Behold the Whisper, a 30-foot yacht that once placed third in one of the biggest races around. It may be dirty and unpolished. But, says the skipper with a bone-white beard, ride in it, feel it underfoot as it cuts through the water. Behold this boat, he says, because it can win.
Al Berg, 77, who has won 15 trophies in the 20 years he has sailed the Newport-to-Ensenada race, gave his vessel the name "because it's whisper-quiet." It sneaks up quietly on the big boats in the big races.
"There nothing more pathetic than seeing one of those big guys bobbing like a cork, and we pass them in this little boat," said Bob Huckaby, 48, Berg's deckhand for all those years. "Heh-heh-heh."
And so, saying they can win, Berg and Huckaby steered the Whisper to join about 450 sailboats gathered early Friday afternoon in Newport Harbor for the 53rd annual 125-mile run to Mexico. It was difficult for Berg's boat to stand out in the spectacle of luxury yachts whose sails billowed in the breeze. But, in a way, that's the point, says the skipper. "We'll whisper through this race. Shall we?"
Hundreds of spectators lined the bluffs above Corona del Mar to see the sailboats glide over the horizon. Some watched through telescopes, warming in the sun and listening to the winches whine--echoing off rocks--as the boats passed.
"It's not a spectator sport, but watching them all go off like this is spectacular," said Mark Howes, 44, of Corona del Mar.
Officials say the Newport-to-Ensenada race is just for fun, first organized by the Newport Harbor Yacht Club in 1947. It has become an institution over the years, its cachet upped by such notables as Humphrey Bogart and Walter Cronkite.
Now amateurs race alongside world-class sailors such as Dennis Connor. And that's the draw, sailors and spectators say. It's instant community, and a race without great pressure that regular people can enter for the pride of saying they finished it fair and honest.
Ask the men from Green Bay, Wis. The group flew to California, chartered a boat and was buying groceries for the three-day journey: shoelaces (to tie the boat's banner, with a number on it, to the mast), two pounds of low-sodium turkey (for healthy sandwiches) and salt (for Bloody Marys). They did not buy thousand-dollar binoculars, the likes of which Roy Disney's team uses on the Pyewacket, considered to be the boat to beat in this year's race.
"We have no illusions about whether we can win this or not," said Dave Wickert, 46, a middle school choir teacher. "The water is--well, it's hard for all but three months of the year in Wisconsin.
"Just participating is enough . . . getting our hats," Wickert added, referring to his red, embroidered baseball cap, the mark of a race participant.
The hats mean a lot.
Mark Adriansen, 41, a customer relations manager for a Green Bay car dealership, roamed the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club on Thursday night trying to find somebody, anybody, who would sell him a hat. Finally, he paid $34 to a skipper who had more than a few to spare.
"I'm trying to fake it," Adriansen whispered conspiratorially on the dock beside the Alouette, the Green Bay group's chartered sailboat.
"There are some hats worth more than most," he said with a competitive $34 stare.
There's also the competition of it all, with so many categories and classes that most competitors have a chance to win. A couple of dozen classes of boat--from swift and big to slow and small--compete. Classes of boat are given handicaps and bonuses in race time that can allow a boat that finishes hours after the first one arrives in Ensenada to win technically. It must be that way, or all the catamarans, which can zip nearly twice as fast as single-hull boats, would always win, organizers say.
Joe Degenhardt, a 70-year-old skipper, is in it for the big prize. Why race otherwise? he asks.
Degenhardt, who was also an Olympic wrestler in 1952, '56 and '60, says this year is the year of the Lickety Split, his 38-foot sailboat. Three years ago, he missed winning in his class of cruising boats by two seconds. "Twenty years I've been at this," he said.
His 39-year-old son, Bill, puffed hard on a cigarette and said, "Two seconds, it came down to two seconds. You can see why we want to win."
The Degenhardts sailed the Lickety Split out of the harbor, to run with the big boats, determined to end up with more than a red hat.