Racing or cruising, Mexico's Bahía de Banderas is drawing in more and more of the West Coast action
Bahía de Banderas is a foulies-free environment. That's almost enough to know, and I walked off the plane without a plan. If I had a plan, something could go wrong. But I was on pilgrimage, sure enough. This sunny bight on mainland Mexico is emerging as the next big thing in West Coast sailing. You could make the argument that it's already emerged. And, I did have a plan of sorts: a little racing in MEXORC and a little racing in the Banderas Bay Regatta and a little cruising after. I didn't screw it down tight because I knew the place would be crawling with familiar faces.
As names go around Baha de Banderas—the Bay of Flags—you may be more familiar with the key city on the shoreline, Puerto Vallarta. But if you still picture "PV" in black and white, a sleepy village with Richard Burton sweating through The Night of the Iguana, you haven't seen Puerto Vallarta lately.
Here's the bad news and good news together: We're talking modern high rises, international shopping, traffic jams, and competence. When a cruising boat I know chewed up a keel (a little) and a rudder (big time) on an unkindly rock, the yard had the boat hauled within half an hour of arrival and the rudder removed within an hour of haulout. Bearings, missing composite, etc. were replaced, fairing and paint were applied, and the boat relaunched in (oops) a bit more than twice as long as estimated. Are we sure that Pick-An-Average-Boatyard north of the border would have done better?
And there are the escapes: Plentiful coves, snorkeling spots, and (so far) unaffected villages with delightful, homespun fiestas. Just get out of Vallarta and go. The valley inland, enveloped by the Sierra Madre Occidental, builds a sea breeze that peaks in the teens or maybe hits 20 knots where it funnels around the capes at the outside corners of the bay. In typical West Coast fashion, it clocks as it builds. The water is flat, and if you get the season right you'll see whales every day. Turtles every day. Get it wrong and you're stuck with just seeing dolphins every day. The beaches are a great place to work on a tan, though you don't often find boat people seeking extra exposure. As my friend "Craig" observed, peering into a restaurant, "You can tell the cruisers. They never take outside tables."
The Mexican Ocean Racing Circuit has been going on for 32 years, reinvented from time to time as either a point-to-point circuit or, in 2008 for example, a race week. Sailmaker Mike Danielson describes the organizers' vision as "a sporting social event, more the way yachting was in the 1940s."
This time around, MEXORC was sailed out of Nuevo Vallarta, a few miles up the coast from Puerto Vallarta. If Mexico is a little too "foreign" for you, the new, manicured, near–Fort Lauderdale look of Nuevo Vallarta will get you feeling all cozy-like. Then the locals—it's amazing how many people I know keep boats or second homes here—will start talking about the need to cull crocodiles over six feet "for the good of the juniors," and maybe you start to wonder.
For the first time ever, MEXORC ran concurrently with the laid-back, cruiser-friendly Banderas Bay Regatta, and since the '06 MEXORC had experienced life-threatening problems, there was pressure to get this MEXORC right. They did that. The overall winner, Bill Turpin—his 1977 Reichel/Pugh 77, Akela, has all—new everything except the hull—had nothing but good words for matters race and post-race. I spent enough time behind the scenes, however, to know that running two events simultaneously was a big task. Vallarta Yacht Club commodore John Moore's week went to damping fires and covering loose ends, and he pretty darned well succeeded in putting up a seamless show. Then he sat down (hard) and said, "I don't think we'll do that again."
No need to. Each event stood alone. Bartz Schneider of San Francisco, down for his second year at the cruiser regatta, said, "It's interesting, all the effort they put into the sailing instructions to tell you what you are expected to keep aboard. That bottle of Tabasco sauce, for example. There really were people who were racing their house. It's different from one more sail to another anchorage, and I think that's why cruisers want to do this." Schneider brought along the core of his Express 37 racing crew, something he's also done at Antigua, to sail aboard a Jenneau Sun Odyssey 43DS that berths in Nuevo Vallarta. The crew was racier by far than the boat, and they dominated their division. Owner Jim Casey ("I have the only boat in the fleet named for a vegetable") became a friend while sailing at Lake Tahoe. Casey described his Tomatillo as "a three-beer boat. I had three beers at the boat show, and danged if I didn't buy a boat."
Authentically a racer-cruiser was the Schumacher 40 Auspice. Jim Coggan and family sailed her down from the Golden Gate last fall, banged all over Mexico, and are leaving the boat there for another season. Multihulls? Bob Smith of Vancouver, Canada, has a catamaran named Pantera that looks pretty racy, and she's fast, but Smith was on his third solo cruise to Mexico (he raced with crew), and twice so far he's sailed, not motored, the bash home.
The family that sails together: Sparkplug Mexico City architect Francisco Guzman was sailing his tenth MEXORC with family crew on their J/145, Jeito (in 2005, then 11-year-old Bernardo became the youngest-ever Transpac vet). Not wanting to miss a thing, the family also crewed on the layday in the match races for vintage America's Cup Class boats. Crewing was an open sign-up opportunity (Laser racing was another option), and at first it seemed there wasn't enough wind, but the boats are so powerful that it doesn't take much. Francisco enthused, "They accelerate like a ski boat." The day after MEXORC, young Bernardo was on a plane for the South American Opti championship, and college-age daughters Marina and Casilda were winging back to France with school make-up work waiting but no regrets, nada (life is being lived).
MEXORC, through various incarnations, has been Mexico's definitive big-boat series, run every two years and timed to coincide with the arrival of at least one race down the coast from California. This year, of 18 boats that raced down in the San Diego-Vallarta Race, 8 stayed on to join 12 Mexican boats. Many of those came up the coast from the traditional center of Mexico's sailing world, Acapulco. But gravity is shifting. Mexican Sailing Federation president Ralph Nelles has an agenda for developing sailing in Vallarta. The 2006 J/24 world championship marked a coming of age for the racing game here. A successful Opti championship last year (Mike Danielson: "We launched 187 Optis in 26 minutes") sealed the deal.
So there we were. The race that everyone talked about was the 26-mile pursuit race finishing on the south shore at Las Caletas. Here's Bill Turpin: "I liked the ORR handicapping—Dan Nowlan came out from US Sailing to oversee the numbers—and in the pursuit race you could see it working. We started an hour and a half behind the first boat, and we all ganged up at the finish."
I sailed the pursuit race aboard the boat that had won the San Diego-Vallarta, the 70-foot Peligroso, owned by Mike Campbell and Dale Williams. It was a bit of fun to watch the no-longer-young but indefatigable Roy Dickson scamper around the deck of Peligroso while we overtook his son, who was skippering John MacLaurin's Pendragon IV. No, not son Chris, son Scott. The one who calls Southern California home.
The stress point, for some, was having the opening Governor's Cup count for points. In the past it hadn't. And this year, there were San Diego–Vallarta entries coming in late with 1,000 miles behind them after a slow crossing from the turn-left point at the tip of Baja. Jim Gregory's 50-foot Morpheus was one, arriving in the wee hours of a Saturday morn with the Governor's Cup less than 36 hours off. Gregory was fated to pull out a first in Class B and second overall for the series, however, with Class C first and third overall going to one of Acapulco's celebrated IOR survivors, a Frers 43 named Bandido. Mexico's vintage IOR fleet is justly famous, and MEX 7071 belongs to the man who was called out of retirement to rescue MEXORC, one Ernesto Amtmann.
Dig this chicken-and-egg problem: "I am an architect, involved in marina development," Amtmann says. "Thirty-two years ago we promoted infrastructure. It was difficult because we got the response, Why build? There aren't many boats."
After 1974, San Diego Yacht Club gave up on the Acapulco Race it had pioneered 20 years earlier. The last few hundred miles down the mainland dragged too long through light air. Amtmann recalls, "We saw an opportunity. We organized a shorter race from California and then a series of races to small places like Vallarta and Careyes, to show the potential. I ran it for 10 years, and it's been through many stages since. Two years ago things got polemical. That came out of trying to match PHRF ratings of California boats with PHRF ratings of Acapulco boats when they came together in different conditions. For 2008 it wasn't a matter of giving MEXORC a facelift. MEXORC had to be new. Take our friend John MacLaurin. He's always racing somewhere, and he was here to give us one last chance."
So I asked MacLaurin, Is MEXORC back?
He said, "It's back."
The awards dinner was not the first lavish post-race affair at MEXORC 2008, but the only one with music by the state orchestra of Nayarit. It was held north of Vallarta at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, in the new, fashion-forward Marina Riviera Nayarit. The way they sneak in that "Riviera" should give you a clue to the ambitions.
But I want to back up and leave you with this. I experienced something rare on the way home from the final race. Over the week I had spent time on the water with the racing-chic of Peligroso and time on the water with the cruising-chic of publisher Richard Spindler's catamaran, Profligate, and I went out for the final day on veggie-chic Tomatillo. And we did what race crews do and put up sails and tested the breeze and studied the current and tacked here and gybed there—and happily won the race—and headed for the barn with the breeze wafting us along under a brilliant blue sky and we got to the harbor entrance and somebody said, Does anybody really want to stop?
We didn't have a plan, you see, but contrary to ordinary, this race crew didn't rush to the dock. We kept right on sailing. I learned later that we were not alone.
Bahía de Banderas
I've heard so many conflicting accounts of why it's called the Bay of Flags that I figure, make up a story you like and go with it. Maybe it's about a battle, maybe not. From Punta de Mita on the north to Cabo Corrientes on the south, the bay is about 20 miles long, and it runs deep—almost two miles deep. On the north is the desertlike state of Nayarit, one time zone removed from the wetter, jungly state of Jalisco on the south. Jalisco, home to the city of Tequila, is the center of cultivation for the agave plant from which tequila is distilled. In some villages—Yelapa, for example—you may be offered the local moonshine. That would be raicilla, derived from its own variety of agave. Raicilla can take you places, but it won't bring you back.
Puerto Vallarta made the map as an expat-artists' haunt in the 1950s and went big-time when the tabloids followed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to the Night of the Iguana set in Mismaloya. Tiny Yelapa, however, is protected by a lack of highway access. People arrive by boat and navigate the trails of Yelapa on foot or on horseback. Building supplies travel by burro. Fashionable expats embrace open-air living, and one saying is at least as old as the sixties: A palapa in Yelapa beats a condo in Redondo. Yes, you want to buy a pie from the seora who walks the beach balancing pies on her head. No, iguanas are no longer a food staple.
Yelapa, Las Animas, and Mismaloya are popular stopovers on the south side of Baha de Banderas, but this is a lee shore in the prevailing breeze, and the holding ground is not secure. When I cruised through with my friend Jim Taylor on his Beneteau 47, Sooner Magic, he voted against overnighting.
The rocky islets known as Las Tres Marietas are also a day stop. This nature preserve on the outer edge of the bay teems with birds and sealife. The caves at the Marietas fascinate snorkelers, and the islands lie less than five miles from Punta de Mita, where we anchored for the night. Ashore, our crew found a fiesta and rodeo in full swing. Highlights included the bucking bull that wouldn't and a game in which you chuck rocks at bottles to win prizes. Tourist trap? I don't think so.
Bahía de Banderas is dry from November to May. Locals called 2007-08 a "cold" winter, and there were race days when I wouldn't have minded a windbreaker vest over my T-shirt. We saw water temperatures of 70 degrees in March; a month before, the reading was 75. Occasionally there was a cloud in the sky, but it was over yonder.