When the horn sounds, a collective hoot comes from many of the 35 boats that are bobbing in an ocean cluster, shrouded by the Morro Bay fog.
“The race is on!” says Michael Weber of Paso Robles.
His 40-foot trawler, “Kaia Lai,” is not competing, but it will help a photographer shoot the fifth annual Zongo Yachting Cup, a part-race and part-party event that begins in Morro Bay and ends in Avila Beach.
The event is the baby of longtime sailor Paul Irving, a Los Osos resident who named the race after his afro-Caribbean band, the Zongo All-Stars, which performs yearly at the finish line.
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“I put the thing together because I love to play music, I love events, and I love to sail, and this was a way to wrap these all together,” Irving said afterward.
The race has grown every year, becoming the biggest in San Luis Obispo County. This year, about 80 excited sailors and guests arrived at the Morro Bay Yacht Club armed with backpacks, layers of clothing, beer and food for a four-hour (or more) trip on the ocean. But before anyone got in a boat, they gathered inside the club, where Irving went over the map he created to help navigate the trip to Avila.
“I didn’t put this on the instructions,” he jokes, pointing south, “but it’s going this way.”
There are two classes for this race: one for sailboats and another for all the rest. Trophies are awarded to the first three finishers in the sailing race, but there’s only one trophy for the cruising class.
This is, more than anything, a sailing race.
“Everyone else is gonna tie in the cruising class,” Irving explained.
Later, as the boats are taking off, Andrew Wise, a member of the Zongo All-Stars, tells Judy Andrews, Weber’s partner, that the fog will eventually clear.
“I think it’ll be a nice day overall,” he says, as Weber and his grandson, Russell Nelson, pull the boat away from the dock and head toward Morro Rock.
But this is the Central Coast, where fog is never too predictable. With visibility at less than a quarter of a mile, whale-watching opportunities are limited, though several otters can be seen lazily floating amid the boats. The conditions are calm, though the wind is a little too calm. The boats that get off to a quick start are able to catch a lift from the wind, but others get stuck in a lull.
“Some of them turned back,” Weber says later.
Irving, whose insurance company Bayside Life sponsored the event, hired a helicopter to get photos of the boats, but the fog will inhibit that until near the finish line.
Ultimately, John Michener will win in the sailing class with his boat “Whiz Bang.” The cruising class honors go to Tom Sinnickson, who crossed the line on a catamaran.
By 4 p.m., Irving and his band are playing to a festive crowd at the Avila Farmers Market, putting the race to rest and ushering in the weekend. Meanwhile, several of the competitors are lounging on their anchored boats, listening to the music waft from the shore and finally enjoying a little sunshine — though that pesky marine layer can be seen lingering just beyond the Port San Luis breakwater.
“Look at the fog line all the way out there,” says Tony Gomez, sitting on his sailboat, “Geronimo.”
“It was terrible. We never saw anything.”
“We couldn’t get a good line,” adds Kevin Williams, who raced on a catamaran and is now relaxing with Gomez and his partner Anne O’Brien. “I saw on my phone (GPS) that we were headed for Hazard Canyon.”
Gomez, a past winner, finished third this year. He and Williams said there are about five serious competitors, but the rest are there more for the party, which will end around 2 a.m.
“Basically, it’s a nice social event,” Gomez says, the sun now casting a shadow under the bill of his hat.
Gomez, O’Brien and Williams are taking it easy. But a few yards away, things appear more festive on a nearby sailboat named the “Luna Azul.”
“That’s the party boat over there,” said Williams, who lives on a boat currently anchored in Port San Luis.
The owner of the “Luna Azul,” Lonny Young, came up from Ensenada, Mexico, for the race.
“I can care less about who wins,” said Young, who used to anchor in Morro Bay. “I’m in it for a good time.”
While offering a reporter and photographer a ride to Avila Pier on his inflatable boat, Young said he now spends 12 months a year on his sailboat. “Can you think of anything better?”
The race does promote good cheer — and a friendly rivalry between the Morro Bay Yacht Club and the San Luis Yacht Club — but Irving said he plans to market the race more outside the county next year, which will likely attract more serious competitors.
But the party won’t be over.
“That’s the thrust of the thing,” he said, “to have a good time.”