Cruising the Pacific part 4: Mexico to New Zealand

By: Steve Raea, Photography by: Steve Raea

Crossing the Pacific Crossing the Pacific
crossing the pacific Pre-start: Nereid (foreground) puts a squeeze on some of the competition in the build-up to race one crossing the pacific
crossing the pacific Prizegiving: (from left) Steve, Bill, Fran�ois, Stewart and Ralph crossing the pacific
crossing the pacific Steve enjoys the spoils of a very successful regatta crossing the pacific
crossing the pacific Running for home under spinnaker in race three crossing the pacific
Crossing the Pacific Crossing the Pacific

Before starting his Pacific crossing, editor-at-large Steve Raea cobbles a crew together to fly the Kiwi flag in Mexico’s biggest yacht regatta and finds cohesion in the chaos.

Cruising the Pacific part 4: Mexico to New Zealand
Eyes front...

The last few weeks have been some of the longest I've known — and the hottest, too. By 7am the sun is pouring through the aft companionway and the temperature continues to rise until it reaches a miserable crescendo in the early afternoon. There is no escaping the heat.

It was a relief of sorts when the tall, lanky man from Vancouver knocked on the side of the boat early one afternoon. Extracting myself from a contorted position under the chart table, where I was sorting out some wiring, I went topside to investigate. Rivulets of sweat ran through my hair and into my eyes and God knows what the tall man was thinking when I stumbled into the sunlight and met his gaze. His wife took a deliberate step back on the dock.

"Is this not a good time?" the tall man asked, looking quizzical and mildly alarmed.

"That," I said, "depends on who you are and the nature of your visit."
The tall man introduced himself as Bill. He said he'd seen a notice posted on the Vallarta Yacht Club website seeking crew for the upcoming Banderas Bay Regatta. He explained he was looking for a ride and could bring some experience to the table. He also said he had a friend named Stewart, a yacht rigger and experienced sailor from Vancouver who was coming down and looking for a yacht.

This was music to my ears. For three weeks I'd been marking time until my crew arrived from home for the first leg of our crossing to New Zealand. They were still three weeks away, and a week of yacht racing would be a most welcome distraction. Bill said Stewart would arrive at the end of the week, four days before the opening race. This gave me time to put the boat into racing mode, apply for a handicap and, hopefully, secure a few more experienced hands.

Ad hoc at best

In its 21st year, the Banderas Bay Regatta is Mexico's biggest race week, and while it attracts few straight-out race yachts, it provides numerous divisions for both performance cruising, cruising and multi-hull yachts. In this milestone year, organisers hoped for a record fleet and they achieved it — 55 entries by the close of registration.

My search for more experienced hands was largely fruitless, although my neighbor Ralph, an aging Texan with a penchant for large Cuban cigars, offered his services with the proviso his diabetes was in check. I agreed to take him on but regretted it almost immediately when his visiting granddaughter told me she had just spent seven days sailing non-stop with her grandparents from La Paz to Puerto Vallarta, a distance of 400 miles. A quick mental calculation had the Texan sailing his boat at an average speed of 2.8 knots. Clearly Ralph was not a man in a hurry, but the offer had already been extended.

François, on the other hand, was full of promise. A Frenchman from Toulouse in his early forties, he had left his crewing run late and was introduced to the fleet as an experienced and available crew member during the race briefing. Knowing the French enjoy their yacht racing as much as anyone, I shot my hand into the air and we had our fifth crew member. Joining us at our table, François' opening gambit went along the lines he was very excited to sail his first yacht race.

Stewart from Vancouver choked on his margarita and had to excuse himself from the table. Ralph was delighted he was not the only greenhorn. My own mind turned to visions of wrapped spinnakers, riding turns on winch drums and general chaos — all of which would come true to some extent over the course of the following week.

The race organisers had split cruising yachts into two divisions — over and under 47-feet. We fell into the second category along with nine other entries, among which were some smart-looking yachts and even smarter-looking uniformed crew. We had no uniform ourselves, but I chose to fly my large Steinlager flag from the halyard as we motored to the start line for race one, hoping the very word 'New Zealand' would rattle the American fleet.

Banderas Bay is the perfect yachting amphitheatre and you can set your watch by the thermal wind that starts to fill in at 11am and builds throughout the day, rising to about 25 knots at its late afternoon peak. We left the dock early, hoping for enough breeze to get some practice setting the large spinnaker I'd hauled across from New Zealand. The boat had not previously been set up for 'extras' and the systems we'd put in place were ad hoc at best.

Cheap drunks

It became apparent in short order that flying a spinnaker in fresh conditions — or any conditions, for that matter — would be a big ask given pre-race tacking practice had us flailing around the cockpit like cheap drunks. This task principally fell to François and Ralph.

Being younger, but sadly no more agile than Ralph, François' job was to sheet in and trim the headsail. Ralph's job was to release the sheet during the tack and move across the cockpit and tail for François on the winch. For some reason known only to himself, François preferred to sit on the coaming forward of the winch and look aft when grinding. This, of course, was not ideal because he couldn't see the sail he was supposed to be trimming. While this didn't bother Ralph in the slightest, it was irksome — particularly for Stewart who had been around the block on race yachts and had, until now, fancied our chances of a reasonable showing. Eventually Stewart had had enough and asked François exactly what it was beyond the stern of the yacht he found so engaging. François replied he was almost positive he'd seen a whale and was waiting for it to resurface.

"#@&* the whale," said Stewart. "The only time I want you to look behind the boat is if you see a Mexican gun boat with a drugs cartel waving AK47s — and if you do, I want you to jump up and down and yell "Don't shoot!" Savvy?"

Ralph wasn't sure what to make of this and Bill just stared off into the middle distance like he always does. I considered Stewart's approach altogether kinder than the winch handle I had poised in my right hand.

Ice breaker

This small offering of honesty paid dividends and our next tack was improved. The one after that was better again and so it went until we were running down the line for the start of our first race.

The course, about 12 miles long, took us first on a windward beat to a port-hand top mark and onto a tight reach to a wing mark. It was then downwind to another rounding mark with a reach to the finish line.

Our first start was nothing spectacular, preferring to play it safe and keep to leeward of the fleet, heaven forbid having to tack or dip other boats given half the crew seemed to be lost in the moment. We emerged from the start box unscathed and immediately tacked to port behind the rest of the fleet and sailed into clear air. The wind had increased to a steady 17 knots and we were fully powered up, Stewart relieving François of his trimming duties for the duration of the leg.

Tacking back onto starboard, we crossed ahead of half the fleet and continued to pull in and pass the front boats by the top mark, rounding first. This made Stewart quite excitable and determined to get the kite hoisted and set. I considered this suicidal but Stewart already had the spinnaker pole rigged and ready for the hoist. I figured our safest option was to bear off, engage the autopilot and set up the sheet and brace. Ralph and François clearly had no idea what to expect and looked on with bated breath as Stewart bounced the halyard from the mast. The spinnaker opened with a loud crack and the boat lurched forward. Stewart ran back and took the brace while Bill called trim to François who was grinding from a cabin-top winch. Unfortunately the cry of 'sheet on' meant little to François, who clearly couldn't fathom why the big parachute that was flying full a second ago had all but disappeared behind the mainsail.

"Grind, grind, grind! François, grind the winch, man…pull the #$@#@ rope, man! For @#@$ sake…"

Surprisingly, the darker the language became the better the Frenchman performed and engaged with the crew. It was almost infectious, and for one brief moment it felt vaguely satisfying. The big blue kite filled again with a loud crack and we worked our way back up and onto course.

All around us spinnakers cracked and popped but we still held a slim lead — and then the boat started to go. We watched in awe as we climbed through eight, nine and then 10 knots and a bit more in the gusts. By the time we reached the next mark we had a significant lead. But now we had to gybe. We'd talked through the manoeuvre but we were clearly speaking a foreign language and anything could, and probably would, happen. Again, I steered the boat square, kicked in the autopilot and helped as I could.

Miraculously, Stewart won the battle with the pole and had it end-for-ended quickly. Bill even joined us back in the cockpit for the gybe, controlling the main as it swung through its arc. A second later we were set and running square with a building breeze. Our distance over the fleet continued to grow and was now almost embarrassing.

The last hurdle was to bring the spinnaker down and reset the headsail for the last leg home. This, too, went faultlessly and we crossed the finish line more than five minutes ahead of our nearest competitor for a line and handicap win.

Disbelief and total astonishment were clearly visible in Stewart's eyes as he went to the fridge to dig out a six-pack. Ralph declined a beer on account of his diabetes, François didn't drink and Bill preferred to 'rehydrate' with a Gatorade. Stewart caught my eye — nothing needed to be said.
The next day was a longer race but essentially a carbon copy of the first with another line and handicap win.

Grand finale

With the series all but in the bag, a fourth place or better in the third and final race would give us the win. We got to the course early and set up but the wind was noticeably lighter at the start than previous races.

We got off cleanly and held a narrow lead going into the top mark and then it happened: François had loaded his sheet onto the winch the wrong way and in his panic to get it sorted ended up with an override locking in tight. In the time it took to attach a new sheet and run it to a cabin-top winch, half the fleet had passed us. Two boats had their spinnakers hoisted and set. Defeat was being snatched from the jaws of victory and Stuart looked like he was having a hernia. Ralph noted poignantly it was the first time we'd been able to have a good look at the boats we were racing. François looked pale and frightened. "It's only a yacht race," I sneered through gritted teeth.

Stewart, however, wasn't over his tantrum yet and barked at the crew from the foredeck where he wobbled precariously from side to side with the spinnaker pole in both hands like a tight rope walker.

"Get your #$@# together…Bill, you're on the halyard. François, Ralph, ready on the sheets… Let's get this bloody bag up before it kills me."

Everyone snapped to and fell into position. The big kite filled with the familiar crack — we were set and off. The next 20 minutes was some of the most exciting sailing I've done as we gathered in our quarrel with each passing swell.

The last leg was a downwind finish, which meant gybing the spinnaker and squaring off. The gybe was near-perfect and we rounded the mark in front, though only marginally. We sailed on to take the gun and the handicap win by 10 seconds.

The gala dinner and prizegiving on the beach was a sweet affair for the scratch crew of nations sailing Nereid. Ralph leaned back in his plastic chair and pulled so hard on his Cuban cigar his chair gave way beneath him.

Next to him, François grimaced as he sucked his compulsory margarita through a giant orange straw, noting a second set of eyes in the back of his head would be really useful for yacht racing. Bill, meanwhile, looked on at nothing in particular with a wry smile.

Across the table, Stewart caught my eye and raised his Sol bottle in a salute. "Another good day at the office," he said.

Check out the rest of Steve's adventure:

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