"This race is won or lost at night." That had been the advice to new participants like us a few weeks earlier at a skippers' meeting in preparation for the 56th annual Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race. According to the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., no other race has more entries. This year, 445 boats were competing.
Now it was just after 11 p.m. on April 26, the first day of the race, and Wave Theory, my Cal 33 sloop, was running at about 4 knots with a northerly breeze from behind. The typical nighttime calm hadn't developed, and a fast race seemed to be shaping up.
Just a few minutes earlier, I had been awakened from a short nap to take my place in the rotating cockpit watch. It was time for one of the two crewmen on watch to retire. Two others were resting below, each due up during the next two hours. Our dinner of lasagna, garlic bread and Caesar salad had settled successfully for most of us -- five friends, ranging in age from 47 to 62. But just now we had a problem. The big, colorful nylon sail upfront, called a gennaker, had wrapped itself around our furled jib sail. Instead of ballooning out to the side of the boat in a graceful arc, the gennaker had taken on an hourglass shape, billowing at the top and bottom while the middle was clutched tightly around the jib.
A powerful sail for lighter winds, the gennaker works best when the wind comes across the side of the boat. But with the wind now shifted astern, it had become tangled with the furled jib sail it was replacing.
Dick Barnes, who doubled as our cook, was at the wheel, while Fred Muir had made his way to the bow. A stout tether tied him to one of the safety straps strung from stern to bow along each side of the boat. I snapped my tether to the safety strap and moved forward, grasping handrails and lifelines as the deck rolled and pitched unpredictably with each wave. Fred and I tugged at the lines securing the triangular gennaker at its fore and aft corners, unsuccessfully trying to shake the wrap loose.
Soon Doug Smith came on deck and replaced me at the bow. He was the only one among us experienced in ocean racing and loved the adventure of the exposed foredeck. After a lot of tugging and releasing, he was able to untangle the sail. Suddenly the freed sail filled with air. Still holding the forward corner of the sail, Smith was pulled up and out from the bow. Both of his feet left the deck before his tether stopped him in mid-flight. Just as quickly, the sail swung back toward the boat. Smith regained his footing and grabbed the bow railing for support.
In calmer waters, near shore and in daylight, we had practiced man-overboard recovery. But this was at night, with an out-of-control sail. Had he lost his grip on the sail, Smith would have pitched overboard, suspended upside down from the 6-foot tether.
It was enough of a close call for this crew of day sailors. We had entered this classic Southern California race for fun, not intending to risk life and limb to come home with a trophy. We journeyed the rest of the night under mainsail alone. Slower but safer.
I had chosen to sail a straight-line 125-nautical-mile course that would take us between Mexico's Los Coronados Islands and the Baja California coast. We later learned that the better course lay outside the Coronados, where the wind blew stronger through the night.
With Smith safely on board, we settled into a comfortable sail through a cold, beautiful night with brilliant stars, meteor trails and the glow of the Milky Way overhead.
When the light of dawn enabled us to see the sails as we steered, we unfurled the large genoa jib, and Wave Theory immediately picked up speed. Glenn Bunting had the helm as the sun rose over Baja. Hot coffee and warm muffins renewed our energy.
By 11 the next morning, the wind behind us had increased to 20 knots, and we surfed down increasingly steep waves toward the finish line. The genoa flew from one side of the boat, held out by a pole, while the main flew from the other side, secured by a line that prevented it from slamming across the deck if the wind crossed our stern.
We had one last task to perform -- to turn the boat slightly to the left to line up for the finish line. The maneuver is called a jibe, in which the main sail and the jib swing from one side of the boat to the other as the turn causes the wind to cross from one corner of the stern to the other. We controlled the main perfectly, first hauling it amidships as the wind crossed and then releasing it under control to fly on the other side. We were not so lucky with the jib. With a sharp bang, the pole supporting it suddenly bent into an L-shape and had to be removed.
We crossed the finish line in control but slightly disheveled. The jib, without the pole to anchor it, alternately filled and flopped as the bow turned one way and then another in the waves. It was 22 hours, 27 minutes, 49 seconds since the start, putting us over the line 18th among the 31 boats in our class. But after corrections to even out the performances of the various sizes and shapes of boats, we dropped to 23rd.
The wind and the ocean took a toll. Several skippers reported that their lightweight spinnaker sails were blown to shreds. The steering mechanism of several boats broke from the force of the heavy following seas. One boat hit a whale, breaking away part of its rudder.
But there were no injuries to sailors, and of the 445 boats that started the race, all but 10 finished.
Race details are at www.nosa.org.