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Captains Outrageous
Coles Phinizy
April 02, 1979
The Ensenada race—also known as the Enchilada—brings out the buccaneer and bon viveur in most everybody who sails and swills his way down the coast to Mexico
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April 02, 1979

Captains Outrageous

The Ensenada race—also known as the Enchilada—brings out the buccaneer and bon viveur in most everybody who sails and swills his way down the coast to Mexico

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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.

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�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.

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