Newport to Ensenada race sets sail

Moving on from a tragedy that claimed the lives of four sailors a year ago, more than 200 boats set sail in the 66th Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race Friday.

But when the final starting bell rang, most of the spectators and competitors had their eyes on just three crafts.

Event organizers and fellow competitors agree the top contenders of the world's largest international yacht race are the crews aboard Medicine Man, Taxi Dancer and Bad Pak, which finished first in last year's race.

"OK, we're getting into the serious guys now," said Rich Roberts, spokesman for the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., as the countdown began.

The trio are among eight maxi yachts, or racing sailboats 70 feet or longer, and have the largest handicaps in the race.

The Bad Pak has a handicap of -141 seconds per mile, meaning it needs to finish nearly five hours faster than any other boat in the race.

Stars & Stripes, a 60-foot catamaran, set the record for fastest time, finishing in 6 hours, 46 minutes and 40 seconds in 1998.

"We hope to finish before midnight, but it's not going to be windy enough to break the record," said Tom Parker of Santa Barbara, a Taxi Dancer crewman.

New rules were instituted in this year's race after the death of four sailors, the first fatalities in the event's history, in April 2012. Though it remains unclear what led to the accident, the Aegean is believed to have splintered upon impact with a small island near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Safety precautions include a minimum of two lookouts on deck at all times and banning the use of autopilot when the boat's engine is running.

"Things can always happen in a race," Parker said. "Our whole crew will be on deck throughout the whole race. We'll be working constantly without a break."

A few minutes after the race began, a crowd of spectator boats had allegedly veered into part of the course, causing the Dare, skippered by Bob Kettenhofen, to momentarily get tangled up with a committee boat.

The boat lost momentum and had to reset part of its sails.

The race, however, is generally safe and something amateur racers can do, Roberts said.

"You can sail the whole race close to land, and you can take your whole family out," Roberts said. "It only takes one to two days, depending on the racer."

The 200-plus boats are en route to Ensenada, where a fiesta awaits at the La Hotel Coral.

"What makes it special is that the destination is Ensenada," said Tom Kennedy, director of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn. "It's a distance race with fish tacos at the end."

The trophy presentation will take place at the La Hotel Coral at 2 p.m. Sunday.

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