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ON THE WATERFRONT

The Electric Cool-Hand Regatta Tests Harbor Knowledge

September 16, 1989|SHEARLEAN DUKE | Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life. On the Waterfront appears each Saturday, covering boating life styles as well as ocean-related activities along the county's 42-mile coastline. Send information about boating-related events to: On the Waterfront, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Deadline is two weeks before publication. Story ideas are also welcome.

It's not how fast you are but how smart you are that counts in today's Great Electric Boat Race in Newport Beach. To finish the two-hour race, skippers and their crews must figure out a secret course based upon clues given along the way.

Clues--questions about Newport Harbor stuffed into tennis balls tossed to skippers who successfully complete each leg--will lead boats through the harbor, past checkpoints and judges and across the finish line.

The race is one of 40 ocean-related events taking place during the Newport Beach Seafest celebration that began yesterday and will continue through Sept. 24.

The 10-day event, sponsored by the Newport Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce, includes boat races, a wooden boat festival, boat parades, kite-flying contests, fishing tournaments and a sandcastle-building contest. For a complete schedule of events, call the Chamber of Commerce at (714) 644-8211.

The Great Electric Boat Race will begin this morning at 11 in front of the Cannery Restaurant. The race was dreamed up by Marshall (Duffy) Duffield three years ago as a way of promoting the electric bay-boats his company has been building in Costa Mesa since the early '70s.

Duffield, 37, built his first electric boat when he was a teen-ager by installing the electrical system from an old golf cart into the family runabout. Since then, building the battery-powered boats has become a full-time business for Duffield, who estimates that there are about 300 of them now plying the waters of Newport Harbor.

Nearly 40 such boats are expected to compete in today's race. "It is not a race of speed," says Duffield, who points out that top speed of an electric bay boat is around 5 knots (the harbor speed limit).

In this race it is not just who finishes first but who finishes first correctly, he says: "You don't know who is winning, because we throw in bogus clues having to do with navigation."

For example, a clue may require racers to go under a bridge that is not navigable. The knowledgeable skipper is supposed to know this and not head toward the bridge. The uninformed skipper, on the other hand, may get all the way to the bridge before he discovers that he cannot pass underneath.

"If they think they can just follow someone else around the course, they can't," says John Clark, who is helping to organize the race. "Maybe the person ahead of them didn't figure out the clue correctly. Or maybe it was a bogus clue.

"You have to solve Clue No. 1 before you can go on to Clue No. 2. The race is more like an automobile road rally, so just because you get there first does not mean you'll win."

The idea behind the race is to make it fun and interesting for participants, says Duffield, a former racing sailor who found that much of the time spent racing sailboats is just plain boring.

"I wanted to make sure that everyone felt they were in the race," he says, "and to give everyone an opportunity to win. I'm pretty sure in this race no one is bored."

When Duffield held his first race in conjunction with the Cannery Restaurant three years ago, he expected about 10 entries. Instead, more than 30 boats showed up to compete. This year, Clark estimates that the race might have attracted about 70 entrants, but organizers decided to limit the number because of traffic problems in the narrow confines of the Rhine Channel, where the race begins.

Racers will be divided into three groups, depending upon the length of boats. Winners in the three divisions will face each other in a drag race that will test the skipper's ability to maneuver his boat through a predetermined course, Duffield says.

One of the best ways to prepare for the race is "to just get out there and drive your boat around the harbor," Duffield says--and better make sure there is someone aboard who knows something about Newport Harbor.

Skippers should also make sure their boats' batteries are fully charged, he says. The boats are powered by small electric motors and come with a dozen golf-cart-type batteries, a charger and an extension cord that plugs into any 110-volt outlet.

A gauge shows how much time remains before the boat needs recharging. You can cruise the bay for about five hours at full speed on one charge, Duffield says. About 1,240 watts of power (about the same as using a small electrical appliance) are needed to charge the boat.

"Last year we had already had the final drag race and everything was over," he says, "but here comes this guy barely moving. He had made it through the whole course, and he was determined to finish the race. He must have been going about 1 knot. His kids were paddling to keep the boat going, because he hadn't gotten his batteries charged."

Sportfishing exhibit--The Newport Harbor Nautical Museum will hold a sportfishing exhibit beginning with a reception at 6 p.m. Monday at the museum, 1714 W. Balboa Blvd. in Newport Beach.

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