubbers reaching for a dictionary.
“In sailing, when you say someone is being uncorinthian, you’re saying the person does not conduct themselves in a gentlemanly manner,” said Jerry Montgomery, a retired government attorney who is this year’s Newport-to-Ensenada uber commodore. “Scheduling another race on the same day was just wrong -- an in-your-face spiteful thing.”
Politics pervades the culture of sailing -- from local yacht clubs competing for prominent members to the ongoing legal war between racing syndicates from three nations over the next America’s Cup, the sport’s premier event.
Earlier this month, a New York court ruled against a Spanish sailing club and said billionaire software mogul Larry Ellison’s U.S. team and his backers have the right to negotiate terms for the next race with the current Swiss-backed champions.
The hubbub over this year’s conflicting armadas shoving off from Newport Beach is being played out in Internet chat rooms where sailors take on serious issues (the actual danger of traveling to Baja) as well as juvenile ones (belittling each other’s masculinity.)
“It’s like being back in high school,” Reynolds said. “It’s crazy.”
The 125-nautical-mile Newport-to-Ensenada race is steeped in history. First run in 1948, the event has attracted celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart and Walter Cronkite, as well as serious racers including America’s Cup winner Dennis Conner, Roy Disney and the late Steve Fossett.
But the regatta is mostly a social affair. More than half of the skippers motor down to Mexico in light winds and calm seas. There, they fill the cantinas of Ensenada before returning to Newport. In all, it’s a four- to five-day affair.
The time commitment has seriously affected participation, which peaked in the 1970s at 675 boats and has been on the slide ever since.
“You have to devote a week of your life to it,” Reynolds said. “It’s a horrible race. I don’t know why people do it.”
That said, Reynolds did it seven years in a row. His boat Cat Attack won the catamaran class in 2005.
In 2006, the R33 was named the best multihull boat of the year by Sailing World magazine.
But when two R33s capsized in a subsequent race sponsored by the Long Beach Yacht Club, the tide turned. The R33 was banned from future club races and by the sport’s multihull governing body, the Ocean Racing Catamaran Assn. -- effectively barring it from the Ensenada race.
Reynolds blames the capsizes on crew errors in rough weather.
But Michael Leneman, an association board member and multihull boat designer, says the problem is the craft’s dimensions.
At just 14 or 16 feet wide, depending on the model, the R33’s mast is too high and heavy to provide stability, he said. Although the boat is well-suited for push-the-envelope European racing, he said, it has no place in the laid-back Newport-to-Ensenada event.
“People watch NASCAR because they’re waiting to watch someone go up against a wall. In European racing, there are lots of capsizes,” Leneman said.
Famed boat designer Nathanael Herreshoff patented the modern catamaran in the 1870s. For decades, many sailors thumbed their collective nose at the gangly contraptions. A monohull and its stabilizing lead keel is a sailboat. A multihull is an accident waiting to happen, critics say.
“One of the reasons we’re so adamant about this is that we spent 40-plus years working to be accepted in monohull races and we don’t want to jeopardize that by not cleaning up our own act,” Leneman said. If Reynolds “goes on the Ensenada race and he capsizes and someone gets hurt, it’s going to confirm what everyone says about multihull boats.”
Leneman and Reynolds are old friends; Reynolds used to work for Leneman making sails. The dispute has injected a chill into that friendship. But it also has cost Reynolds $300,000 -- the price of two canceled orders for R33s that he blames on the inaccurate portrayal of the boat’s safety record.
“And we don’t know how many people out there just didn’t call,” said Bob Long, Reynolds’ business partner.
For Reynolds, the Border Run is a way to fight back, a way to restore the reputation of the R33 even if it means ruffling a few blue blazers.
“Believe it or not, this is not a grudge match,” he said unconvincingly. “All I want to do is frickin’ go sailing.”