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A Bon Voyage for the Masses


When the bankruptcy crisis was at its apogee, everybody in Orange County had a yacht.

At least that's what one might have concluded from watching TV. The irony fairly dripped: Here was one of the wealthiest counties in the nation (camera pans down line of enormous seagoing vessels docked in Newport Harbor) and its pockets were turned inside out.

And wasn't this, after all, where John Wayne used to park his converted Navy minesweeper, the Wild Goose?

Yes, Orange County was a place where one went yachting. But sailing for fun? Unpowered boating for the far-less-than-wealthy? Did it even exist here?

Did and does. Orange County may be the home of champagne-stained dress Top-Siders, but it's also the home of the Beercan Regattas, sailing firefighters, the doughty little Lido 14, and the largest and most unbuttoned ocean race on earth.

It's also home to a handful of open-to-the-public sailing clubs, considered by many to be an alternative to boat ownership and yacht club membership, where novices can learn to sail and experienced sailors can charter ocean-worthy sailboats.

Once you've got enough time on the water and enough calluses on your hands, you may be ready to participate in the world's biggest seagoing free-for-all, the Newport-to-Ensenada yacht race. The largest international ocean race in the world, the race is sponsored by the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn. This year, the 50th anniversary race saw 554 boats at the starting line, sailed by millionaires and working stiffs, all with the same thought in mind: get to the party as quickly as possible.

"So many people get in this race who normally don't race or who don't even sail," said Brad Avery, director of marine programs at Orange Coast College.

"I sailed in my first [Newport-to-Ensenada] race when I was 13, and I'm 58 now, so it's been quite a while," said Ernie Minney, owner of Minney's Ship Chandlery in Newport Beach. "I've probably made 30 out of the 50 races. It's a lot of fun to get out there with friends and prove to each other who's king of the mountain. It's really like a neighborhood here, and for a lot of people that race is their tradition. If you're sitting in Newport Beach when all the boats head south, it's kind of weird."

The race is 125 miles of water with lunacy at both ends. Racers, from all points of the geographic and economic compass, party with determination the night before the race, jockey behind the starting line off Newport Harbor like darting bats the next day, spend all night plowing south through the darkness, and end up carousing in Ensenada the next day.

"We're exhausted, usually," Minney said. "Years ago we partied and got crazy, but now that we're more mature we go for the race rather than the party."


As egalitarian and inclusive as the Newport-to-Ensenada race is, it is no less jolly than one of the most exclusive ocean races in the area, the annual firefighters' race to Catalina. Sponsored by the Anaheim Fire Department, the race has been staged for almost 15 years and now includes firefighters from as far away as Arizona and Washington state, said Lee Woolever, a Long Beach firefighter and sailor.

"You don't even have to have a boat," Woolever said. "You can borrow someone else's. The only real requirement is that a firefighter is at the helm at the beginning and the end of the race. It's all taken in a very light spirit." The race begins off the Long Beach breakwater, continues to a buoy near San Pedro and turns west for Twin Harbors on Catalina, where the finish line is located. The race is followed by dinner and dancing on shore, and the next day, after breakfast and the awards presentations, "a group will invade Avalon with a bunch of boats," Woolever said.

"We usually get about 50 boats of all sizes and types," he said, "mostly from Newport Harbor and Long Beach."

Far more local, far shorter and far more frantic is the Thursday evening Beercan Regatta. Held each week during the summer months and sponsored by the Balboa Yacht Club, the regattas have been running for more than 40 years, and they are a curious combination of sailing skill and pure indolence.

It's a simple out-and-back race, starting near the Balboa Pavilion, continuing to a buoy near the Cannery restaurant and then turning back on the same course. With the usual prevailing winds, this means quick, furious tacking during the first half of the race and slow, leisurely, straight sailing during the second half.

It's that second half, when the crew has little or nothing to do, that gives the race its name. The trophies, said longtime local sailor Gerry Moulton, "really are gilded beer cans. I can remember scraping away at one of those one time and I found out it was a Coors can."

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