The Last Good Idea

By Zuzana Prochazka

Circumnavigator Bruce Kessler says anyone can go cruising, and he founded the FUBAR rally to get them started.

Photo of a marina in Los CabosMarina in Los Cabos. (Photo: Mexicoboating.com)

FUBAR: It doesn't mean what you think. In fact, it stands for Fleet Underway to Baja Rally, and it's an 800-mile offshore powerboat cruise from Southern California to La Paz, Mexico. It's the brainchild of Bruce Kessler, a man of heady titles, including race car driver, Hollywood director, and circumnavigator. He's also a man with a sense of humor. "People were touchy about the acronym, but I got it published in The Log newspaper," he says. "The board of directors couldn't dispute it, because you can't un-publish it, so it stuck."

The FUBAR Odyssey, as it's formally known, got its start in 2007 with the backing of the Del Rey and San Diego yacht clubs. The idea was to provide powerboaters with a way to experience long-distance cruising with the relative peace of mind of doing it in a group. The cruising grounds were to be the challenging Baja coast, which has long distances between stops with minimal services. Ensenada, Turtle, and Magdalena bays and Los Cabos are designated refueling stops.

Map of the west coast of the U.S. and Mexico

"The people we took hadn't crossed an ocean, and more than half had never been out on an overnight passage," says Kessler. "They were looking for support and safety in numbers, a sort of friendship fleet. They wanted to do something they had only dreamed about." The 2007 rally was so successful that it spawned two more in 2009 and 2011. "The purpose of the FUBAR was to show people that they could go farther and do more with their boats," adds Kessler. "In the process, they bonded with new friends, and once the anxiety was gone, they went on to travel on their own."

The number of participating FUBAR boats is capped at 50 for logistical reasons, such as accommodating the vessels in slips at the various marinas along the way. Each boat must undergo a safety inspection, must have a crew of at least three to stand watches, and must have a minimum range of 450 miles at eight knots to ensure they make it to the fueling stations. The entry fee is $825, a bargain considering that dinner and drinks for all crew are provided at seven stops along the way. FUBAR staff handles port clearances and preorders fuel to make sure there's plenty for everyone. The worldwide air ambulance network Medjet is a sponsor, which also takes away some of the apprehension of voyaging by sea.

Photo of a refueling dock

"From my boating experience, I had access to the top people in the industry," says Kessler. "We brought together boatbuilders and equipment manufacturers to help the participants get ready. They got their vessels inspected and repaired, and in turn they upgraded systems and bought new equipment. It was a win-win for everyone."

The rally, which is hosted by a different yacht club every two years, includes fundraising to benefit the youth programs of the sponsoring club. Additional funds are raised through 20-plus sponsors, like the participating marinas and the Mexico Board of Tourism, who provide social activities along the way such as vineyard tours and tequila tastings. The boaters also pick a Baja-based charity. School supplies, medical equipment, and even fishing rods for residents on the Baja coast are often sourced through the participants themselves. "We try to help the people along the way because they have so few resources," Kessler says.

The Baja Ha Ha Cruisers Rally is a similar West Coast phenomenon. Each year the Ha Ha attracts 150-200 sailboats (plus some powerboats) for a trek from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. But where the Ha Ha is more hands off, the FUBAR is comprehensive in its support network. There are months of preparation seminars, with presentations on weather, medical emergencies, engine maintenance, and routing. There's a detailed plan book given to each participant answering all manner of questions. There are five escort vessels that travel with the fleet with key personnel, including a fleet doctor, diesel mechanic, weather guru, and translator. If there's going to be a problem, rally organizers try to anticipate it and have someone along who can help.

Donna Palmer-Wilson, FUBAR Odyssey chief of staff, was on the first two rallies on the advance boat that made sure everything was ready for the fleet on their arrival at each stop. "There are three firemen who have done the event every time on a modified Skipjack 30 and they've been invaluable," she says. "It's one thing to have a doctor or mechanic along, but it's another to be able to move him from one slow boat to another as they're all spread out. These guys could move fast and solve problems."

In 2011, Frank Conner, a California attorney and avid sailor, took a sojourn on what he calls "the dark side" to crew on one of the powerboats and experience the events along the way. "The organizers did an excellent job of making people feel safe," he says. "Although most of the boats didn't need it, there was help available and every issue got resolved. It's more psychic support than anything, getting people to have the confidence to jump off and do that kind of thing."

The Wizard Of The FUBAR

Long on common sense and short on self-promotion, Bruce Kessler is one of those people you could have a drink with in any boater bar around the world and probably never guess at his remarkable past. A native of Seattle, Kessler moved to Los Angeles with his parents, where he fell in love with auto racing in high school. At 16, he used his mom's Jaguar XK120 to drive his first race and a few years later he was driving a Porsche at Le Mans. At 22, though, he crashed at the Examiner Grand Prix, which left him in a coma for four days. He quit racing and came to Hollywood as a technical advisor to help directors shoot car-chase footage, and pioneered new ways to capture speed. He made a short movie called "The Sound of Speed" that went to the Cannes Film Festival and has become a classic of auto filmmaking.

Kessler caught the attention of director and producer Howard Hawks, who became his mentor and helped Kessler go on to a directing career of his own that included hundreds of episodes of more than 40 television shows including "The Monkees," "Mission Impossible," "The Flying Nun," "CHiPs," "It Takes a Thief," "The A-Team," and more.

Fishing is his first love, and Kessler owned a succession of battlewagons, which he took farther and farther offshore in search of albacore and marlin. In 1985, he decided to make fishing a bluewater adventure, and had Delta Marine build him a 70-foot Steve Seaton-designed full-displacement fishing voyager. He named her Zopilote, which is a Mexican turkey buzzard, as an antidote to the testosterone-fueled names of other sportfishers at the docks.

In 1990, he and his wife Joan set off from California to go fish the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Three years later, the Kesslers returned, by then accidental circumnavigators. The Gulf War and a shipping strike shaped their timing and plans, and after two seasons of fishing Down Under, the Kesslers ended up steaming farther, until it seemed natural to finish their circle around the globe. In the process, Kessler did something that was unusual at best. He showed the world that you could cruise a small powerboat across oceans.

Kessler went back to work part-time and cruised part-time until he lost Zopilote on an uncharted seamount near Ketchikan, Alaska. Shaken but undeterred, the Kesslers had a 62-foot trawler built in 1997 that they named Spirit of Zopilote. They still cruise five to seven months each year.

It seems Kessler has retired numerous times but he's never without a project for long. In 2004, he made the film "Living the Dream: Small Boats Crossing a Big Ocean" about the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally. In 2008, the Association of Santa Monica Bay Yacht Clubs and the Pacific Coast Yachting Association named him Yachtsman of the Year, a title he covets because it highlights long-distance powerboating.

The FUBAR was what Kessler calls his "last good idea," and he's the perfect man to pull it off. Open and talkative over dinner in Ft. Lauderdale, he's also completely focused and driven. Kessler is a meticulous planner with energy to burn. He likes to walk the docks wherever he lands and engage in conversation with other boaters. He relishes being the everyman — plain-spoken, unafraid of a little profanity, and quite funny. It's easy to see how he engages boaters to slip the docklines and reach for distant horizons. He holds seminars at venues like the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show to packed crowds of would-be offshore cruisers. It doesn't matter whether his audience is made up of salty dogs or fledging powerboaters, Kessler seems to find that resonant chord about voyaging and soon everyone is thinking, "Why not me?"

An East Coast FUBAR?

At 76, Kessler splits his time between Florida and Marina del Rey, California, so it seemed natural that he'd consider bringing his power rally to the East Coast. Dock-to-dock cruising is nothing new for Eastern powerboaters and neither are offshore rallies, but Kessler's idea had a twist. The rally, which was dubbed CUBAR, was going to lead a team of powerboats to Cuba. Because the events always have a charitable component, each boat was going to arrive with an Optimist sailing dinghy on its bow to be donated to the youth program of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana. Over a hundred boaters responded almost immediately and that number grew to 200 interested parties, but there was a snag. Under the United States' trade embargo with Cuba, it is illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money there, effectively barring ordinary U.S. tourists from visiting the island. Thousands of Americans do make the trip every year, but it requires a special license from the Treasury Department, granted for professional or educational visits.

Efforts to obtain permission to conduct the CUBAR event started in earnest in the summer of 2012, with an intended departure date of April 2013. Visits to Washington included meetings with foreign-policy experts, Department of State officials, and aides from the staffs of both Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The paperwork shuffle persisted, but so did Kessler and his team. At one point, they scaled down the flotilla to a handful of boats, but in April, the application was denied by the Bureau of Industry and Security, in the Department of Commerce, which concluded the proposed trip was "not in the foreign policy interest of the United States."

Kessler was dismayed, but was told that there was an appeal process, and he hasn't given up. Not a man used to taking no for an answer, he holds out for the possibility that CUBAR may someday cruise the blue waters of the Caribbean.

FUBAR 2013

Meanwhile, the fourth running of the FUBAR Odyssey in 2013 is in full planning mode at this year's host venue, the Newport Harbor Yacht Club in Newport Beach, California. Technically, the point of departure is 80 miles south in San Diego, so that the first day is a short hop to Ensenada, but boats will be coming from all over the West Coast, including the Pacific Northwest. The rally leaves November 7 and is expected to arrive in Marina Costa Baja in La Paz on November 19. At press time, 20 boats were signed up but FUBAR Odyssey co-chairman Chris Murray expects 35-45 boats in the fleet this fall.

Photo of woman buy food in La PazProvisioning at La Paz. (Photo: Mexicoboating.com)

"The interesting thing this year is that the rally includes fewer new people and more repeats," says Murray. "We have a number of boats that have done it in years past and have enjoyed the social aspect so much they're back. It's another fun reason to go to Mexico."

Getting 50 boats down an isolated coastline is an accomplishment in and of itself. But FUBAR chief of staff Palmer-Wilson says the pride and confidence this journey builds and the bonds that are formed along the way are the real story behind an odyssey that delivers more than boats.

"The most rewarding thing was seeing the confidence grow in these people," says Palmer-Wilson. "They learned so much and were so proud."  

Zuzana Prochazka is a freelance writer and photographer who regularly presents on a variety of topics from classic cruising boats to exotic charter destinations. A USCG 100-Ton Master, she has cruised, chartered, and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world.

— Published: August/September 2013


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