Newport-Ensenada yacht race isn't just for the wealthy
When hundreds of yachts set sail for Baja California today in the lively Newport to Ensenada race, the water will be churning with sleek, multimillion-dollar vessels outfitted with great gizmos and built for speed.

And then there's John Haupt's boat.

He will be cruising in a 36-foot schooner he stumbled across on EBay. For $780.

Newly painted red and green, the aging metal-and-cement boat, he said, needed some work -- to put it mildly. He is aiming for the brass spittoon that is awarded to the last-place finisher in the annual competition.

"You don't have to be a millionaire to race against these millionaires," Haupt said.

One of the crew's good-luck charms? An empty beer bottle autographed by -- who else? -- Jimmy Buffett.

Organizers of the 125-mile regatta describe it as "the largest international yacht race in the world," drawing a mix of serious racers and fun-seekers. This year about 390 boats will jostle for position.

The frenzied start resembles a cross between ballet and bumper cars -- but with fewer collisions, said Gator Cook, this year's commodore of the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., which organizes the race.

Cook said the event's size and accessibility -- the entry fee is only $145 -- make it a boisterous affair.

"It's definitely not what some people think: 'Oh, sailing -- elitist,' " Cook said. "It could be anyone who just has a passion for sailing and racing."

Over its 61 years, the race has drawn them all, from working stiffs who love the water to disabled sailors to zillionaires such as Roy Disney.

The sprint south of the border is a must-do for any sailor worth his salt, said Mike Dwight, 63, a home builder from Laguna Beach who has raced for nearly 30 years.

The competition also has its share of high jinks: water balloons launched into rivals' sails, sailors wearing O.J. Simpson masks and other attempts to distract rivals, including an all-female topless crew or a tuxedoed group screening adult films on the spinnaker.

The skipper was "operating on the premise nobody would want to pass him," Dwight said.

But Cook doesn't recall ever seeing an EBay boat. If it floats and meets safety standards, he said, "then great. More power to 'em."

Haupt was shopping for model boats online a couple of months ago when he discovered a real one for sale, originally priced at $310.

After a few minutes of heated bidding, he won it in the auction's final seconds, undeterred by ominous disclaimers that the boat would not necessarily resemble its photograph.

Haupt recalled thinking, "What is wrong with this boat?"

A few things, it turned out.