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They're Off, and the Party's On

Hundreds of sailors start the trek from Newport to Ensenada, some to race, some to revel.

April 29, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Veteran sailor Bruce Liese has ridden boats in fierce winds and dealt with Mother Nature's untamed and unpredictable ferocity.

And that's just on Lake Perry in Kansas.

But Friday, the 50-year-old Lecompton, Kan., skipper barked out last-minute preparations to his crew of six as they untied their lines and joined more than 450 boats sailing in the 59th Annual Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race.

The event, billed as the world's largest international yacht race, often attracts such serious racers as America's Cup skipper Dennis Conner and Southern California aficionados Roy E. Disney and Doug Baker of Long Beach.

But the race was also a great excuse to party: "When does it get perilous? When we run outta beer," laughed one sailor.

For Liese and his crewmates, this was their fourth Newport race. Each year they travel to California to race and party aboard Liese's boat, Sum Fun.

"We're all members of a yacht club in Kansas," he laughed. "We know it sounds funny, but there is a club. It's called the Perry Yacht Club and it's on a lake in Kansas."

When not racing, Liese is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Unlike top racers, who were expected to cover the 125 miles to Ensenada in under 12 hours with good winds, Liese and the Sum Fun may hit the Mexican port in about 30 hours -- give or take a martini or two.

But they represent a majority of cruisers in the popular event -- like Tom Ochs, his son, Eric, and skipper Steve Strunk from the northern California city of Benicia.

Their boat isn't a sleek, 35- or 40-foot racing craft loaded with state-of-the-art technology to plot a course. Strunk draws on his 37 years of racing experience off California to skipper a simple, if aging, 24 1/2-foot sailboat called Lunacy.

Instead of a massive diesel inboard, it has a dinky, 4-horsepower outboard for oomph when there's no wind and tricky dock maneuvering.

The down-to-earth Strunk gave a pre-race speech to his crew that included this:

"There's the duct tape. If you want to tape something, tape it."

Not so on the bigger boats. Usually, they're more organized, have sponsors and are racing to win.

Conner, who won the America's Cup four times, is sailing Kelpie, an 82-foot schooner in the Ancient Mariner class with other classic wooden boats.

Baker, though not as well-known as Conner, has sailed the Transpac Race from California to Honolulu and has brought his high-tech ocean racer, Magnitude 80, into the Newport race seeking a record.

Although Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, doesn't race to Ensenada any longer, he is well-known in Orange County sailing circles.

"Roy Disney has been sailing for over 40 years," said Bill Long with the Bahia Corinthians Yacht Club.

"Disney won the Ensenada race and he has won longer races like the Transpac."

Disney formerly owned the Pyewacket, an 86-foot boat that's in the weekend race. The $7-million boat was donated to the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship last year.

The Pyewacket's crew includes Brad Avery, the school's sailing director, and nearly two dozen sailing students and aficionados.

Since its inception, the race to the once-sleepy Baja fishing village has grown into one of the nation's most popular yachting events, attracting a variety of amateur enthusiasts and celebrities such as newsman Walter Cronkite and top skippers like Conner, Disney, Baker, and Steve Fossett.

Fossett's legendary 60-foot Stars & Stripes catamaran still holds the record for multihulls in this race with a time of 6 hours, 46 minutes, 40 seconds set in 1998.

The Newport Ocean Sailing Assn. created the race in late 1947 as a recreational event for sailors after World War II.

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 with topless women and showed X-rated films on the main sail at night.

The race used to coincide with Cinco de Mayo, when the streets of Ensenada turned into a teeming mass of drunken college students, bikers, tourists and sailors. Some would end up in jail.

Eventually, race organizers reset the schedule for late April.

Racing purists like those aboard the Redline, a 33-footer skippered by Mike Dwight, didn't have to worry about booze while the boat's on the water, said one of his crew members: There wasn't any.

"We're a dry boat," said Terry MacNeish, a mechanical engineer with Masimo Corp. in Irvine. "We hope to get there in one piece."

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