N2E: Not just another race; it’s sailing history
and the history of sailing all in one
In 1947, founding members of the Newport Ocean Sailing Association (NOSA) set out to promote the sport of ocean racing, seamanship and the development of sailing activities in Southern California by hosting races for all those interested and decided to help fund junior programs and sponsor accomplished amateurs to support that mission.
NOSA members called the first race the Governor’s Cup. An invitation to Governor Earl Warren, inviting him to present the first trophy in the small fishing village of Ensenada, Mexico, was sent via telegraph.
These were the years just after the war. Couples who launched the baby boom generation were moving into the state and looking for homes, at an average cost of $7,700. The bikini was gaining popularity, as was television. A gallon of gas was 16 cents. The fastest and most modern sailboats had wooden hulls and flew natural-fiber sails.
One hundred and seventeen boats paid $22.50 to register for that just-for-fun race April 23, 1948. Newport Harbor Yacht Club kindly hosted. Thanks to winds estimated to have blown at a swift 25–35 knots, only 65 boats finished the 125-nautical mile contest.
It was a grand kick-off to a race that is not historically known for blustery winds. In the years that followed, the renamed Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race (N2E) became an event with a full and rich history documented by names etched onto the sides of four dozen trophies. More significantly, it’s the story of an ever-changing experience that exceeded goals set by its founders; an ongoing narrative of mankind’s quest to pit sailboat against competitors and nature in the quest of breaking records or simply finishing. But it’s also an ongoing record of innovation and the rise of technology in sailing.
Thanks to the handicap system however, the boat that is first to finish, thereby winning for Best Elapsed time, might not win or even place in its class. Alternately, a cruising boat that sails beyond expectations could score the Best Corrected Time All Boats; winning the Tommy Bahama Trophy offered since 2004. It is kind of like in 2009 when Sojourn, a Catalina 30 in PHRF K won Best Corrected Time despite finishing 10 hours behind record-breaker Magnitude 80 and 12 hours behind Best Elapsed Time winner Loe Real. Each year, N2E is really anyone’s race.
Through the years, it is the just-for-fun sailors who repeatedly show up with their friends in search of adventure; a challenge with a spirit of competition who will always be the heart and soul of N2E.
Every name on every trophy is significant. And some of the most recognizable names in the sailing world are etched onto the highly coveted trophies; those for Best Elapsed Time, Best Corrected Time and many others for those scoring the fastest times in more than 45 classes and categories.
Arguably, the winningest and most famous sailor of the race is America’s Cup skipper, Dennis Conner. Conner and crew won best elapsed time honors seven times from 1989 through 1996 on the 60-foot Americans Cup catamaran Stars and Stripes. Two years later, adventurer Steve Fossett captained the same Stars and Stripes to Ensenada in a time so fast it took 18 years to best. It was just last year that businessman Tom Siebel’s Orion, an ORMA70 with a crew of eight, broke the record with a staggering elapsed time of 5:17:26.
Then there is everyman Bill Gibbs, a multiple-race winner who swept best elapsed time wins from 2002 through 2004 then again in 2011 and 2012 aboard Afterburner, a 1987 52-foot Tennant Bladerunner-design catamaran built in New Zealand.
2004, 2010 and 2013 were banner years when Gibbs and his friends sailed to the podium to collect the coveted Tommy Bahama Trophy for Best Corrected overall. But for all the wins, there were disappointments too. Afterburner did not finish four times due to breakages.
Proving that every year on the ocean is different and big comebacks are just a race away, Gibbs returned to the podium in 2016 to collect the top three trophies for the inaugural N2E of Wahoo, a new 47-foot Schionning GF 1400 catamaran that he claimed was a lightweight cruising boat. With the wins, Gibbs name has been etched 25 times onto N2E trophies.
To say that multihull yachts have done well in N2E would be an understatement. To date, they’ve claimed more than 70% of first-to-finish honors. The multihull revolution started in 1955. Real Estate development had replaced oil and agriculture as the state’s leading industry. Disneyland opened, polyester sails debuted and Warren Seaman raced a new kind of ride. Tokerau was neither a catamaran nor a trimaran; but a Hawaiian outrigger canoe-inspired proa. Seaman and Rudy Choy were partners of CSK; both were pioneering multihull designers. Choy is credited with creating many winning catamaran designs and scored N2E wins aboard Imua in 1963 and 1964. On Aikane X5, Choy earned trophies in 1985, 1987 and 1988.
The 60-foot trimaran that stared in the movie Waterworld, renamed Loe Real and helmed by Loe Enloe, won Best Elapsed Time honors in 2009 and 2010. For the last three years, Enloe’s 60-MOD Mighty Merloe dueled with Orion in an attempt to break the old record. The pair of technological marvels brought some of sailing’s latest and greatest advancements to N2E’s course.
James Arness, of TV show Gunsmoke, has his name on the Alice Purcell trophy. In 1968, his 58 catamaran Sea Smoke was fastest in the west. Through the years, some of Hollywood’s finest have raced. They sought the same thrill of victory as racers whose new affordable fiberglass boats began filling marinas opening in Marina del Rey, Long Beach and Dana Point in the early 70s.
Actors Humphrey Bogart and Buddy Ebsen, news anchor Walter Cronkite and comedienne Vicki Lawrence were just some of the celebrities who have participated. Movie producer Milton Bren and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad also raced alongside a growing fleet of PHRF racers and against competitive would-be legends like Bill Ficker and Dave Ullman. Radio personality, Dr. Laura has entered at least two boats over the years.
It was 1975 before Ragtime, one of the most storied wooden monohulls, finished first to break a string of multihull wins. The 1963 New Zealand-built Ragtime took the sailing world by storm, even upsetting the 1973 Transpacific Yacht Race with a record-breaking finish. Ragtime won N2E again in 1977. That same year, the 67-foot Merlin, one of an emerging class of ultralight displacement boats, or ULDBs, set a Transpac record that would stand for 20 years. But it would be another four years before any monohull beat the multis for Best Elapsed Time.
It was not celebrities or the chance to race in the company of sailing elite that drove participation. The more people took part, the more participants experienced the camaraderie sailing is famous for. With an average of 400 to 500 boats competing every year in the early 80’s, new racers got to discover an experience that took strangers and made them best friends and turned yacht club members into families.
In 1983, a record 675 boats entered the race; establishing the contest as the World’s Largest International Yacht Race. A legion of entries and a northern front in 1984 created maybe the most spectacular finish of any race when 180 boats crossed the finish line within 10 minutes.
Sail lofts were producing laminated sails that were lighter, stronger and more stretch resistant than single layer Dacron. Motorola introduced the first mobile phone. As different styles of boats emerged, NOSA establishing new classes to accommodate and encourage further growth of the sport. Although new ultra-lights and maxi-yachts were clearly the next big thing, NOSA equally welcomed cruising classes, offered divisions of non-spinnaker classes and even a class for ancient mariners; you know: the types of boats that sailed in that first race.
And for every new class, there’s a trophy. With the thanks and support of sponsors and local manufacturers, brand specific classes were added and trophies offered. Women started taking the helm so they got a trophy too. In 2017, a new trophy will be offered for the all-woman crew who best the cruising class. Through the years, NOSA had amassed a museum of magnificent, priceless trophies.
Through the 90s, the maxi class exploded with bigger, faster and lighter boats. Radar, weather faxes, GPS technology grew by leaps and bounds. By the late 90s Roy Disney’s 68-Andrews, Pyewacket; the fastest in 1999, 2001 (and on newer Pyewacket in 2006) dominated racing in Southern California and beyond. Although Disney broke a lot of records on Pyewacket, it was Aszhou, a 63-foot Australian-built Reichel Pugh that in 2016 made it to Ensenada in less than 10 hours – a record almost unthinkable by the sailors of the first race and by many who struggled over the years to cross the finish by the mid Sunday deadline.
Sailed by skipper Steve Maheen, Aszhou set an amazing new monohull record time of 9:35:34 on its first N2E. It beat Doug Baker’s Magnitude 80, which set the previous record for monohulls in 2009 while capping three-race streak. And although Aszhou destroyed the previous record by more than 90 minutes, three other Maxi’s in the 2016 race; Pyewacket, Zephyrus and Medicine Man (that won top honors in the class) also beat the old record.
Embracing the relationship with the Transpac Race, board members added a longer course around the San Clemente Island in 2015 to serve as an offshore qualifier. Since it is not exclusive for potential or existing Transpac participants, NOSA members hope that race veterans will want to challenge their yacht and their crew by taking the less scenic yet more challenging route. On the flipside, also in 2016, a well-received short-course became available for racers based in San Diego.
Certainly, times are different and much has changed since that first race. But directives by the organization’s founders have served NOSA well – by embracing change and making the race more inclusive, the sport of ocean racing has evolved with a host of friends and relationships established along the way.
Yet even today, NOSA members tasked with continuing the traditions still stop and ask every sailor they meet “Won’t you race with us? How can we make it fun and competitive for you?