By: Laurie Morrison
If you are reading this, you've probably been Ensenada bound the easy way - by car. As fun as a road trip is, a very exciting way to get to Ensenada is by boat, along with more than 200 others in the annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race. The iconic 70-year spring tradition began as an idea in 1947 when founding members of the Newport Ocean Sailing Association set out to promote the sport of ocean racing in Southern California.
NOSA members initially called the first race the Governor’s Cup, even sending an invitation to Governor Earl Warren asking him to present the first trophy in the small fishing village of Ensenada, via telegraph.
N2E has grown to be a significant cross-cultural event with a rich history of achievement that documents the rise of technology in sailing, the quest to set records and the joy of simply finishing.
One hundred and seventeen boats registered for that first just-for-fun race April 23, 1948. It’s taken place the last weekend in April or the first weekend in May ever since. In 1983, a record 675 boats entered the race; establishing the contest as the World’s Largest International Yacht Race. A legion of entries and a northern front in 1984 created maybe the most spectacular finish of any race when 180 boats crossed the finish line within 10 minutes.
Through the years, some of Hollywood’s finest have raced N2E. They sought the same thrill of victory as racers whose new affordable fiberglass boats filled new marinas. James Arness, of TV show Gunsmoke, has his name on the trophy for Best Elapsed Time. Actors Humphrey Bogart and Buddy Ebsen, news anchor Walter Cronkite and comedienne Vicki Lawrence were just some of the celebrities who have participated. Movie producer Milton Bren and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad also raced alongside a growing fleet of casual racers and against competitive would-be legends Bill Ficker and Dave Ullman. Radio personality, Dr. Laura has entered at least two boats over the years.
It was not celebrities who drove participation. The more people took part, the more participants experienced the camaraderie sailing is famous for. In the early 80s, 400 to 500 boats a year competed. New racers got to discover an experience that turned strangers and competitors alike into best friends.
The just-for-fun sailors, who repeatedly show up with their friends in search of adventure or a challenge, with a spirit of competition, will always be the heart and soul of N2E.
Thanks to the handicap system however, the biggest, most high-tech boat that wins for Best Elapsed Time but might not win its class. Yet a cruising boat that sails beyond expectations could win the Best Corrected Time and the coveted Tommy Bahama Trophy. In 2009, Sojourn, a Catalina 30 in PHRF K did just that despite finishing 12 hours behind the fastest boat. Every year, N2E is anyone’s race.
Arguably, the winningest and most famous sailor of the race is America's Cup skipper, Dennis Conner. San Diego-based Conner and crew won Best Elapsed Time honors 7 times on the 60-foot Americans Cup catamaran Stars and Stripes. But it was just last year when businessman Tom Siebel's Orion, an ORMA70 sank the 18-year-old record with a staggering elapsed time of 5:17:26.
Remarkably, Orion and its closest rival both beat some NOSA members to Ensenada. With a stop in San Diego to get required insurance, three toll booths and two bathroom breaks, the car sailed into the parking lot of the beautiful Hotel Coral and Marina (the race’s gracious and hospitable hosts), to find the record broken but nary a ripple on the water from the epic, historic run.
Then there is everyman Bill Gibbs, aboard Afterburner, a 52-foot catamaran who swept best elapsed time wins from 2002 through 2004 and again in 2011 and won the coveted Tommy Bahama Trophy for Best Corrected time in 2004 and 2010.
But for all the wins, there were four years of losses due to breakdowns. But Gibbs and crew are an example of how every year on the ocean is different and big comebacks are just a race away. In 2016, he collected three trophies for the inaugural N2E race of Wahoo, his new 47-foot Schionning GF 1400 he bought as a lightweight cruising boat.
To say that multihull yachts have done well in N2E would be an understatement. To date, they've claimed more than 70% of first-to-finish honors. The multihull revolution started in 1955 when its designer Warren Seaman raced a new kind of ride - a Hawaiian outrigger canoe-inspired proa.
In 1975, Ragtime, one of the most storied wooden monohulls finished first to break a long string of multihull wins. The 1963 New Zealand-built boat won again in 1977. By the late 90s Roy Disney’s 68-Andrews, Pyewacket; one of the new ulyra-light displacement boats (ULDBs) was the fastest in 1999 and 2001 and dominated racing in Southern California and beyond.
Although Disney broke a lot of records on Pyewacket, it was Aszhou, a 63-foot Australian-built Reichel-Pugh that in 2016 set an amazing new monohull record of 9:35:34 on its first N2E. Sailed by skipper Steve Maheen, Aszhou destroyed the old record by more than 90 minutes.
While ultra-lights and maxi-yachts were the next big thing, NOSA equally welcomed cruising classes (that allow boats to run their engines at night) and added a class for ancient mariners; you know: the boats that sailed in the first race. Today, there are more than 45 classes and categories being raced for; each with a trophy from the organization’s priceless collection.
Staying true to the founder’s mission of creating opportunities to race, NOSA added a longer course around the San Clemente Island in 2015. And last year they offered a short-course for San Diego racers.
Much has changed since that first race, but thanks to NOSA’s efforts, the race has become more inclusive than ever with many friends and relationships established along the way.
There’s still not a class for cars, but as you drive Baja Bound, look to the ocean and dream about sailing N2E next time. Won’t you sail with us?
Visit the Newport To Ensenada Yacht Race website