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88-year-old boat and its 91-year-old skipper bring dash of cheer to Newport to Ensenada yacht race

88-year-old boat and its 91-year-old skipper bring dash of cheer to Newport to Ensenada yacht race
Cheerio II arrives at the starting line of a previous Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race. Dick McNish's 88-year-old wooden yawl has entered the race 20 times. (Courtesy of Laurie Morrison / Newport Ocean Sailing Assn.)

A couple of seasoned sea travelers will slice through the Pacific Ocean from Newport Beach to Baja California on Friday as the 72nd annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race gets underway.

Not only is Cheerio II, an 88-year-old wooden yawl, the oldest boat in the race, its skipper has been around the water even longer than it has.

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Cheerio II has collected two N2E trophies in the past three years, winning its class last year in an elapsed 26 hours, 48 minutes and 37 seconds, almost two hours ahead of the next finisher in its 13-boat group. In 2016, it made the 125 nautical miles in 20:38:31, third in elapsed time but first with Cheerio’s handicap factored in.

Cheerio’s skipper is Dick McNish, a 91-year-old Santa Barbara native who has guided the 46-foot boat in 20 Newport to Ensenada races.

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It’s said that wooden boats have personalities. As Cheerio II’s name suggests, it’s easy to maneuver out of its slip for a day at sea.

“She likes to be sailed,” McNish said.

And McNish likes to sail. He’s done it for most of his life and has a regatta named in his honor at his home yacht club, Pacific Corinthian in Oxnard’s Channel Islands Harbor.

Dick McNish, center left, is pictured at the 2018 Newport to Ensenada trophy ceremony.
Dick McNish, center left, is pictured at the 2018 Newport to Ensenada trophy ceremony. (Courtesy of Newport Ocean Racing Assn.)

McNish bought Cheerio II in 1980 and extensively restored it in 1994 and ’95. One of its former owners was Hollywood swashbuckler Errol Flynn.

The boat, like its current owner, is active. McNish maintains a racing season of about a half-dozen regattas between April and September, starting with Newport to Ensenada. He also enters races just for heritage boats — the Yesteryear Regatta put on in San Diego by the Ancient Mariners Sailing Society, the One More Time Regatta for wooden boats in Marina del Rey, and his namesake McNish Classic, which is entering its 42nd year. He also enjoys a fun run to Frenchy’s Cove on Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands, where the trophy is a bottle of rum.

McNish said he used to staff Cheerio II with sailors close to his age. “We had a good time but we didn’t win many races,” he said with a laugh.

So a few years ago he took on a younger crew.

After a traditional send-off dinner Wednesday, Cheerio II and its six-man crew planned to leave Oxnard at 8:30 p.m. for an overnight transit and hit Newport about 12 hours later.

McNish will drive down, saving his energy for the race, which will require another all-nighter. He’ll bring the homemade chili he made for Friday’s dinner. The chili itself took a half-day in the kitchen.

McNish, who turns 92 in May, said he plans to do Newport to Ensenada as long as he can. He’s been racing boats for about 25 years and works out in a gym three days a week.

“It keeps you going, and I like to keep going,” he said.

Cheerio II is one of about 200 boats racing this year under the Newport Ocean Racing Assn.’s N2E umbrella. Most sailors are taking the classic 125-nautical-mile course to Ensenada, but two short courses have returned after their 2018 debuts. Fifteen high school and collegiate skippers of smaller craft will try the 14-nautical-mile sprint to Dana Point, and more than 30 sailors will set a 60-nautical-mile course for San Diego.

Other boats to watch for in the main event:

  • Lux, a former America’s Cup practice boat that brings foiling to the race

  • Fast Exit, which won last month’s Newport to Cabo on corrected time

  • Kite 35, with its Canadian team. The boat has been based in Newport Beach for five years, but its owner expects to take it home to Lake of the Woods, Ontario, after this race.

This will be the first Newport to Ensenada in more than 50 years without Carlos Avila, who died last year at age 98. Avila coordinated the race from the Ensenada end, was an honorary NOSA staff commodore, entertained NOSA leaders and Newport dignitaries in his home and had a trophy named in his honor.

Racing starts at 11 a.m. Friday near the Balboa Pier. To track the boats in real time, visit yb.tl/N2E2019.

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