For Roy Disney and four-time America Cup winner Dennis Conner, the secret to winning the Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race is a well-trained crew and a swift boat. For Jeff Palmer and Mike Shorey, the key ingredients are ice-cold beer and a crew that can sail and party, not necessarily in that order.
After 54 years, such is the split personality of this Southern California rite of spring that has become part regatta, part booze cruise.
Palmer's 40-foot French-built sloop Victory, Conner's Stars and Stripes and Disney's Pyewacket are among 438 entrants in the three-day race that begins today off the Newport breakwater. The boats will be dispatched in groups with the wave of a red pennant and the crack of a starter's gun.
Since its creation, the 125-mile race to the once-sleepy Baja fishing village has grown into the world's largest international yachting event, attracting a variety of amateur enthusiasts, celebrities such as news anchor Walter Cronkite, and top skippers Conner, Disney, Bill Ficker and Steve Fossett.
"There's a lot of history, a lot of boats and a lot of competition," said Robbie Haines, the tactician aboard Disney's boat, which set the fastest time for the race in 1998--11 hours, 55 minutes. "We're pretty serious about it."
The Newport Ocean Sailing Assn. created the race in late 1947 as a recreational event. The outlying waters were safe again in the post-World War II years and yachting enthusiasts were eager to venture beyond Santa Catalina Island.
The Newport Harbor Yacht Club hosted the first regatta, then known as the Governor's Cup. About 100 boats started the race, but because of heavy winds, only 65 finished.
A year or two later, the association renamed the event the Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race when then-Gov. Earl Warren failed to get to Mexico to present a trophy bearing his name.
Today, the race averages 400 to 500 boats a year. A record 675 craft competed in 1983. The boats range from Don Albrecht's 25-foot Valkyrie to the 100-foot Christine out of Marina del Rey. There are low-budget boats, including small Cals and Catalinas, as well as elite craft, such as Disney's 73-foot Pyewacket and Conner's new 50-foot sloop.
* DETERMINED DUOS
A double-handed class (using a two-person crew) is new. D6
"That's the beauty of this thing," said Richard Caselli, 56, of Mission Viejo, an 18-year race veteran who sails a 30-foot Catalina. "There's the hard-liners and the cruisers. The famous and not so famous."
As the number of entrants increased over the years, so did the party atmosphere. Crews sometimes wore costumes. One year, the hands of the Prospector turned up in tuxedos and were accompanied by topless women. The crew showed X-rated films on the mainsail at night.
The race also used to coincide with Cinco de Mayo, during which the streets of Ensenada were taken over by a teeming mass of drunken college students, bikers, tourists and sailors. About 20 years ago, race organizers reset the schedule for late April, after Mexican police turned a fire hose on a crowd.
Doing their best to uphold the party tradition are Palmer, 35, and Shorey, 34, both of Newport Beach. Earlier this week, they finished an overhaul of the Victory, a white Dubois 40 in Newport Harbor.
While they worked, they pondered a question. "Are we a racing boat or a party boat?" Shorey asked Palmer.
"Let's just say we're accomplished party sailors," Palmer answered.
Victory, a 20-year-old carbon-fiber boat, has a crew of eight--six men and two women. New electronics and rigging have been installed. The inside is strictly bare-bones with bunks of blue canvas supported by aluminum poles.
Palmer and Shorey say they hope to arrive in Ensenada no later than Saturday afternoon and head straight to the Bahia Hotel, where the festivities are scheduled to begin.
In fact, the socializing began at noon Thursday with a luncheon at the historic Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach, where Haines presented a new film about the grueling Transpac Race from California to Honolulu. The Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Newport later hosted 500 people for dinner and cocktails.
"It's still a party," said Jerry Shandera, the race organizer. "But over the last five or six years, we have seen the level of competition increase significantly. On race day, the nice guy at dinner the night before is now going for it."
One of the entrants who likes to compete is Ed Quesada, 57, of Santa Ana. But he does so in comfort on the Sirena, a 46-foot Cardinal sloop fitted with teak decks and a teak interior.
There are ample bunks aboard and a full galley in the fiberglass hull. Once the race is underway, there will be plenty of lasagna and wine for the seven-member crew, which includes Quesada's son and daughter.
"We are not spartan at all," said the 27-year veteran of the race. "Some boats hardly take any food or water to minimize weight. But having good food, good friends and a good time is 90% of the battle."
Although comfort and camaraderie are essential, Quesada does want to win. For years, he has done well against the other 20 to 30 boats in his class, often taking second, third or fourth place. But never first. "This year," he vows.
Even losers are honored in the Ensenada race. The Spitoon Prize goes to those coming in last. In 2000, the honor went to Caselli's Bon Vivant, which posted a time of 46 hours, 50 minutes.
"At least we trophied," Caselli said, noting that scores of entries didn't make it into Ensenada last year. "We may have been last, but we finished."
Caselli, who wants to redeem himself, was faster than D.C. Shannon's boat, Solano, which holds the record slowest time--68 hours, 1 minute, a record unbroken since 1949.