Riding The Baja Express

Cabo beckons, and when the wind blows up their transom, the boys on /Bien Roulee / make a run for the border. A feature story from our June 2008 issue

Cabo Express 368

Herb McCormick

The Duke. John Wayne. He talked a little . . . slow . . . the Duke . . . but beyond his laconic delivery stood the ultimate man of action. When one alights from a plane at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., as I did last spring to sail the Corona del Mar to Cabo San Lucas Race, your first memorable encounter is with a nine-foot bronze effigy of the Hollywood hero, all done up in cowpoke duds and clearly ready to kick some tail. As it turned out, it was an image I'd conjure repeatedly in the days that followed.

For much of his life, Wayne would call Orange County home, something that Glenn Highland and Alan Andrews have done since they were kids. Highland's now a retired CEO with a house in Corona del Mar, just around the corner from his yacht designing neighbor, Andrews, whose impact on the sailing world includes such rockets as Magnitude 80, Medicine Man, and Locomotion.

When Highland commissioned a new sailboat that he could race to Mexico, or even Hawaii, as well as cruise to Catalina, he called on Andrews to render the design. Highland was adamant on several fronts: He wanted a boat that was not beholden to any rating rule, that was light and fast but with open and inviting accommodations for a racing crew of six or a pair of couples on a weekend getaway.

The end result was Bien Roulee-loosely translated, it's a French idiom that suggests a "well-rounded" woman-a 39-foot carbon missile built by James Betts Enterprises in Anacortes, Wash. Displacing a mere 11,400 pounds, with a carbon rig and all manner of related performance goodies, BR was launched last fall but the boat's first offshore test would be last March's CDM-Cabo Race, an 800-mile romp south of the border hosted by Balboa YC.

There's a long and storied tradition of racing from California to Mexico, all races of which start at some SoCal location and end in either Puerto Vallarta or Cabo, but for several reasons, the Cabo races-which are long but not too long, contested in optimum spring conditions, and wrap up in a hopping resort town with good berthing facilities-are currently drawing the best fleets among the true offshore tests, and for this year's CDM-Cabo competition, Highland, a rookie ocean racer, and Andrews would both be aboard, along with talented helmsman Chuck Clay; Andrews' associate, bowman Erik Berzins; pitman Roman Villarreal, a restaurateur by trade who'd also packed the galley with abundant vittles (though much of it, alas, would go uneaten); and me.

On Friday, March 28, BR and 26 other boats answered the starting gun off the Balboa Pier (10 more yachts, the Class A big boats and maxis, would roll a day later) in fairly typical Newport Beach conditions: a light southerly, flat water, and bright sunshine. Tit for tat, tack-by-tack, we collectively worked our way upwind and offshore toward the promise of stronger, veering breeze. About an hour in we were mightily headed and flopped over to starboard.

"Hopefully that's the last we'll see of port tack for the next 18 hours," said Andrews. And so it was.

The jib was soon furled, replaced by the masthead genoa, BR trucking along at the same speed as the true wind, about 9 knots. Up went a staysail, good for another half-knot (little did we know, it would be days before it was doused). Near sunset, the wind had freed, and risen, sufficiently enough for hoisting the A3 asymmetric. BR surged forward in the fresh 20-knot nor'wester, instantly knocking off double-digit boatspeeds. Villarreal, trimming the chute, said to no one in particular, "It's O.M.G. time." And when I asked what he meant, he replied, "Oh. My. God."

The Duke might've put it another way: "Buckle up . . . Pilgrims. And hang on . . . to your hats."

The forecast, frankly, had been too good to be true, which is why I scarcely believed a word of it. Rarely are things as wonderful (or awful) as the meteorologists say they will be. That said, Highland had secured the pre-race services of not one, but two, professional routers, and their respective predictions had been virtually identical. Once offshore, 30 miles from the coast, there would be heaps of northwest breeze, anywhere from 16 to 22 knots, through the weekend and into the early part of the week, though winds would taper off in the latter stages of the trip. The weathermen were only slightly off, and more remarkably, in our favor, for the breeze proved even sweeter, and more strapping, than was advertised.

Your average race from Newport Beach to Cabo, according to veteran navigators, can be broken down into three distinct segments: the first half of the race, roughly 400 nautical miles, from the start to Cedros Island, near Turtle Bay; the central section, about 250 miles, from Cedros to Cabo San Lazaro, north of Bahia Magdalena; and the final piece to the puzzle, around 150 miles, from "Mag Bay" to Cabo Falso at the tip of Baja California, at the corner to Cabo San Lucas.

The first night of any ocean race is always surreal, but sometimes you get lucky and can ease into the routine. Not this time. The game was on from the get-go. BR, absolutely hauling the mail, seemed to understand this better than we did. Oh yes, there was a round-up or two (or three . . . you get the idea)-"Wind check!" hollered Clay-but there were also glorious spans when the helm went oh-so light and all was right in our 39-foot universe.

Drivers changed on the hour, everyone upping the boatspeed ante. Villarreal registered a 21.5, and then Andrews and Clay bumped it up over 22. On it went through the night, the miles ticking steadily away.

We threw in the first jibe at 0830 on Saturday morning, an all-hands affair, and kept ramping down the coast. That afternoon, Highland fired off an e-mail to the race office: "Remained an E-ticket ride all day off Mexico. Plenty of wind, big rough seas. Some jibes in 25 knots to get your attention along the way."

No one was enjoying it more than Andrews, the sailor known as "Light Bulb" for his switched-on ways. At dusk, at the wheel, he said, "I'm not even looking at the spinnaker," and what he meant was we were becoming a team, the trimmer and driver thinking and acting in unison, as one.

"You can just pick a path through the waves," he added, BR on an 18-knot plane. "Even a one-footer can make a big difference. This is so much fun."

Yes, it was.

Cool. Black. Long. That was the second night at sea, made all the more challenging by the overcast sky and nary a single star by which to steer. As the breeze stabilized in the mid-teens, we jibed inshore onto port at 0230 on Sunday morning for better breeze, and back to starboard seven hours later on a long board that carried us past Cedros and on to the second half of the course.

During the day we changed down to the A2, which we carried through the afternoon, the staysail still set and along for the ride. At the wheel, sliding down the face of a 6-foot wave on another prolonged surf, Clay said, "I wish my brother were here. He could just sit there and watch. Not many people get to see this."

We could've used his bro' a short time later, when the breeze suddenly crested to 30-knots and we had a fire drill swapping the A2 for the A3. The takedown was a nightmare, BR skidding sideways in the prolonged gust-with pace-a base runner sliding under the tag at home. But soon enough we were again a controlled, going concern and the third night at sea was another fast one, this time under welcome, starry skies, with our two best drivers, Andrews and Clay, doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.

On Monday, Highland filed another dispatch to HQ: "Challenging last 20 hours. Plenty of wind and seas . . . Have worn through (the covers on) all our spin sheets. Jury rigging many things but keeping the boat moving and laughing a lot at how crazy this all is. High boat speed 23.8, highest windspeed 33-but fantastic part has been how steady it has been at 15 ++."

The idea off Mag Bay is to stay well outside, away from the beach and wavering breeze, but the wind was still steady and we cut the usual stand-off waypoint, a tactic that caused us trepidation until Magnitude 80 passed us well inshore, en route to a new race record of 2d:10h:23m:27s. We were obviously in very good company.

Of course, the sleigh ride had to end sometime, and it did, predictably, on the approach to Cabo. By midnight Monday, the breeze had dropped into the single digits for the first time since the start over three days earlier. "We're racing the sun," said Andrews, meaning we'd best cross the finish line by sunrise, when the breeze faltered altogether, or we might be drifting around for a good while.

That would've been awful.

But our luck held, and though we had a few anxious moments keeping the boat moving after briefly parking near Cabo Falso, we crossed the finish line just after the 66-foot Medicine Man, at almost the precise moment the tip of the orange sun broke the horizon on Tuesday morn.

Our time of 3d:17h-the 10th boat to finish-earned us a fifth in class. We could only tip our hats to the J/125 Reinrag2, our division winner, and the Calkins 50, Sabrina, the race's overall winner; and everyone else who topped us in the standings. We left everything we had on the racecourse, and the guys ahead of us surely did, too.
Looking back at our course track and comparing it to the competition, we quite possibly jibed a couple of times at less-than-optimum moments (a bit early here, a tad late there) and we seemed to be sailing hotter angles than boats like Reinrag, which suggests an A4 running chute would have been a useful addition to the sail inventory, but hindsight is always crystal clear. For a typical Cabo race, we were fine. It was, however, far from your typical Cabo race.

But in the meantime, we were in Mexico, land of tacos and tequila, pretty women and fine cigars. Thinking back on the Duke, it was a scene he would've enjoyed, though he wouldn't have talked much about it.

And neither will I.