Newport-Ensenada yacht race isn't just for the wealthy

When hundreds of yachts set sail for Baja California today in the lively Newport to Ensenada race, the water will be churning with sleek, multimillion-dollar vessels outfitted with great gizmos and built for speed.

And then there's John Haupt's boat.

He will be cruising in a 36-foot schooner he stumbled across on EBay. For $780.

Newly painted red and green, the aging metal-and-cement boat, he said, needed some work -- to put it mildly. He is aiming for the brass spittoon that is awarded to the last-place finisher in the annual competition.

"You don't have to be a millionaire to race against these millionaires," Haupt said.

One of the crew's good-luck charms? An empty beer bottle autographed by -- who else? -- Jimmy Buffett.

Organizers of the 125-mile regatta describe it as "the largest international yacht race in the world," drawing a mix of serious racers and fun-seekers. This year about 390 boats will jostle for position.

The frenzied start resembles a cross between ballet and bumper cars -- but with fewer collisions, said Gator Cook, this year's commodore of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., which organizes the race.

Cook said the event's size and accessibility -- the entry fee is only $145 -- make it a boisterous affair.

"It's definitely not what some people think: 'Oh, sailing -- elitist,' " Cook said. "It could be anyone who just has a passion for sailing and racing."

Over its 61 years, the race has drawn them all, from working stiffs who love the water to disabled sailors to zillionaires such as Roy Disney.

The sprint south of the border is a must-do for any sailor worth his salt, said Mike Dwight, 63, a home builder from Laguna Beach who has raced for nearly 30 years.

The competition also has its share of high jinks: water balloons launched into rivals' sails, sailors wearing O.J. Simpson masks and other attempts to distract rivals, including an all-female topless crew or a tuxedoed group screening adult films on the spinnaker.

The skipper was "operating on the premise nobody would want to pass him," Dwight said.

But Cook doesn't recall ever seeing an EBay boat. If it floats and meets safety standards, he said, "then great. More power to 'em."

Haupt was shopping for model boats online a couple of months ago when he discovered a real one for sale, originally priced at $310.

After a few minutes of heated bidding, he won it in the auction's final seconds, undeterred by ominous disclaimers that the boat would not necessarily resemble its photograph.

Haupt recalled thinking, "What is wrong with this boat?"

A few things, it turned out.

The 1974 vessel, docked in Oxnard, had been stripped of some of its rigging, the anchor was gone, the engine kaput. He and a friend replaced the sail ropes, attached an outboard motor and puttered down to Baja, where Haupt has a house.

The journey included one hair-ruffling windy day between Oxnard and Marina del Rey. When Haupt and his buddy sailed the Fantasma de Navidad (Ghost of Christmas) for the first time into 45-mph winds and a sea of whitecaps, "we knew then what the boat could handle," Haupt said. "It was a pretty stout boat."

The 60-year-old audiologist, who lives part time in Imperial Beach, Calif., labored to get the schooner up to snuff, sending away for an engine part from England and enlisting help to rebuild the cockpit.

The piece de resistance: tongue-in-cheek sponsorship by friendly businesses -- including a topless bar -- south of the border near Cantamar, where Haupt lives much of the year.

Not exactly the same wavelength as fellow racer Doug Baker, who will be all business chasing Disney's speed record in his 80-foot turbo-sled with a crew of up to 18.

The journey down will be alcohol-free, Baker explained aboard the Magnitude 80 on Thursday as the crew cleaned the rigging on the 110-foot-tall black mast, doubled-checked the sails and made last-minute adjustments.

"A lot of boats are drinking beer the whole way," Baker said. "We can't do that."

Baker is one of the premier skippers competing and coyly puts the cost of his vessel at "seven figures," with thousands more spent on navigational tools and lightweight synthetic rope, among other items.

He and his crew set records this year in races to Mexico and placed first in their class last year in the Transpacific Yacht Race to Hawaii.

Describing the Magnitude 80, Baker said, "there's nothing cruise-y about this boat."

Meanwhile, Haupt is making preparations of his own, enlisting a crew of about five. But he warns others not to try this at home.

"To just go out and buy a boat and not know it, and to not have experience -- you could wind up in trouble," said Haupt, who has decades of experience at sea.

Still, he is bringing along a second good-luck totem, a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.

Haupt's main reason for embarking on the crazy journey is to celebrate the little guy -- and because he can. "A lot of the kids today, they can't afford these . . . $700,000 boats," he said. "In my mind, I'm hoping to bring about some fun."

Though he will be long finished with the course if and when Haupt arrives, big-dog Baker wishes the EBay adventurer luck, saying, "I'll be rooting for him."