Santa Monica Rugby Yacht Club
6 skilled and fearless SMRYC members competed in the 68th Annual International Yacht Race, from Newport, CA to Ensenada, Mexico.
Robert Knox (Captain), Aaron Davis (Main Trim), Simon Jones (Bow), James Corr (Mast), Brian O’Rourke (Videographer), Chris James (Tactician and Voice of Reason) sailed Merlin, a 39′ 1972 Columbia in the Cruiser Spinnaker B class out of South Coast Corinthians Yacht Club.
The men of SMRYC competed is classic fashion.
Having competed in the California Yacht Club Wednesday Night Sunset Series over the course of the summer and finishing within the bounds of the law once, the crew were ready to embark upon an international voyage.
Much preparation was done over the weeks leading up to the regatta. Fuel, gear, supplies, beer, maintenance, beer, scheduling, and more beer was gathered. Oh, and party flags, to hoist when needing a surge of festival for adventure.
It’s noteworthy that Rob Knox exuded the generosity and patience he is famous for. Without his dedication to participating in this event, it would not have happened.
The ship was delivered from Marina del Rey on April 19th. Friends and dogs joined for the short 6 hour voyage to San Pedro. The air was light and seas kindly. An uneventful trip was brought to an end when high winds and loud shouting at docking contributed to a kerfuffle. Simon at the helm, a 25 knot cross wind had the high beamed vessel sliding to port as we entered the slip. The lowly deck hands jumped aboard the dock, lines in hand. Not to be outdone, Rob perched high above the mess at the shrouds holding about to the life line hollering and directing traffic. Looking like a burrito doing a jack knife atop the 10 meter platform, he got in a tussle with the party flags, and when Simon ran us squarely into the dock, did a tuna fish right into the drink. It’s a damn miracle the winded boat didn’t squish him against the dock, but the muscles and grit of the private first class hands fended off the big blue behemoth. He was gracefully pulled from the frigid water and Simon single handed the vessel under control. Completely lacking sorts and unsure which way was up, Rob then did a swan dive backward into the next slip that was deserving of a 9.7 and again he was in the water. Although comfortable in his natural habitat, twirling around and providing a show all wet, he finally relented and allowed us to pull him from the icy grips back onto dry land. He cursed like hell the name of Simon Jones for docking like a blind squirrel and of Aaron Davis for buying and ultimately hoisting the joyous party flags. The day was done.
On the following day, Sunday April 20th, with a short handed crew, the Merlin made another quick hop to Newport Harbor. The wind had kept up, having the master and commander to nearly kiss the sea wall upon embarking. It was exciting and hands were shaking! Finally she was side tied to the dock to allow the the wind to push the nose out far enough to spin around and make way. Off she sailed and made portage in Newport without incident.
Provisions would be stowed and the captains meeting needed attending.
On Wednesday, April 22nd, Simon and Rob went to Yachtman’s Lunch at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club and the Captains reception in the evening at Balboa Bay Club. Their task was to check in and grab the racing pennant, signifying our class. Lore has it that they made plenty of small talk and fair well signed in, but accidentally got drunk, forgetting the small flag that would be our license to race.
Thursday night would have the lion share of the crew turn up in Newport, full of excitement and fraternity, at the hint of danger that lay ahead. It was then that the ever present James Corr realized his massive brain had failed him, contributing to his forgetting his passport. His fair maiden went into overdrive and sent the enabling document via carrier pigeon to her prince, such that he could ensure safe passage. The ship was stocked and poised for greatness. A hot meal aboard with all provisions stowed sent the boys off to the regatta pushing off party at the Newport American Legion. A live band played classic beach hits while a heavy handed bar keep kept folks happy. There were 100’s of sailors, hailing from up and down the California coast, and one Frenchman. Several not so rare Orange County Cougars were witnessed in their native land, circling a bit, excited by the diversity and amount of hair that existed among the men of the sea. Stories were shared about that one time when a gale sprang from a calm and when the madman met his Hyde 30 nautical miles offshore. Comparison of provisioning always finished with, ‘Well, it’s to late to make any changes now. Cheers!’.
We were in heaven!
At dawn, on Thursday April 24th, the full compliment of the crew arrived and off we pushed. Final communication was made and charts were checked for what way ahead. We knew the wind, the waves, the swell, the timing in which should have us where, the shifts of crews, and what meals would be cooked by who when.
Then the wind died.
Bobbing about like apples in barrel, boats were spinning about, jockeying for the start. However King Neptune smiled upon us, sharing good fortune, blowing a slight puff, our timing was right and gone!
What about the racing pennant? Oh, sh!t.
In a flash of genius and remembrance of darker days, Rob reached into the deep crevices of his overgrown brain to recall the party flags!! Perfectly, among them, was our burgee. James Corr quickly laid his handiwork to the task, dismembers the string and hoisted the correct signal in just the nick of time.
The gun went off and Merlin slid across the start after only another 90 seconds!! We’d won our start! Cheers and celebration ensued, beers were popped and the party started.
And then the wind died again.
It was touch and go; nerves were high. We couldn’t get steerage and the fast multihulls and MAXI’s were starting right behind us. Merlin, being of vintage nearly 43 years prior and positioning as a bit of a fat bottomed gal that likes a bit of breeze to get moving, trouble was afoot. Hard decisions had to be made.
Normally, safety was third. Have fun, go fast, and be safe, in that order was our code, but the dollar signs on carbon fiber our proper racing ships adjusted our consciousness. We decided the best course of action was to motor out of the way of the big boats bearing down upon us. 10 minutes later, the stink pot was extinguished and the sails were trimmed.
Wind wasn’t all that consistent but we made a solid 5.5 knots for the next several hours. Passing the lights sprinkling Oceanside with San Diego in the distance, night had already fallen.
Always keen to enjoy a nap, Aaron found his bunk and fell fast asleep after a delicious meal that had been previously prepared by Rob’s better half, Dawn. The seamen told stories, drink cold frothy beverages, and laughed loud as the miles clicked by.
Then disaster struck!
Aaron later explained that he was dreaming of his girlfriend’s golden locks and warm bosom, when a frantic Simon woke him from his slumber.
‘We are taking on water!!! Get up now!!!’, he shrieked!
By the time he came to, the boys were dedicated to the task.
About 15 clicks west of San Deigo, Merlin had about 3 inches of water sloshing about the sole. The bilge was already full. James Corr was busy on the manual bilge pump in the cockpit, Chris James was steady at the helm, Brian O’Rourke was shuffling gear to and fro, Simon Jones was busy with another hand pump, and Rob Knox tried desperately to find the void allowing the pacific to swoosh in. Aaron Davis, in his stuper of having just woken up, was staring at his shoes. We would later learn that he found putting his warm and dry sock laden foot into a wet and floating shoe a bit harder of a choice to make than to respond to the command of “All hands on deck!”. He was cursed thoroughly and appropriately and finally joined the crew in saving themselves and the ship.
Almost by instinct, Aaron recalled a 5th grade science experiment he did on buoyancy and fluid dynamics, and postulated that perhaps one of the native holes in the vessel was the culprit. The order to close all seacocks was given by master Rob, but the water seamed not to stop. The electronic bilges were pumping away and diesel infused salt water was everywhere. Panic was afoot and Simon gave the directive to change course toward San Diego in the event all would be lost, the swim would perhaps allow us to save our souls. The manual pumps then began to earn their keep the water line began to move down. After much work and collective thought, we localized the trouble to the galley sink. Turns out that when Rob did the dishes from dinner, a syphon was completed with the great pacific and the sea would help itself right into our safe haven. It had been about an hour of chaos by the time we were drying things out and pointed the old girl back toward Mexico. Our route was nearly due south at about 117.5 degrees west, as there would be a solid breeze rolling in from starboard, allowing us to fly the spinnaker once we tacked to port. Aaron immediately went back to sleep with much fan fare.
Shifts would have the men turn around 3am, sending Aaron to helm to replace James, with crew from Simon and Chris James there to offer the occasional quip about a voyage from another time. Rob never would sleep and roamed about the ship for hours, peering into dark spots looking for more leaks to no avail. We considered ourselves among the luckiest men alive as the sun began illuminating the mountains of Mexico on our left and the great expanse of pacific to our right. As day broke we were joined by dozens of dolphins frolicking in and around the curl of water broken by the bow. After a hot breakfast and coffee a giant grey whale blew used air and spray high into the air several times about 50 meters to starboard. Many species of fowl circled our craft inspecting us and giving loud reports. The area was teaming with life.
Checking out charts, we were ahead of schedule and by noon Ensenada was on the horizon. The large spinnaker was full and all hands were busy on deck as we neared the committee boat. It was surprising to see so many ships astern, as we felt alone for most of the voyage. Just before noon Merlin would hear the horn as we gracefully eased over the finish line. Cheers abounded and another beer was clanked in celebration. We’d done it! Almost…
Perhaps 200 meters past the finish line would be the mouth to the Hotel Coral Marina, a small but accommodating port. We fired up the iron horse and stowed all sails. Then it sputtered. Then again. Once more. Knowing his girl, Rob ordered the genoa to be unfurled quickly. No sooner than the sheets became taught did the old diesel finally die. Sh!t. We tried in vain to bleed her lines, as it’s only ever air and fuel that will spoil an old stink pot, but had no success. We finally resorted to calling for help and two friendly locals were soon on their way with a reliable panga to bring us home. It would be only 20 minutes more and we found ourselves securely tied in at D38, toasting and relishing the adventure. We’d not even finished our first beer when two mechanics turned up and found the culprit, a blocked fuel line that was replaced in short order. We then topped off the tank and ran her for a good while for insurance and the party began. Finally, we confirmed we’d made it safe and sound.
The party at the hotel was cool, with those souls that had made it (many had turned toward Catalina when the breeze died in the night) relishing in another successful voyage. In checking the leader board, we learned we came in second in our class and that someone had protested our finish. Aaron set out with Chris to present before the judge. They explained to the race committee that they felt safety was paramount and gave rationale to motor off the start. They commended us for being forthright and corinthian and scolded the protesters for not coming to the Merlin men before filing. In the end we received a Retired at Finish as our official ruling for the regatta. Aaron then quickly filed a protest against the opposition’s haircuts, which was upheld by the high court. The finest tequila shots followed.
A hot shower was the cherry on top as we donned our best to hit the town. Chris James and Brian O’rouke said farewell and jumped a bus for the border, while to remaining dodgers hailed a buggy for the square. Loud music and low riders and donkeys and trannies and sailors and mariachi bands and one Frenchman elbowed their way from tavern to tavern. It was like a scene from another world. We toasted to the experience and hours passed like minutes. It didn’t feel like much time had passed before we were in another roller coaster, stopping only once for ice, back to the boat. Sleep came easy and was only broken by the easy dawn light and chirp of seagulls.
Sunday would have us relaxing. We made breakfast aboard and we all enjoyed the spoils of Rob’s recently compiled bloody mary bar. After one or more, a fellow from a neighboring ship came by for laughs. He’d been a navy man, aboard the only vessel able to be called a boat, a submarine. He had jokes and stories and a hat to trade, sending Simon away happy, as we learned that was the only reason he came on the voyage. We quickly became famous for insisting passers by take a cold beer and laughing loud at anything that moved. We might have been drunk but no one remembers. Berths were found early.
We were off the dock before sunrise. Under motor, Merlin was back in US waters by 4pm and clearing customs by 5pm. It was an easy process, apart from James Corr getting asked thrice to remove the peanut butter from his mouth, for the serious border men understood nothing of what he mumbled. It wasn’t long after that we appreciated the reciprocity of being members of South Coast Corinthian Yacht Club by tying up at San Diego Yacht Club and sitting down for a hot meal at their beautiful restaurant. The sun would set and the final four toasted one last time before Aaron and James jumped a car home.
Captain Rob and First Mate Simon were alone back to San Diego. The voyage was easy for the first half, but the fuel lines proved to show their fickle and Seatow was beckoned a final time. They clinked glasses for having paid the nominal fee to AAA of the sea, allowing for pull at no cost. The final leg brought them home to Newport where Merlin would rest.. until next time.
It had been an unbelievable voyage, a true adventure, with triumph and failure, hard work and relaxation, uncertainty and confidence…and one Frenchman.