Seafarers set sail for swell ride

Published 19 November 09 01:53 PM


Baja Ha-Ha rally all about adventure, fun, organizers say


It's an escape from gray cubicle walls for Megan Buechler, a reprieve from pancreatic cancer chemotherapy treatments for Thomas Christensen, a medical school graduation present to themselves for Seth Strattan and Sophie Candille.

To others, it's a retirement party, a family trip, a line on a bucket list.

It is the Baja Ha-Ha, the mostly relaxed but potentially hazardous two-week sailing rally with the ridiculously perfect — or is perfectly ridiculous? — name. Yesterday, smiles washed over sailors' faces in waves.

Nearly 200 boats, hundreds of sailors and a few dogs in life preservers paraded along the glassy water off Shelter Island yesterday morning at the start of the 16th running of one of the world's most popular sailing events.

Billed as the largest offshore sailing event in California and the world's second-largest cruising rally, the party will end nearly 800 miles away in Cabo San Lucas early next month after stops in Turtle Bay and Bahia Santa Maria.

Organizers warn sailors they'll get “the opportunity to have an adventure, not a guarantee of happiness.” The rules, as such, warn entrants that the ocean “exposes mariners to all perils of the sea,” but also contains this caveat: “There shall be no whining! And no sniveling either!”

This year's fleet ranges from a modest 24-footer to million-dollar yachts, one 103 feet long. Seventeen of the 192 boats are from San Diego County, a big change from the first Ha-Ha in 1994, which had 39 boats, three of them local.

While all the sailors know enough to expect work on this vacation, the party vibe was palpable during yesterday's 25-minute parade. A gun marked the start. A girl stood on one boat cabin swiveling a Hula Hoop around her hips.

Entire crews wore costumes. They dressed as inmates in black-and-white jumpsuits, as Hare Krishnas in orange robes and ponytailed wigs, as pirates. They wore red-and-white striped shirts and beanies beneath a sign asking “Dónde está Waldo?” One couple donned fat suits. Another shot giant squirt guns at passing boats.

Yet this isn't Over-The-Line on sailboats. Beers might be on board, but Mexican cervezas become rewards for nerve-racking overnights in shipping lanes. Starlit stretches of night are split between speedy three-hour sleep cycles and somehow slower three-hour watches.

Retired engineer Doug DeFoe, 71, a former El Cajon resident who now lives in Georgia, took part in the first Baja Ha-Ha in 1994 with his wife. The two novices sailed a 38-foot sloop and encountered some “pretty good-sized swells that we weren't used to,” DeFoe said. But aside from a windy start and a close encounter with a container ship one night, he said the low point of the trip came at the party in Cabo, when he got food poisoning from bad sushi.

“We got in there just fine,” DeFoe said. “I believe I still have the T-shirt with the names of all the boats who participated.”

Andy Turpin, 57, managing editor of the Mill Valley-based Latitude 38 magazine and an event organizer, is sailing in his 14th Baja Ha-Ha this year. He said DeFoe's experience is typical.

“I observe a lot of apprehension on the front end for first-timers,” Turpin said. “When I see them in Cabo, they're all lit up and happy, and all that nervousness has washed away, and they usually say, ‘I wish I had done that 20 years ago. That wasn't so hard after all.’ ”

Latitude 38 publisher and executive editor Richard Spindler dreamed up the Baja Ha-Ha to bring more people to the sport, Turpin said. San Diego was chosen because of its welcoming marine services and proximity to Mexico.

“November 1 is the official end of the hurricane season, so there was always sort of a migration of boats heading south for the winter over the years,” Turpin said. “Richard said we ought to make a bit of a party out of this and it'll help the newcomers to know they're cruising in the presence of extra sailors.”

Despite its potential dangers, the event is enticing to newcomers. The cost is $350 per boat, which organizers say is a fraction of the cost of similar rallies elsewhere. Regular roll calls keep tabs on everybody. The event is timed so that even the slowest boats get about a day and a half of rest at the two stops. And only two of the 45 legs in the rallies to date were upwind.

Typical conditions are light-to-moderate following winds with small-to-moderate seas, with a very slight possibility of heavy weather.

Unlike races or regattas, where sailors battle for the best time, boats in a rally tend to travel together to a destination, ensuring everyone has a good time. In this rally, every finisher is promised a symbolic trophy.

Per the rules: “The Baja Ha-Ha is foremost about fun rather than competition and ‘pickle dishes.’ ”


Photo by John Gastaldo
San Diego Union-Tribune

Retired accounting professor Lee Pryor, 66, and budget manager Cathy Sweet, 47, of Oceanside were the second entrants to sign up for the event in May. It's always been a dream of the longtime sailors to make the trip, but Sweet first needed to persuade her employer to let her to take an extended leave.

Last week they made final preparations aboard their 43-foot boat, loading up the gear, food and material they would need for the trip. They wrote down a menu of casseroles, lasagna, eggs, hot and cold cereal and sandwiches. They began to joke: “Whatever happens on the Baja Ha-Ha stays on the Baja Ha-Ha.”

Nervous excitement kept Sweet up the night before they left Oceanside. “You start thinking what could go wrong,” she said. “The boat's definitely ready. We've been working on it real hard.”

Retired insurance saleswoman Jean Gregory, 58, said the mood was more jubilant than anxious at the start yesterday, where sun and sea merged seamlessly with the growing number of masts on the horizon.

“It's electric out here,” Gregory said via cell phone before it cut out. “Everybody is just energized and ready to go and ready for the adventure.” 



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