Carlos Avila, Newport Ocean Sailing Association's (NOSA) Ensenada coordinator, addresses guests during a dinner party celebrating the 67th annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race, at his home in Ensenada, Mexico on Saturday, April 26. (KEVIN CHANG / Daily Pilot / April 26, 2014)

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  • Ensenada, BCN, Mexico

ENSENADA, MEXICO — Before lunch began, Commodore Chuck Iverson sat in the back corner of a restaurant, reviewing the guest list.

It seemed a generic Newport Beach scene: place settings arranged on white tablecloths. Ocean view. Members of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., or NOSA, bedecked in navy blazers and khaki pants, mingling with the mayor.

Still, the group hadn't valet parked their cars outside. They'd arrived by van. And they were greeted with glasses of wine, not from California, but vineyards in Mexico.

Roughly 125 nautical miles from home, the sailors were far from their yacht club dining rooms and trendy Fashion Island restaurants. Responsible for organizing the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race that started the day before, they now anticipated a meal at Belio, an upscale restaurant here.

Iverson continued through the names on the list. The consul general from the U.S. consulate in Tijuana would be joining them. The local mayor's wife was on her way.

Behind the scenes of a regatta known for its drunken rowdiness, leaders in the Newport yachting community and the seaside Mexican town continue to foster a long-standing and deeply meaningful relationship. Ensenada once received icons like Marion Davis, Lucille Ball and John Wayne. But as the romance faded between old Hollywood and the Baja port city, the diplomatic link among the yachtsmen and their political counterparts remained.

Rooted in the event's 67-year history, the bond links cultures, economies and communities that might not otherwise commingle. It offers a stronghold for an event that has suffered in recent years as the economy of both countries dipped and fear of drug violence in Mexico rose.

"This is more than just a yacht race," Tom Kennedy, a NOSA director, said as he walked toward the restaurant.

The friendship renews itself at each springtime sail, bolstered by numerous parties and meals hosted on either side of the border. Glasses had clinked in Newport Beach, and now Saturday's lunch turned hosting responsibility over to Mexico. Again and again, their events would assert a singular message for Newport Beach residents: Ensenada is thrilled to welcome you.


Formality intersects with bacchanalia

While NOSA leaders sat for formal introductions, the jovial race participants grew boozy at the nearby host hotel.

The group helped fill the 147-room Hotel Coral for the weekend, a high-end place to stay that is protected by a wall and security gate. Every room has an ocean-front view.

Lounging in the sunshine, the racers made themselves comfortable, drinking Tecate and regaling one another with tales from their uncharacteristically windy and rainy journey.

Although 168 yachts had registered to participate, in its prime, the Newport to Ensenada race logged more than 600. The party the night before grew so large that the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club eventually stopped hosting it.

As participation numbers have dropped, organizers find themselves re-evaluating how to renew interest in the gregarious sailing tradition.

NOSA volunteers work year-round on improvements for the race. They drive to Ensenada monthly for meetings as the event nears each year.

They also hold safety seminars for participants. Indeed, four men died when their 37-foot boat, the Aegean, splintered upon collision with North Coronado Island, south of the U.S.-Mexican border, during the 2012 race.

"You're not stoppable," Mariano Escobedo, director of International Relations for Baja, California, said at lunch Saturday from a podium where miniature American and Mexican flags waved, "even though it's not always smooth sailing."

Change has come, albeit incrementally, with cooperation between NOSA and local government officials. The race used to end farther south, in the Ensenada harbor. Now, the finish line is marked by boats bobbing in front of the Hotel Coral.