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The Once and Future Fleet

The IOR is alive and well in Mexico

July 19, 2002
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Tony Bessinger

A ghost from the past floats at the end of the dock. Its paint is faded and the deck gear a bit worn, but it’s still a thoroughbred, albeit one from a bygone era. The long, angled transom, low freeboard, wide midsection, narrow cockpit, and flush deck look odd by today’s standards, but at one time these characteristics represented the pinnacle of raceboat technology. The boat’s name is Fujimo, and for a while, it and others like it ruled the waves from Key West to Japan, Cowes to Sardinia.

Custom-built IOR raceboats are hardly extinct, even years after their heyday. What’s unusual is that the 50-foot Fujimo hasn’t suffered a humiliating conversion to a racer/cruiser or been relegated to weeknight PHRF racing, and that it isn’t alone on the dock in Acapulco, Mexico. Nearby sits a Reichel/Pugh 44, a Peterson 40, and a Nelson/Marek 41, all from the same era. What brought these boats to a yacht club deep in Mexico, and why they are still raced hard and pampered–in some cases looking just as good as they did when brand new–is a mystery worth unravelling.
But first, a little personal background to explain how I landed here in Acapulco. I spent my formative years sailing on IOR boats. We wore the high-tech gear of the day: Line 7 foul weather gear over jeans and sweatshirts, Ray-Ban Aviators, and Topsiders. We trimmed bloopers by their halyards, and ground fishhooks off wire sheets and halyards with the back of our rigging knives. Loran and radio direction finders were how we found our way around, and Dinty Moore was what we ate on distance races. My friends and I raced New York 40s and the like, but held private dreams of moving up to the bigs. We’d sneak secret, envious glances at the big-name programs as they thundered by. I was young and lacked the experience, but managed to beg a few rides here and there. I badly wanted to sail regularly on IOR 50s like_ Carat_, Infinity, and Fujimo, and couldn’t have imagined that they’d soon be outdated, discarded, and replaced.

As the ’80s faded, so did the once-proud IOR fleet. But at the 2001 Chicago NOOD regatta, I met John Bennett, a principal at the UK Sailmakers loft in San Diego. He told me that IOR wasn’t completely dead, and that there was a fleet of custom boats from the ’80s still sailing in Mexico. That’s how I found myself flying to Acapulco only a few days after racing off Key West on an IMS 50–a boat sailing to the rule that replaced the IOR. The irony is fitting, especially since in the United States IMS 50s look endangered themselves these days.

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Even before the sun makes its way above the mountains and cliffs of Acapulco, the temperature is in the 80s. As I look down from the balcony at the B&B; where I’m staying with Bennett and the crew of the Nelson/Marek 42 Saeta, I can see why sailors have been coming to Acapulco since the 1500s. A perfect horseshoe of a bay is fringed by narrow beaches, tall apartment buildings, and hotels, and mountains that climb thousands of feet into the sky. As the sun rises higher, I can see the wind beginning to lightly touch the surface of the azure-blue water. And 10 minutes’ drive to the south sits Acapulco YC, a haven of wealth and relaxation tucked away in a well-protected corner of the bay. Founded 45 years ago, the club’s membership consists mostly of families from Mexico City, a four-hour drive through the Sierra Madres. Acapulco, once a tourist destination for movie stars and the first jet setters, now caters more to domestic tourists.

Soon after I arrived, I sat down with my skipper, Rogellio Partidas, curious to discover how time has been convinced to bypass this particular corner of the racing world. Partidas is a wiry man in his 50s, and he’s the Contra Commodoro of the IOR fleet at the Club de Yates de Acapulco. He began sailing in 1969 when his amateur career as a waterski jumper ended because of knee injuries. He took to the sport quickly and had his first major regatta win in 1976. Five years later he had Saeta, a 42-foot Nelson/Marek design, built in San Diego. He won the MEXORC (the Mexican Ocean Racing Circuit) in 1981 and 1984. “There was a time in the early 1980s when a lot of IOR boats came here,” he said. “Everybody was getting one, and there were even three or four built here. Then the crisis came and it became harder and harder to buy new boats so we decided to keep them.” The crisis Partidas refers to is the severe depression that wracked Mexico during the late 1980s. And even now, though times are better, economics still play a part in the survival of the fleet; there’s a 30-percent import duty on boats entering Mexico.

The annual Agua Brava regatta is a three-day event for Optimists, J/24s, an assortment of PHRF boats, and the two divisions of the IOR fleet–four in class A, 10 in class B. It’s the last major regatta before MEXORC, held up the coast at Puerto Vallarta in March, and a good time for the IOR fleet to make sure everything’s working well and that the crew work is snappy. At the skipper’s meeting, a lively affair punctuated by laughter and good-natured ribbing about mark placement, the race committee chairman explains that on the first and last day the fleet will be buoy racing on windward-leeward courses. On Sunday, the IOR fleet will take a 20-mile jaunt out into the Pacific for a petite distance race.

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The crew of_ Saeta_ is made up mostly of friends of Partidas as well as his son, Bernardo–a popular young man with the ladies and a skilled foredeck hand. One of the stalwarts of the crew, Leopoldo “Polo” Farias, is a manufacturer’s rep with clients in Mexico and the United States. He travels extensively for his job and has made it north to do a Mackinac race. After three days on the boat, a lot of it spent laughing my head off, I can see why Polo is in demand not only on Saeta, but also on a J/24 that does a lot of racing and winning on the Mexican circuit. “Racing,” Polo often said, with tongue firmly in cheek, “is the lousy time between parties.” There are also two “marineros”–Spanish for paid hand–one of them, Meno, is the second generation of his family to work for Partidas, having taken over from his father 15 years ago. Bill Barsz, a retired airline pilot from San Diego, is the only other American onboard. Partidas and the rest of the crew are unfailingly considerate to the two NortAmericanos with translations. A good thing, as the most Spanish the two of us can muster are the words for beer, and how to obtain more of it politely. “Uno mas cerveza, por favor. Gracias.”

As we sit under a painfully hot sun and an AP flag, iced drinks, half lemonade, half beer come up from the immaculately kept cabin below. Cold water is served in small plastic bags. Bite off a corner of the bag off and suck the water down. The view looking back at Acapulco from the mouth of the bay is spectacular. Small fishing boats dot an ocean filled with whales and billfish. Houses cling impossibly onto straight cliffs and range from mansions–with swimming pools and cable cars that descend to the beach–to shacks whose very existence seems threatened by each puff of air.

Finally, the breeze builds to 8 knots, and the committee sends the fleet off. The IOR B fleet is the more competitive of the two classes, and the line echoes with shouts in Spanish to come up, and other sailing terms whose intent I at least understand, as everybody tries to start at the favored end of the line. Several of the boats are obviously there for the party but the crew of Commodore Brockmann’s Sidewinder is all business. The crew of Saeta lies somewhere between the two. The racing reminds me of one of the reasons that the IOR rule went away–light air and IOR boats don’t mix well–but the crews, used to Acapulco’s generally light conditions, know how to eke boatspeed out of the tiniest of breezes. Our finishes aren’t special that first day, mostly because we keep sailing after breeze lines that dissipate before we can get there, but Partidas is a great driver, he knows the boat well after 20 years of ownership. After two light-air races, the sun is sinking fast, as it does in the tropics, and the fleet heads for the barn. As Saeta motors in, the crew rehashes the day in a jumbled combination of English and Spanish over cold beer, while the marineros flake the sails and tidy the boat. “We have done better,” says Partidas, “but tomorrow is another day.”

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At the yacht club the party is in full swing, boat crews and their families enjoying a buffet dinner under a darkening sky. Palm trees surround the dining area and kids splash nearby in the immense pool. The bar is busy and every table is full of happily chattering people. When one of the few American sailors joins a table full of Mexicans the language at the table politely changes over to English, which everybody speaks extremely well. John Bennett fields a constant stream of people wanting to talk sails and endures the attention cheerfully. When he first came down to Acapulco in 1996, not many sailmakers had spent time sailing with the fleet. Now sailmakers from his and other lofts travel south for any major regatta and some of the smaller ones. The fleet has a gentleman’s agreement to use only one headsail so the arms race isn’t that intense, but a look around reveals that people take keeping their boats up to speed seriously. There are plenty of new sails and the yacht yard next to the club is kept busy with keel and rudder modifications.

Darkness surrounds the pool of light and noise at the club. Sailors join families waiting at tables, crews gather together to discuss the day’s tactics, and engage in the universal sailors’ sport of bar karate–hands waving and chopping to simulate some crossing situation or a busy mark rounding. The food is wonderful, the drinks are cold, and the hospitality is beyond compare. For many crew, especially the younger ones, the after-race party is simply a springboard for a long evening of fun. They’ll grab a bite and a few drinks, and then go home to get ready for the rest of the evening, one that may not end until the sun rises over the mountains. Bernardo and Polo really come into their own when the sun goes down. With the experience of skilled networkers, they assure that every evening our B&B; echoes with music and laughter. Almost every night our crew and more than a few guests whom Polo and Bernardo have rounded up stand around the pool or float in it under a tropical evening sky studded with brilliant stars. Since we aren’t very good at attracting guests, two Canadian sailmakers and I compensate by obtaining crucial supplies. The sight of three 40-something gringos, none of them small, squeezing themselves, cases of beer, bags of ice, and snacks into a VW Beetle taxi provides a huge amount of entertainment for shoppers at a late-night bodega.

Thanks in no small part to the scheduled 1 p.m. race start, everybody appears relatively hale and hearty at the yacht club the next day. We walk by a late-morning church service being held in a corner of the club on the way to yet another full-scale meal. Breakfast, Mexican style, includes papaya, pineapple, melon, freshly cooked tortillas, and innocent looking but fire-inducing little green peppers mixed into scrambled eggs. The distance race is on the schedule for Sunday so we head for a mark 10 miles out in the Pacific in a breeze that never tops 12 knots. The day is brutally hot, especially when we round the mark and started heading downwind. Rogellio steers for the five hours that the race takes to complete, an impressive feat under that intense sun. The language barrier becomes an issue once that day, when Rogellio is urged to “put the bow down,” and promptly sends crew to sit forward. That evening, sunburnt and satisfied, we watch TV at the club’s bar as Nueva Angleterra beats San Louis in the Superbowl.

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On the final day of the regatta, Rogellio asks me to trim the main, as our mainsail trimmer has returned to work in Mexico City. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have presumed to take on such a task; I was quite content just “pulling ’em up and pulling ’em down” as a mastman. On the final day of the Agua Brava, I trim, call some shots, and feel comfortable enough with the crew and the conditions to play a more involved role. I’m finally ready for the big time in the IOR fleet, and lucky enough to be able to prove it, which for some odd reason, seems important. We do well in the sole race, finishing second.

I look through the scratched Plexiglas of the AeroMexico plane’s porthole as we bank over Acapulco on the first leg of my long journey back to the present and home. There below, picture perfect, is the corner of the bay that shelters the Club de Yates de Acapulco from Pacific storms and the more persistent winds of change. My sailing career seems to have come full circle; the boats that introduced me to the world that I would dedicate so much time to, have reappeared, as if to remind me not to forget from whence I came. I wonder if, 20 years from now, the fleet below will still be there. Already there are small signs of change: China Cloud, an older IMS design, has just been delivered to new owners in Mexico, a Schock 40 is already part of the fleet, and so are a couple of the ubiquitous J/105. I have a feeling, however, that the IOR fleet won’t go easy. Ghosts that solid are hard to ignore and even harder to forget.

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