© 2013 Troy Gilbert
The history of how a little known regatta that started in New Orleans put the first feet on the sand and helped to create Cancun.
In a Sports Illustrated article on the third running of the Regata al Sol in 1967, Elington White, recounted the description he was given for the destination of his first regatta across the Gulf of Mexico, “it’s a small island off the tip of Mexico, near Cozumel. In the territory of Quintana Roo. Beautiful place. Untouched. Wonderful beaches. No telephone. Great Fishing.”
For sailors the value is in the journey, the destination is simply lagniappe – there are of course exceptions to this rule and Isla Mujeres falls into that category. A six-mile long tropical island off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, this rustic and charming oasis far removed from the bustle of the mainland is home to topless Europeans sunning on sugar sand beaches dotted with coconuts loosed in the breeze like free rum mixers. The island and her pristine waters are also the finish for two major bluewater regattas that originate on the Gulf Coast and are credited with sparking the growth, if not creating, the Mexican Riviera nearly 50 years ago.
In 1965, the Yucatan Peninsula was a wholly undeveloped stretch of coconut plantations. The nearest airport and population center was a four hour drive on dirt roads to Merida where Pan-Am Airlines conducted three flights a week from Mexico City. The only inkling of a resort was the island of Cozumel some 40 miles due south of Isla Mujeres. Consisting of only ten hotels, a few with air conditioning, it wasn’t much. Isla Mujeres only had one hotel and it boasted salt water showers and no air conditioning – Cancun itself didn’t even exist as a small rural town.
For sailors on the Gulf Coast, the exotic port of call and race destination was always Havana, but after Castro came to power in 1959 and it was outlawed for US sailors to visit, this ceased to be an option for many years. Sailors and regattas retracted and major international point-to-point races across the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean all but ceased.
Seeing an opportunity, the Ambassador at Large for Mexico, Senor Alberto Alvarez Morphy, travelled with the President of Mexico and a trade delegation of tourism and business officials to New Orleans in April 1965. A dapper man who wore Savile Row suits and spoke with a British accent belying his half Irish lineage and English education, he was the driving force behind the creation of the San Diego to Acapulco Regatta and had served as the Commodore of the Acapulco Yacht Club. Morphy knew first hand how something as simple as a sailboat race could and did generate tourism and indirectly reverberate via word of mouth in America.
Upon their arrival in the city, Mayor Victor Schiro of New Orleans held a formal reception at Gallier Hall to honor and welcome the President of Mexico and his delegation, including Senor Morphy. Many prominent New Orleanians were invited to the affair and those present were asked to pair up with the visiting officials and become their hosts and tour guides when away from official events.
Richard Spangenberg, a member of the New Orleans International Business Committee, and his wife were present and “finagled” a pairing up with the elegant Senor Morphy who carried with him several rolled up posters under his arm the entire evening. After introductions to their new charge, Morphy, unrolled one of the posters, completely oblivious to Spangenberg’s ties to sailing and the Southern YC of New Orleans.
According to Spangenberg, “To my surprise and dismay, the posters Alberto carried proclaimed the Regata al Sol Yacht Race from New Orleans to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.”
With unabashed, yet good natured Mexican bravado, the colorful posters not only declared that the 555 nautical mile regatta was to be co-sponsored by the Southern YC, but that it was to take place only three months later in June. This was the first anyone in New Orleans had heard of the regatta and obviously normal preparations for a boat as well as to secure crew for a distance race of this sort could take from six months to nearly a year.
As the evening wore on and fueled by the “city’s domestic scotch,” Spangenberg agreed to approach the leadership of Southern YC with the proposal, to which the general consensus eventually would be to forget involving Southern YC in such a perilous journey. Undeterred, within a week the blessing from the club was given to him to pursue the race as long as he would engineer the entire affair and that the club would not put up any money.
He did and started planning and lobbying skippers earnestly, but a month before the start there were a total of zero entrants. However, on Isla Mujeres, major festivities were in the planning stages to welcome the impending American “fleet” and trophies were donated by “Chrysler and GM of Mexico as well as a host of others.” The Mexican media also bit hard and the regatta became the news event on the very rural and undeveloped Yucatan Peninsula. Front page stories in the newspapers would weekly proclaim and detail each probable new entrant into the regatta – information and photos provided by Spangenberg even though he knew these boats unlikely.
Faced with an amazing regatta sans boats, Spangenberg scrambled and leveraged the Mexican government to leverage the US Ambassador to leverage the US Navy to outfit two of their nearly mothballed and leaky Luders 44′ yawls located at the Pensacola Navy Base in Florida to compete. The Navy agreed after some arm twisting by the State Department and even allowed one of the boats to be rechristened the Isla Mujeres and take on a group of non-sailing Mexican dignitaries as added crew.
After the start of the three boat regatta on New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain and fully invested in the success of this event, Spangenberg flew down to Mexico City and caught one of the three Pan Am flights to Merida. He then trekked on a four-hour cab ride to the desolate shores of what would become Cancun and caught the “uncertain ferry” to the island. He eventually ended up in a borrowed rowboat paddling out to anchor two homemade buoys to mark the finish line for the three boat fleet.
Racing, both of the Navy’s Luders were constantly manually pumping themselves free of water while sailing south into the teeth of the 4+ knots of the Gulfstream under light winds. The Luder, Isla Mujeres, eventually crossed the finish line a mere seven days after the start, followed a day later by the second Luder under tow from a Mexican minesweeper. The third boat, the gaff rigged schooner Langosta under charter by a group of Mexican officials from Merida, dropped out and returned to New Orleans after only two days at sea – violent seasickness having infiltrated everyone onboard.
The second Regata al Sol in 1966 had 16 competitors, but attendance quickly dropped off for the third and by the fourth incarnation of the regatta in 1968, there were only seven entrants. It seems that the sailors were finding it disagreeable to sail in the light winds of the Gulf during the summer while contending with the 4+ knot current pouring due north from the straits between Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula. Saltwater showers, a waterless pool and no air conditioning at the island’s only hotel, Zazil-Ha, after nearly a week of saltwater baths in the radiating heat of the Gulf of Mexico was also seen as a negative.
Cozumel , an island about 40 miles due south of Isla Mujeres, was a bit more developed and a delegation from Southern YC led by Spangenberg motored down from Isla Mujeres in a Bertram 32 to explore the facilities. While there were more modern accommodations, the island lacked a harbor. Impossible to get past this one glaring shortcoming for a regatta, the Cozumel officials promised a harbor by the next summer. Skeptical, Spangenberg returned in December to view the progress of the construction and was pleasantly surprised to discover an entire harbor being jackhammered and dredged from a shallow and coral filled inland pond – what is today the marina at Banco Playa. In the summer of 1968, the Regata al Sol landed in Cozumel and stayed for the next eight years.
Having lost the growing regatta to Cozumel and witnessing the tourist dollars now flowing into that island as word spread along the Gulf Coast, a few prominent officials from Isla Mujeres continued to push for development of the Mexican Yucatan coast, but to little or no avail. It wasn’t until 1970, when constantly faced with developers wary of investing in an unproven stretch of sand that the Mexican Government agreed to finance the construction of ten hotels in what was soon to be called Cancun.
As construction was nearing completion on the fledgling infrastructure of Cancun, the regatta to Cozumel was dealing with falling participation. Sailors were balking at the extra sailing time going against the major current plowing between Cuba and the Peninsula as well as the maze of marsh they had to sail from the start in New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Faced with this, the regatta committee moved the dates up to May in order take advantage of more favorable winds and made the event biennial, departing instead from Gulfport, Mississippi and eventually Pensacola, Florida. With the infrastructure increasing in Cancun, the regatta returned to Isla Mujeres.
Today, the Regata al Sol (sponsored by the Southern, Pensacola and Isla Mujeres Yacht Clubs) and the Regata al Sol del Sol (sponsored by the St. Petersburg and Isla Mujeres Yacht Clubs) continue to run to Isla Mujeres. The St. Petersburg version, which first ran in 1969 and remains an annual event, is 100 miles shorter and tackles less challenging currents, and because of this has greater participation from cruisers. While the longer, more challenging Pensacola version is populated with a good mix of true racing and cruising boats. Both events are legendary for their sailing and the parties on the islands – these regattas are a must do life experience for any sailor worth his salt on the Gulf Coast.
With the cancellation of the Galveston to Vera Cruz regatta due to increasing crime issues in northern Mexico, these two Gulf Coast regattas represent the last and best of the international regattas that bisect the Gulf of Mexico. The Regata al Sol del Sol runs in April of 2014 and the Regata al Sol runs in May of 2014.