Cruising in Fast-Forward – Spinnakers, Reefing and Tequila


By Sue Morgan

Make no mistake about it, I’m a die-hard cruiser.  My boat is a traditional, full keel design.  It’s no slug, but it’s not exactly speedy either.  My idea of sailing is a nice beam or broad reach in 12 – 15 knots of wind.  Just adjust the sails now and then to keep the helm balanced, kick back and relax.  In those conditions we do 6 – 7 knots, but as long as we’re moving, I’m happy.  No need to rush.  I’m not a speedy kind of person.  My car is an old Volkswagen Westfalia.  I rest my case.

So what was I doing as crew on a race boat in the 55th annual Newport – Ensenada race?  Well, there are similarities to doing a race like this and cruising.  I guess I prefer to think of it as cruising in fast forward.  How else can you sail 125 nautical miles to Mexico just to spend the weekend?  And of course, once you get into port there’s all the great parties.  What cruiser doesn’t love a great party at the end of a crossing; getting together with your fellow sailors to compare lies, horror stories and tall tales?

The boat I crewed on is Sidekick, a J37.  Although she’s used primarily for racing, she’s not a stripped down race boat.  Below she could easily be a cruising boat.  She’s got comfortable berths and a full galley with refrigeration.  Topside is another story.  Sidekick’s a spaghetti factory.  There are lines running everywhere.  I’m used to a few sheets and a couple of halyards.  On Sidekick I’m faced with not only a bigger assortment of those, but outhauls, downhauls, foreguys, afterguys, preventers, several sets of spinnaker sheets, whew!  It’s hard to remember which is which, even though they’re labeled.  Maybe that’s why I’m assigned to trim the mainsail – just one sheet and a traveler to deal with.

Sidekick’s illustrious owner and captain is Bill, a retired emergency room doc..Besides me, our crew consisted of his wife Judy, an ex-nurse (we’re in really good hands if someone gets hurt), Nash, an experienced racer, Bob, also an experienced racer and one of the funnier people I’ve ever met, and Andy, our second watch captain, who introduced Bill to sailing many years ago.  Then there was Jake, who spent a year and a half cruising the South Pacific, but has taken quickly to this racing thing, and my husband Mike.  Now Mike is a cruiser at heart, but he has a thing about going fast.  The minute our boat drops below four knots, he starts eyeing the engine starter button.  He hates my Westfalia.  He believes it is his mission in life to pass every car on the road.

Last, but not least, we had Greg, our local Mayor.  He had just returned from some meetings in Texas.  On his way there he picked up a cold with a nasty cough which was almost gone.  On hearing Mike’s and my similarly nasty coughs, he told us to try the local cure that the Texas mayors had introduced him to – tequila.  So this is politics?  Greg offered to buy the first round when we reached Ensenada.

A major weather front was moving in.  The bad news was, we were getting some rain.  The good news was, it should bring plenty of wind, something that is frequently lacking in this race.  Showers were intermittent as Capt. Bli… er Bill, conducted our crew meeting.  Much like embarking on a cruise, he gave us our watch assignments, went over equipment locations and discussed emergency procedures.  He pointed out that there was an 8-man liferaft on board, but we had a crew of nine.  I pointed out that it shouldn’t be a problem since the Captain is supposed to go down with the ship.  I don’t think that scored me any points.  Bill went on to explain that we also had a 6-man inflatable dinghy as back-up.  In case we had to abandon ship, we were all assigned duties.  I was to get the additional water.  I guessed it would be me and the water jugs in the dinghy.

Bill wound up the crew meeting by having each of us make a $5.00 bet on what time we’d finish the race.  Since the wind was already up, we were all very optimistic.  Bets ranged from 06:30 to 10:30.

Shortly before 11:00, we put our foul weather gear on and headed out.  The cruiser in me started thinking that it might be prudent to stay in port until the front had passed.  I had to stifle those thoughts.  This was a race – no place for wussies.  You either start when you’re supposed to or you drop out.

The actual start time for our class, PHRF G, was 1:00, but Bill wanted to get out there early and check out all the competition.  With 452 boats entered in the race, the assortment was amazing – everything from maxi-racers and huge turbo sleds (odd term for a boat), to twenty-some footers.  It was a boat watcher’s paradise.  Dennis Connors was there in Stars & Stripes, along with many other famous racing boats.  Two new America’s Cup boats cut their way through the fleet.

It was easy to tell the boats entered in the cruising classes.  They still had their dodgers and roller furling up, something the serious racers never use.  Sidekick’s dodger was folded and stowed below.  Seeing the ominous clouds all around us, I was getting a little jealous of the dodgers.  One cruising boat even had reclining lawn chairs tied to the lifelines.  We all pointed and laughed at that, but the little cruiser voice in my head said “Cool!”  Instead of having to sit or stand with your head craned back to fly the spinnaker, you could just set up a lawn chair, lay back on deck and fly it.  After my liferaft crack, I decided not to mention this idea to Bill.

Making its way through the fleet was a small skiff with a big sign reading “SIN=HELL.  Party Now, Pay Later.”  I’m thinking, we’re just a bunch of people enjoying being out on the water.  Jesus walked on water.  What’s the problem?  I guess he’d been to one of those Ensenada post-race parties.

The start of a race can be way too exciting for my blood – near collisions, boats tacking on top of each other fighting for position.  This start was quite civilized.  Bill’s timing was right on the mark and we crossed the line just as the horn blasted.  The other boats in our class were a comfortable distance down the line.   The rain clouds were staying mostly behind us, and all was right with the world… for now.

Once we settled onto our course, we started our three hour watches.  Andy’s watch was up first, and that included me, Mike and Nash.  Bill’s watch had Judy, Jake, Greg & Bob.  During the day, the off-watch was welcome to stay topside and help out, or they could go below and rest.  After dark, the off-watch was required to stay below and try to sleep so they’d be fresh for the next watch.  That is, unless we needed to perform a maneuver that required all hands on deck, such as jibing the spinnaker.

This was all pretty much like cruising, except when you’re cruising, a “watch” is mostly just that – watching.  Not so on a race.  You wouldn’t dream of using an autopilot, and adjusting the sail trim for maximum speed is a constant thing.  There’s hardly time to drink a beer.  My neck was getting sore from constantly looking up at the mainsail to make sure it was trimmed properly.  I thought about those reclining lawn chairs…

An hour or so out, the wind really began to build and clock around to the beam.  The clouds were still threatening, but no rain.  The little cruiser voice in my head said “time to think about reefing.”  Bill and Andy we’re discussing which weight spinnaker (aka chute) to launch.  Shut up voice.

Now then, just the process of putting up a racing spinnaker is way more work than any cruiser would ever want to go through.  There’s a gazillion and one more lines to run, and everything has to be done perfectly or you’ll have a total mess.  There’s also that rather unruly spinnaker pole that threatens to whack anyone in the head that gets too close.  When you finally do get it launched, keeping the spinnaker flying properly requires constant trimming and adjusting of the gazillion and one more lines.  Once up, however, it is beautiful, and the boat speed really starts accelerating.

All the boats around us were popping their chutes (fancy racing lingo) about the same time.  Soon, as far as you could see there were nothing but bright, multi-colored spinnakers – really a beautiful sight.  Of course, I wasn’t watching that, I was busy watching the mainsail trim…

With the chute up and the wind and seas building, we were surfing down waves and watching the knot meter push into the 10+ range.  It was becoming difficult to hold our rhumb-line course, but we were pulling away from most of the boats around us..  It was pretty exciting sailing, especially when the seas started pushing the stern of the boat around, causing us to “round up.”  The boat would heel all the way over on her side before she headed up into the wind.  The rudder would be out of the water so Andy had no control over the helm.  I had to dump the traveler and let the main fly loose (all while staring straight down at the water and trying to hold on for dear life), and the spinnaker had to be kept out of the water and controlled until the boat luffed into the wind and righted herself again.  A solid 10 on the pucker factor scale.  We did about four of these little maneuvers before our watch was over.  Now it was the other guys’ turns.

Bill took the helm with a huge grin and proclaimed, “This is great!”  I looked around at the whitecapped seas, watched some of the other boats round up and tried to convince my cruiser self that he was right.  I relinquished the main and settled in for the wild ride.  Actually, it was great for another 10 – 15 minutes.  Then Sidekick did the mother of all round-ups.  Only this time, there was a loud THWACK and lines were zipping behind our backs and through the cockpit.  Several of us ducked, sensing that a shackle or something hard was going to come flying.  Suddenly, the spinnaker was flying loose, flogging itself to death in the wind.  We thought it had ripped out at the clew.  There was a mad scramble by half the crew to pull it in, while the other half tried to get the boat, which was still at an extreme heel, under control.  Bob slipped and almost fell overboard, but caught the lifelines and pulled himself back out of the water before we could get to him.  In what seemed like forever, but was probably only a matter of minutes, the spinnaker was stashed down below, the jib was up and we were back racing.

I felt like I had some company now.  We’d just had more excitement than anyone else wanted either.  Judy went below to examine the spinnaker and re-pack it while we gathered and re-ran the gazillion and one lines.  Make that the gazillion and a half.  The afterguy, which attached to the spinnaker clew, had parted in the middle.  The shackle end was missing.  The spinnaker was intact, no rips, so it must have flogged so hard that it shook the shackle free.  It was now our sacrifice to Neptune.

We discussed launching another chute, but after observing the boats around us either rounding up or having to head way low of the rhumb-line course, we decided we’d do better staying with the jib.  It was still exhilarating sailing, with winds in the low 20s and 6 ft.+ seas. 

Judy prepared to feed us before we went back on watch at 1900 hrs.  Now this was really like cruising.  No cold sandwiches, we had two kinds of lasagna, salad, garlic bread and red wine.  The only problem was, the heavy rolling seas didn’t stimulate the appetite much, and it was all we could do to hold onto our plates.  The wine went untouched.

We ate what we could and went topside to relieve Bill’s watch.  As timing would have it, it was starting to rain.  Bill’s watch went below for a warm dinner and a three hour snooze, while our watch sat out in the wind and rain.  I was really coveting those dodgers now.  Fortunately, the rain didn’t last long and it wasn’t too terribly cold.  By around 2100, we were off Pt. Loma in San Diego and realized how fast we were flying down the coast.  Many years, Pt Loma is not so fondly referred to as the Pt. Loma Coma, since the majority of the fleet drifts around it in the middle of the night or early morning with zero wind.

We watched the fireworks go off at Sea World.  I mean, the other guys did.  I was watching the mainsail trim…  The lights of Tijuana were shining bright, and soon, we were passing the border into Mexican waters.  The wind and seas were settling a bit and by the time our watch was ending, it looked like we could fly the spinnaker again.  The little cruiser voice said “Uh oh.”  We helped the other watch jury rig a new afterguy and launch the chute, then went below for a very welcome rest.

Our next watch, at 0100, came way too soon.  We got back into our foulies and took over.  The wind was still holding and it looked like we’d finish the race well before anyone’s bet time.  By the time our watch was over at 0400, we were on our final heading to Ensenada.  The few boats around us appeared to be from classes that started before ours, a really good sign.  We were excited and our adrenaline was too high to try to sleep.  Might as well stay up to finish the race.

At 0453 we crossed the finish line, almost two hours faster than the earliest bet.  From the looks of the harbor, not that many boats had finished yet, so we were exhilarated.  We made our way to the Cruise Port Marina, tied up, tidied the boat and broke out the champagne.  Toasting to a possible trophy, the two bottles on board disappeared quickly.  Greg remembered that there was still a full bottle of red wine left untouched from dinner.  We broke that out and toasted again.  Seems there was a second bottle of that, so we polished it off plus a bottle of white wine.  The sun was barely up and we (minus Judy and Nash, they had better sense), already had a major buzz on.  As with jet lag, the question now was whether to try and sleep or just plow on through.  Still buzzed on adrenaline (and wine), we decided on the latter.

After a shower and breakfast, Bill, Bob, Jake, Greg, Mike and I, decided to walk on down to race headquarters at the Bahia Hotel to see if any results were posted yet.  Besides, Mike and I were still coughing.  Greg said we needed some medicine and insisted on filling his promise to buy the first round of tequila.

There weren’t many people at the Bahia yet and no results were posted, so Greg suggested we go to the infamous Hussong’s Cantina.  Mind you, it was only 0800.  Fortunately for us, Hussong’s wasn’t open yet.  Unfortunately, Papas & Beer was.  We filed into the almost empty bar and placed our order.  Straight tequila sounded a little heavy for 8:00 am, so most of us settled for margaritas.  I must say, they tasted great.  I think some beers crept in there somewhere.  Then someone mentioned we should probably have coffee.  Good idea, except it turned into a round of Mexican Coffees – more tequila.  Then we decided to walk back to the Bahia and check for results. 

Some results were posted, and we were disappointed to see that, with a corrected time of 7.9883, four boats out of 27 in our class had finished ahead of us.  We hoped we’d done better, but fifth was enough for a trophy.  Next thing we knew, Greg had bought a round of tequila shooters to celebrate.  I remember thinking “this is a mistake.”  Then again, I wasn’t coughing any more, and one doesn’t want to insult the Mayor. 

Now there’s a discrepancy, depending on who you ask, as to how much more tequila was consumed.  Don’t ask me.  I remember something about it being noon when we got back to the boat, and then it was around 3:00 pm when I woke up.  Andy and Nash were gone.  They’d wisely decided to head back home to finish the weekend.  Greg was still out and about, going strong.  The rest of us (except Judy who manages to ignore our bad influence) were, well, recovering.

This was about the time that the after-race parties really get going.  Hussongs and Papas & Beer are packed with race crews drinking and dancing.  At the Bahia, partiers have fun jumping off the hotel balconies into the pool.  I assume this year was the same.  We never made it.  Having finished the race and done our partying so early, we weren’t up to any more festivities.  We opted for a nice quiet dinner at a very nice restaurant at the resort where Greg was spending the rest of the weekend.  We even ran into him there, still going strong.  I guess it takes that kind of stamina to be a politician.

Sunday was the awards ceremonies.  It turned out to be a record breaking year.  Six boats, all of the super-fast racer type, broke the existing record of 11 hr. 54 min.  Bill received his 5th place trophy for PHRF Class G.  However, the trophy for first place overall on corrected time went to a 68 year-old, 53-foot schooner, Samarang.  The cruiser in me felt vindicated.

Of course, the awards ceremony is also a great party.  We missed that one too.  Jake, Mike and I, had to head back home – something that way too closely resembled the John Candy/Steve Martin movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  We walked to the Ensenada bus depot, caught the bus to Tijuana, then a cab to the border crossing, walked across the border and checked through Customs and Immigration, caught the trolley to the San Diego train depot, took the Amtrak to the Santa Ana Depot and caught a cab to Newport Beach where we picked up Jake’s car and drove back to Redondo.  Whew!  Eight hours and $40 each, we were home.

While the Newport to Ensenada race doesn’t compete with a leisurely weekend cruise, it certainly is fun for a change of pace.  If Bill’s willing (and I keep my stupid wise-cracks to myself), we’ll do it again next year.  Maybe we’ll even make some of the parties.