In its long and larky life, the Ensenada race has been many things to many people. Some old hands say nostalgically that the Ensenada race is not what it used to be; others say thank God for that. Some maintain the race never was much and still isn't; others claim it gets better every year. Despite the mixed reviews, the show is still a sellout.
After serving on a crew 20 years ago, Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist, described the Ensenada race as a combination of Mardi Gras and fraternity hell week. There is less hell now than there was, but it is still a carnival with broad appeal, attracting talented and intent sailors and carefree clowns of all sorts. Because the safety committee of the Ensenada is a stiff-necked lot, poorly equipped boats are briskly discouraged. Beyond that, it is come one, come all.
Every year they come by the hundreds, seeking a variety of odd prizes in a wild variety of boats. In the Ensenada fleet are some of the best and a few of the worst boats of yesterday, today and tomorrow: stock hulls, one-offs and home-builts; catamarans and trimarans; elderly schooners, yawls, ketches and cutters; stripped-out, honeycombed, one-ton whizz-bombs hot off the drafting table; beautiful old Kettenbergs and brand-new Petersons; converted 8-meters, 10-meters and 12-meters; ultralight displacement hulls as narrow as an arrow and gaff-rigged sloops as beamy as a Gloucesterman.
There are a couple of other sailing bashes in more sheltered waters that have larger fleets, notably a Danish race around the island of Sjaelland, but there is no open ocean classic that attracts a mob to equal that of the Ensenada. No more than 120 boats have ever turned out for any race of the prestigious Southern Ocean Racing circuit; for the rough-and-tumble Sydney-Hobart race, the record entry is 131; for the Fastnet race off England, it is 308. The Ensenada race has averaged well over 500 starters for the past decade.
April 2, 1979
The race is only 125 miles long. From the starting line off Newport Beach, Calif., it is almost a straight shot a trifle east of south down the coast to Ensenada in Mexico. In fair weather such a course ordinarily would present no problem. A few Ensenada races have been gear busters, but in midspring when the race is held, the Pacific breeze is usually light and fitful, rising and falling like the pulse of a dying man, pitting the course with large windless holes. Because of this fluky air, the following will customarily happen. After hours of slow going, a few bored crews will say to hell with it and head west to celebrate the rest of the weekend on Catalina Island. Halfway down the course, several dozen crews, similarly bored, will pack it in at San Diego. Before sundown a number of large, handsome hulls competently handled will fall into a hole in the wind and sit with sails slatting, while a mile farther out on a ruffled sea, slower boats slide past, their spinnakers fat and happy. Before the night is done a skipper or two, misjudging the thrust of a rising breeze, will sail 10 miles or more past Ensenada.
Most of the crews that win division or class honors in the Ensenada deserve to. A few winners are just lucky. Some of the losers consider themselves lucky enough to find the finish line. Commenting on the disparity of talent, a veteran sailor recently observed, "If some of the Ensenada's less able seamen had sailed the Ni‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a, the Pinta and the Santa Maria in 1492, their first landfall probably would have been the Isle of Capri."
Harold Adams, the engineer who participated in the development of all the Douglas airplanes from the DC-6 through the DC-10, served as Ensenada race committee chairman for 10 years in the '50s and early '60s. Near the finish line of one race, Adams recalls, a sloop was caught by a wind shift low of the finish line. Tacking again and again, the skipper of the sloop kept sliding sideways without getting any closer. After watching the futile effort for 10 tedious minutes, Adams realized that no one aboard the sliding boat knew how to sail upwind. Shouting advice through a bullhorn, he talked the boat across. For an official to assist a competitor in such a way is highly irregular, but Adams figured it was the human thing to do.
In another race during his tenure as chairman, Adams spied a different sloop bound along the coast, apparently not knowing what to do or where to finish. Again bellowing through a bullhorn, Adams hailed the errant craft, got her name and number and instructed her to cross between the committee boat and the buoy. It was not until the wandering sloop had dutifully altered course and was almost across the line that Adams discovered she was not in the race.
During race week at sacred Cowes in England, has any competitive skipper even considered dressing his foredeck hand in a gorilla costume? At either Cowes or the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, has any major winner ever received a congratulatory telegram from Prince Philip—or even a lesser figurehead—delivered to him in jail? Such things happen in the Ensenada race.
On the Southern Ocean circuit has any skipper other than Ted Turner ever tried to psych his rivals by blasting them with noise? In an Ensenada race some 10 years ago, a skipper broadcast the amplified thunder and wailing of a freight train across the water, his theory being that as his rivals ghosted through the still night, nothing would be more unsettling than the sound of a Union Pacific freight bearing down on them. On the expensive Southern Ocean circuit, in which boats are born on the brink of obsolescence, any hull that proves to be a dog in its first series is almost a certain loser for the rest of its days. In the Ensenada, there is always hope. In 1954 a Nova Scotia fishing schooner, Nelly Bly, was dead last in the fleet of 145, finishing 26 hours behind the leader. Three years later the archaic Nelly Bly finished only eight hours back of the slick catamaran leading the fleet and won the President of the United States Cup for the best corrected time in the performance handicap division.
In the Fastnet Race or the Sydney-Hobart, in the Transpac or the Mackinac, in the St. Pete-Lauderdale, the Rio or any other classic, how often do rivals battle nip and tuck trying to win last place? The Ensenada last-place trophy is a beautiful spittoon worth about $350—and it's hard to come by. To beat a rival equally intent on being last, one Ensenada skipper lowered his sails and produced fake exhaust smoke to suggest that he was abandoning the race under power. Seeing the smoke and concluding that he was the only skipper still on the course under sail, the deceived rival straightway headed for the finish line. The faker then turned off the phony smoke, raised his canvas again and sailed across the line last to win the spittoon.
For the past three years the annual semiofficial Ensenada trophy for antic behavior has gone to a 46-foot ketch, Prospector, out of San Francisco. Three years ago the eight men of Prospector started the race in tuxedos and finished in the same attire. Two years ago they wore white tie and tails, and to pass the time of night on the way to Ensenada they held the main boom way out by means of a preventer and projected movies on the sail. Last year they put a preventer on the mizzen boom as well and showed two movies simultaneously. On the aft side of the mainsail—or "Cinema I" as Skipper Tom Hannan of Prospector calls it—they showed Deep Throat. On the forward side of the mizzen (Cinema II) they ran Bambi Falls in Love. Before last year's caper began, Hannan insisted there was some method in such madness. "By showing Deep Throat on Cinema I," he declared, "boats behind us will have no incentive to pass unless they happen to prefer Bambi Falls in Love." The strategy, such as it was, fizzled. There were 466 finishers last year; 462 of them got to Ensenada ahead of Prospector, the floating film festival.
Jim Smith, a 51-year-old dentist from Southgate, Calif., has raced his staysail sloop Stella Maris in august contests like the Transpac and the Whitney series and in 17 of the last 18 Ensenada races. "Why do I keep going back to the Ensenada?" Smith says. "Because it is our New Year's, our Fourth of July, our born-again day."
Mary Jo Thue, a comely crewperson who has served on an old 65-foot schooner, Kelpie, concurs effusively. "Things like the I.O.R. and all its exact measurements and time allowances and such are taking away the fun," she says. "Yachts used to be things of beauty. You go aboard one of the damn new racing things, it's as sterile as a hospital ward. There's no warmth. You'd never want to cruise in one. If the old master designers came back, they would sit on the dock and laugh at the scene. Even after a race, instead of relaxing and having a drink, skippers today have tirades and get bent all out of shape thinking about how they might have won by doing this instead of that.
"The Ensenada is a unique madness," Thue continues. "A lot of people scoff and say it's not a real race. I disagree. I believe you can race hard and still have fun. There are very few worthwhile sports events left where a large group can get together and become slightly insane. I measure a place largely by what the signs say. You go to a beach and the signs say no ballplaying, no walking on the jetty, no dogs, no disrobing. Remember when people used to sleep on the beach all night? Try it now and the cops will put you in the pokey. My God, they even have helicopters patrolling the beaches. Where can anybody do something today just for the hell of it? The Ensenada race is such a place."
The race was born 31 years ago, a child of the boating boom that followed World War II. Like other sailing events, it was started largely to fill the growing desire for competition, but the Ensenada soon became more than just a boat race. In the past quarter century, while events such as the Southern Ocean circuit and the America's Cup have been getting so uptight they now seem to be suffering from the first rigors of death, the Ensenada race has stayed loose. It would be presumptuous to say God looks favorably upon it, but it is easy to believe there is a giddy, bacchanalian angel up there seeing to it that the Ensenada goes its own rollicking way, never quite on an even keel.
Whatever the reason, earthly or unearthly, every year the deck is so loaded with wild cards that none of the players can afford to take the Ensenada game too seriously. Two years ago Ragtime, the famous 13-year-old ultralight hull that won first-to-finish honors in the Transpac and half a dozen other long races, went in the Ensenada as a lark, carrying a crew of 16 men and women—twice the complement she needed even for an all-hands emergency. Thus burdened with more than half a ton of surplus fun lovers, Ragtime won more major trophies than most ocean events offer. She was first to finish in her division, first monohull to finish and first hull of any kind to finish in a fleet of 536. She also won the President of the United States Cup for first in her division on corrected time. Last year the old girl sailed dead seriously with only her regular complement of eight hands and picked up one small mug for fifth place in her class.
Because the larger, faster boats are started first in ocean races, as the fleet moves along the course, the distance between the head and tail of it lengthens. As a consequence, the ideal finish-line official is someone who can sit on a wallowing powerboat, suppressing boredom and the urge to get stoned while sailboats trickle across the finish line for 15 hours or more. For example, in the Boca Grande race, one of the SORC events comparable in length to the Ensenada, only six boats in a fleet of 80 finished within half a minute of another last year. At the peak of the action, 18 boats crossed in one hour. In the Ensenada, that many boats sometimes finish in a couple of minutes, and such clumps often include craft that because of difference in size and sail-power have no business being anywhere near each other after 125 miles of racing.
If the Ensenada race is not controlled by a slightly berserk angel, then for sure it is under the influence of some queer conjunction of the planets. Anyone who doubts it should listen to one convincing piece of evidence: a seven-minute tape recorded at the finish line of the 1963 race. The tape features the voice of Don Morden, the race chairman, with a background accompaniment of several hundred shouting sailors. It begins with Morden saying anxiously, "We have the largest jam coming I have ever seen in an Ensenada race. This is May the fifth, 10:08 a.m. There appear to be over 80 boats in a huge jam all coming down under spinnakers. It's a beautiful sight, but it's pretty terrifying for the race committee. The width of our finish line is quite narrow.... Here they come, bright-colored spinnakers, everything on, going full bore." Then, as a multitude of discordant, desperate voices wells up in the background, Morden does his best to identify each boat in the melee by her number, type or name: "Eight hundred eighteen, a Seahorse Number 40; an Alberg 35, six-meter, Packet Number 121, 907...Bounty 2 Number 32; L-36 Number 33, 907; P-28 Number 33; F.I.S. 8...Cal 29 Number 7; Triton 379, a J over 3; Cal 24 Number 55...5½-meter D-29; the Windbag; a Blue Newporter; L-36 Number 22; an old schooner with a green topsail; W-601, M-36 Number 1..." During a lull toward the end of the confusion, Morden says in a voice tinged with mirth, "It's a terror. Sailors are dropping their sails, spinnakers are coming down, sailors are shortening sail because of the wind behind them. Boy, what a mess!"
At the peak of the action in that chaotic race, boats finished at a rate of one every two seconds. In less than six minutes more than 100 boats—almost a third of the fleet—crossed the line. In the mash were 25-footers and 50-footers that should have been hours apart but were blown together by a whimsical wind rising from behind. Boats blanketed boats and forged ahead, and were blanketed in turn, and while being blanketed were blanketing others farther ahead. There were collisions galore. Before the clatter and banging was done, the sea was littered with seat cushions, life jackets and fenders hastily put over the side to ease the impact. Hulls were scuffed and scarred, a few shrouds were carried away, a few spars busted, tempers flared—but not a boat sank or was badly damaged. Things like that can't happen, but in the Ensenada race they do.
The adventure is never the same. In the mind of a loyal 71-year-old skipper, Earl Schultz, that is why the Ensenada lives and will never die. Although his silver hair and sideburns and the smart cut of his blazer give Schultz the air of a 19th-century yacht club commodore, he never took to sail until he quit the merchant marine at 41 and headed West on a Harley Davidson. He has sailed his homemade 50-foot ketch Aegean Sea in the Ensenada for only 10 years but is already an expert on the unexpected. In one of his first tries—the exact year eludes him—he remembers a beautiful hour when his boat sailed through a sea turned to froth by thousands of leaping porpoises, some crowding the boat and, as if part of an act, suddenly leaping across in front of the bow so close that they passed through the small space between the bobstay and the bowsprit.
In 1975 a 45-foot gray whale took up with the Aegean Sea as she crept over almost windless water. The whale hung around for almost two hours, sometimes sounding on one side of the Aegean Sea and surfacing on the other. Schultz was afraid the whale might try scraping the hull to rid itself of barnacles, but it did something less expected. It surfaced and defecated. "The environmentalists worrying about waste discharge in the ocean should do something about the whales," notes Schultz. "Suddenly we were in a polluted area the size of a football field, and not a breath of air to move us out of it."
Schultz is one of two skippers ever to win the last-place spittoon twice. His first last-place victory, in 1968, was the consequence of a chain of slapstick disasters worthy of Buster Keaton and other silent-movie clowns. "It was unbelievable," Schultz says. "We had 12 in the crew. You might have heard of Bill Williams, the actor married to the actress Barbara Hale. Well, Bill and his son Billy, who is now an actor, went with us. And there was a bunch of drunks aboard. We got as far as Laguna Beach, six miles south of Newport Beach, and drifted around for hours. At some time early, little Billy Williams asks where all the luggage should go, and I said, 'With this many on board, nobody will be taking a shower, so we'll put it all in the shower.' So we shoved all the luggage in the shower, and about halfway to San Diego somebody comes up from below and says, 'Earl, the boat is sinking.' Jeez, when I went below, the shag carpet was like a wet lawn. A bag jammed into the shower had turned it on. The bags were soaked, just about all our water was gone and had caused a short circuit which killed the battery, so we had no lights.
"The guy who carved the trailboards for the boat was along and had brought a drunk Irish friend who even washed down his sandwiches with straight tequila. While I'm below worrying about something, the drunk Irishman takes the compass apart and throws the little metal things—the magnets—overboard because they look rusty. So we go through the night with no compass, sailing by the wind. By then it's blowing and raining, and after 38 hours I go below to get some sleep. The next thing somebody is saying, 'Wake up, Earl. We're at Ensenada. We can see Todos Santos Island.' Well, it wasn't Todos Santos. The wind had shifted around, and they had sailed the boat around with it, and we were back off the Coronado Islands, which are just over the border from San Diego."
Schultz won the last-place spittoon again in 1977 with less grief. A few minutes before the start, somebody on the Aegean Sea realized the beer had been left ashore, so they turned back to Newport Harbor for it. That year the wind died progressively through the race, and many exasperated crews in small boats quit at San Diego. Having dallied extravagantly at the start, Schultz was a cinch for last place provided he got to Ensenada before the race's 48-hour time limit. He made it with a couple of hours to spare. Though less colorful, his 1977 finish also was more rewarding. In the welter of prizes handed out in the Ensenada, there is now a trophy for the most trophies, a slender cup that goes to the yacht club whose members win the greatest number. When the trophy was first offered in 1976, the San Diego Yacht Club won it, beating out the Long Beach Yacht Club to which Schultz belongs. In 1977, with only Schultz still at sea, San Diego and Long Beach were tied. When Schultz crossed last to take the spittoon, he broke the tie and thus also won the trophy-trophy for his club.
In every unpredictable Ensenada race there is one certainty: Few of the 3,000 sailors who take part ever finish the festive weekend suffering from alcohol deficiency in the bloodstream. Some crews teetotal while racing, but once in port, hasten ashore to make amends in the nearest pub. Others teetle a little on the way down and total in Ensenada. Still others start indulging before the first gun and never stop.
Ashley Bown, a foxy San Diego skipper who has won the most major honors in the past 31 years, maintains the secret is not only how much you teetle during the race but also when. At the helm of a friend's boat, Ash Bown won the ocean-racing division in the first Ensenada in 1948, and might have won again the next year if a rascally rival had not run him into a kelp bed. Subsequently, in his old Owens cutter Carousel, he won his division twice and finished in the money in 11 of 14 races. Some despairing rivals recognized that Bown had an arcane knack for judging current and sensing whether to go for the wind inshore or at sea, but few realized he also stole boat lengths by the strategic timing of the teetling on his boat. Speaking in his customary slow, bass voice that sounds as if it were coming from a recorder with run-down batteries, Bown explains, "I drink considerably. All my friends and enemies know I drink my share, but on Carousel we'd have only one or two after dark, and my reasoning was this: boats usually have a long cocktail hour when the sun is going down, and that's when you are apt to get an increase or decrease in the wind, or a shift of 20 to 30 degrees. A spinnaker may have to come down and a genny up, or maybe you'll be jibing. It's during happy hour that boats often screw up. We'd pass more boats in that couple of hours than any other time."
Like a show dog, the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race seldom goes by that official full-blown name. In addition to the usual abbreviation, the Ensenada, it is also known along the California waterfront as the Enchilada, the Tequila Derby and the Margarita Handicap. Among bons viveurs it is best known as the Race to Hussong's, in honor of a dowdy Ensenada bar that has withstood the assaults of sailors for 87 years. Hussong's is not picturesque; it has no distinctive atmosphere, authentic or contrived. Its walls are decorated with a catholic collection of whatever the management felt like hanging on them through the years: the somber head of an eland, a gallery of charcoal sketches of customers, deer antlers and steer horns, a boxing poster billing Gorilla Jones vs. Tarzan Guerrero, a banjo clock with no pendulum, a stuffed snow goose sorely in need of dusting. Hussong's is simply Hussong's, and if it tried becoming something more, it would end up being mediocre. As the town grew, the center of it moved away from Hussong's. Because of drastic harbor dredging and land-filling, the bar is no longer even near the water. Although today Hussong's is a good mile from the present Ensenada race headquarters in the Hotel Bahia, it is still mecca.
In the beginning the Ensenada race was a mellow affair. There were dances and dinners requiring tasteful dress. Mariachi bands played in cafes, and in bars like Hussong's, violins, cellos and guitars accompanied by the clean, clear cry of trumpets played the sweet, sad music that is the soul of Mexico. At the Villa Marina Hotel a fountain flowed margaritas. "Back then there were Mexican dignitaries and American brass," Ash Bown recalls, "and the sailors behaved well enough. There weren't any freeloading creeps or any gals with parts of their torsos hanging out of their blouses."
A few weeks before the first race in 1948, Guillermo Boisson, an Ensenada ship chandler who has been on the advisory committee ever since, rented three old-style ladies' bathing suits from a Hollywood costumer. Boisson and two other Ensenadans wore the suits to add a light touch to the postrace activities. It was the last bit of calculated informality the Ensenada race ever needed. Through the years the race got bigger and looser and bawdier, and almost died because of it.
When several thousand larking sailors and several thousand loved ones who drive down to join them are taxing their welcome in a foreign port, the thing least needed is an influx of freeloaders even less well-behaved. The sailors popularized Ensenada, and in the early '60s shaggy-haired hippies pounced on the town, hitting it very heavily on race weekend when it had a lot to offer for free. By the mid-'60s three special diversions had become almost ritual: I) riding a horse into Hussong's, 2) throwing cherry bombs everywhere and 3) throwing anything or anybody into the pool at the Hotel Bahia. Empty bottles and cans, bed pillows, whole cases of unopened beer, patio tables and chairs ended up in the pool, and so did mariachi players, waiters, policemen and ladies both frocked and half-frocked.
At Hussong's, men tossed cherry bombs into the ladies' room and vice versa. Sailors who had no intention of being so foolish were swept up in the madness. It is said that one wild fellow got his motorcycle up on the bar at Hussong's. rode the length of it and out the front window. However true, simply at the telling such tales revive others. When asked about the motorcycle, Harold Adams, the former race chairman, said he never saw one on the bar, but he added. "I suppose you know about the time somebody put a cherry bomb inside a barracuda and laid it on the bar. It was quite an old barracuda, but considering how Hussong's always smelled anyway, that scarcely mattered."
For its first 14 years the race started on a Thursday so that even the pokiest boats would get to port for the weekend fun. In 1962 the start was changed to Sunday, and in 1963 moved back to Saturday, the purpose in both cases being to have most of the boats arrive after the shaggy weekend freeloaders had left. After several stable years, in 1967 the general committee moved the start back to Thursday. The Ensenada police put a roadblock on the main highway, but the undesirable hell raisers leaked in. The same sort of crude violence began again, and the same kind of rioting, and the jail was as full as it had been in the early '60s. In 1967, offenders were given a choice: time in jail or have their heads shaved for a dollar. Heads were shaved, but to no avail. By 1973 the situation was as bad as it had ever been. In 1974 the start was moved forward once again to Saturday, and the race has gone its own happy, wobbling way ever since.
As one might expect, in the most chaotic years the police in their zeal sometimes hauled in the innocent. In 1965 Jack Baillie, a Los Angeles skipper, was one such, victimized because he is color-blind. Seeing the bottom light go on at an intersection just down from Hussong's, Baillie proceeded to cross and waved to friends to follow. Ensenada has some old-style traffic signals; in the direction Baillie was headed the bottom light was red. The police picked him up for directing traffic and put him in jail with a bunch of surfers who had done one or another thing wrong. At the helm of an 8-meter, a 10-meter and a 12-meter, Baillie has won more Ensenada prizes, counting specialized honors, than even Bown—quite an accomplishment considering that keel-heavy meter boats are best upwind, a point of sailing that is virtually nonexistent in Ensenada. In 1965, the year he went to jail, Baillie, at the helm of his 10-meter Hilaria, won the President of Mexico Cup for best corrected time in the ocean-racing division. The three hours he spent in the slammer that year were in a sense the high point of his long Ensenada career. During the three-hour hitch he not only received a congratulatory telegram from the President of Mexico, but also was elected president of his cell block.
The Ensenada race is a lot like a mango. It has a big, tough core surrounded by a pulp of sweet innocence. During last year's race, before more than three dozen boats had finished, a reporter wearing a blazer was approached by a lady in the bar of the Hotel Bahia. "With a blue coat you must be an official," she said. "I am trying to find out if the boat my brother is on is here yet. I don't know the name, but it's a white boat with one mast and it has a big, round front sail."
"Madam," the reporter replied, "I am semiofficial. The real ones are busy, but here's what I suggest. If you have a phone in your room, whenever a white boat with one mast and a big front sail comes in, I'll give you a call. Stay close to the phone, because I may be calling you every three minutes for the next 36 hours. This is one of those big shows that goes on and on and on."