Every thirty seconds, a twenty-second countdown excites the crew, patiently waiting for our class’s race to start. We hear on the radio, “10-9-8…” At 1, “Time!” We synchronize our watches and the race has started. With a shot of adrenaline, we head out into the wind and begin the journey south to Ensenada.
We’re in the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race, in class PHRF A. What PHRF A means, I don’t know. But I’m ready to do whatever our skipper demands to make this boat go fast.
Fast is what she likes to do. We’re on a 40’ Tripp. For those not-so-dedicated sailors, a Tripp is a high-class sailing yacht. Maybe not so “yacht-ish” to you cruisers accustomed to comfortable cruising. But great lines and a massive sail inventory wins races.
I’m part of a crew of six plus the captain, ranging in age from early fifties to me, twenty-five. My age and lack of offshore racing experience puts me towards the bottom of the totem pole, but I don’t mind; this opportunity has been a long time coming. I’m delegated more menial tasks but occasionally allowed to fine-tune my trimming abilities, which I relish.
So south we continue, slowly but surely, averaging around 4-6 knots on our way towards Mexican waters. The Southern California coastline reminds me of ant-hills in the desert as housing developments conquer the picturesque sea bluffs. Only Camp Pendleton retains the beauty that ancient mariners were fortunate enough to experience.
Night falls: we pass San Diego, even at night a truly beautiful place. Mt. Soledad crowned by blinking antennas, a rhythmic flash of the Point Loma lighthouse, and the glow of lights in the distance adorns the San Diego skyline – the queen of the Southern California coast.
On land, anthills become few and far between leeward of the Islas Coronados. Marine life awakens and hundreds of Pacific White-sided Dolphins dominate the horizon, accompanied by whales lubberly heading northward after spawning in the protected bays of southern Baja.
Sometime in the early morning off the coast of Rosarito, a large pod of bottlenose dolphins surf the boat’s bow only a few feet under the surface. With each stroke of their powerful tails, phosphorescence illuminates underwater pathways trailing northward hundreds of yards.
The Northern Baja coastline starkly contrasts that of Southern California. You can still observe the natural contour of the coast. Low-lying, ant-hill-free hills are heralded by seaside bluffs; unmolested valleys continue upland, carved by watersheds. Besides the random villa or two, the land between Rosarito and Ensenada retains its original charm.
A light marine layer lingers as the sun rises over Punta Salsipuedes. “Leave if you can,” the area’s name ominously suggests. Leaving we are, approaching Isla Todos Santos in the distance and our final destination, Bahia Ensenada.
A full day’s sail awards breathtaking vistas, phosphorescent fishes and some delicious chicken adobo (thanks Rose!) But as our finish line is faint in the distance, so becomes the wind. I was warned Ensenada doesn’t just allow you to enter her protected harbors – she puts up a fight. Cross-currents and fickle winds create a challenging approach, especially when motor power leads to disqualification.
Thus with the finish line only a few miles off, we wait. Crawling, bobbing, cursing and yawning, we patiently cruise at 1-2 knots for the duration of the race.
Being the forever captain our helmsman is, we switch sails incessantly, trying unbearably to break the 2-knot barrier the bay has created. After some personal multitasking and a crew full of patience, we arrive in La Marina Ensenada 28 hours after our departure. By this point, solid ground felt more like jello, and with some experienced advice I found the remedy to loose land legs at Hussong’s Cantina.
Ensenada never ceases to amaze. Her peaceful mountains and beautiful marinas are juxtaposed with the world-famous debauchery found in town. But that’s another story. All I will add is try the fried oysters at Ultramarino Oyster Bar – they’re incredible.