PROGRESO, YUCATÁN, MEX – Two years ago, Jorge Ojeda grew weary of racing mismatched boats with handicaps. He said to his friends, "We should all sail the same boat." Los amigos were hesitant, but equally weary of the lack of good competition in Progreso. The small group of sailors (the British grandfather of one is believed to have brought recreational sailing to the Yucatán) wanted to grow racing, while older members of the Club de Yates y Vela de Yucatán saw no reason.
“In every yacht club there are two clubs,” said Pedro Gianotti, an Argentinian-born sailor now living in Houston who runs UK Sails Texas. "There are the racers and the cruisers. In the best scenario the groups overlap energies, but not always. And then there are the hammock sitters."
Or what we in the States often call dining members.
Jorge Ojeda, the leader of the one-design renaissance at the Club de Yates y Vela de Yucatán, with his J/24 – one of a growing fleet of a dozen boats, up from one in 2015, thanks to his leadership and the club's Commodore "Nacho" Ponce Manzanilla.
Jorge was determined to change the sailing climate in Yucatán, and Ignacio "Nacho" Ponce Manzanilla, the club’s current Commodore and a locally influential man, agreed and stepped in. Nacho and Jorge joined forces and made a plan and timetable. They decided to focus on J/24s, and bought the first one in February 2015. With their leadership, in two years the fleet quickly grew to a dozen boats. While Jorge is building up J/24 racing on the water, Nacho is working to build a yacht club – literally. Until now, the club has met in borrowed locations throughout Progreso, the seaside town 30 miles outside of the thriving city of Mérida.
Progreso is a bustling port city. The Port facility extends along 6.5km (4 miles), reputedly the world’s longest.
In December 2017 I was invited by Jorge to the annual Regata de Amigos, actually a series of 13 weekend regattas held roughly once a month. I flew into Mérida for two days of exploring (a spectacular city for that!), and two days on the water. On Saturday Pedro gave a tuning seminar and measured boats. Saturday night, Nacho organized a holiday boat parade of lights. Racing took place on Sunday with Pedro coaching the J24 Yucatan sailors. Sunday afternoon the oversell award for the 2017 Regata de Amigos was given to Tomás Dutton and the crew of CARISMA.
Jorge's passion for the sport and his fatherly leadership shines through irrespective of language. Gregarious and expressive, when I asked him about all the work involved he said simply how pleased he was that the fleet grows and continue to progress. It was Jorge who coordinated Pedro’s visit, and who along with his wife and crew, an attractive woman named Mercedes, ushered my own visit. One of four female J/24 sailors in the fleet, Mercedes would ask questions during Pedro’s seminar, take notes on the boats' new list of needs as he measured, and painted the attractive Regata de Amigos annual trophy, a sunset sailboat scene on a flat cut of oak in oil and acrylic.
Were it not for their hospitality, much of what is special about Yucatán and its sailors would have been beyond my reach. Pedro’s seminar was in Spanish, so for two hours I sat mostly trying to follow the topics with my rudimentary vocabulary. Turns out I was not the only participant at a bit of a loss. While South American countries and Spain use Spanish words for the various parts of a boat, Mexican sailors, including in the Yucatán, tend to use English words. In fact many of the club’s questions for Pedro involved translating his Spanglish to theirs. At Saturday evening's Christmas boat parade of lights, Pedro mentioned sailing in a championship where each of the four news spoke a different language with only a few common sailing words in English or Spanish among them. All was fine until there something out of the ordinary, which led to a lot of shouting that only the shouter understood.
One of the J/24 sailors is French born, with a Yucatán whose parents were born in the USA. The switch easily between French, Spanish and English, while I struggled to keep up, especially with the jokes. Instead I just smiled a lot. On the water, however, I was reminded, when my skipper Mike Dutton yelled “Hike!” and everyone got it, that for the most part sailing, like aviation and increasingly the internet, has one primary language.
In sailing as in life, especially when different languages are involved, it helps to use metaphors and analogies. During the tuning seminar Mike referred to an electric guitar, insisting that the racing yachts worked the same way, and at one point Tomás shared the Space Race story about developing the technology to take notes in space. NASA spent millions developing the perfect zero-gravity pen, while the Russians just used a pencil. Humorous in any language, and perhaps the moral for growing the sport in the Yucatán and perhaps elsewhere in the world.
Don't let language stop you from accepting an invitation to any of next year's Regata de Amigos in the Yucatán. From the friendly, hospitable locals, to the enthusiastic sailors and the leaders of the yacht club, you will be made to feel comfortable and most welcome. The Bay is a large and warm, only about nine feet deep, with 20 knots of breeze most days at race time making for near perfect sailing conditions.
About the author: Heather Richie (USA) is a writer & digital producer, and sailor, who lives in Charleston, SC. Her special interest is the "land traditions—particularly the foodways and sporting—of the modern American and unbordered Souths." Photos in this story also courtesy of Heather. –TFE