- John Szalay, 79, is an amateur sail racer who competed in 51 consecutive years of a regatta
- Only once was he unable to complete a race, when his engine died before a storm
- Though he has won many races in his class, he races for the love of sea, crew, family
Ensenada, Mexico (CNN)The ol' mariner is hanging up his sails, after a half century of racing.
The amateur has competed for 51 consecutive years in what's touted as the world's largest point-to-point international race, between Newport, California, and Ensenada, Mexico.
Now John Szalay, 79, a Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. and a retired engineer and executive, is calling it quits, having competed in his last Newport-to-Ensenada race in April.
"It's absolutely beautiful being on the water, it is so self-satisfying," Szalay said after having completed what he says is his last race. "You are living in God's country as far as I'm concerned, in southern California. For me, that was my relaxation."
Only once in 51 years of competing did Szalay not finish the 125-nautical-mile race. That's when his engine faltered before the race, and a storm brewed with 48-knot winds and 15-foot seas.
It was a reluctant but wise decision.
"It was the only time we quit," he said, adding that his engine indeed died a half mile from his home harbor, in Newport Beach, California.
"His track record is a rare achievement, even for an amateur in a sail race that has attracted such pros as Dennis Conner and Steve Fossett," said Dave Shockley, commodore of the race organizer Newport Ocean Sailing Association. Celebrities such as the late Humphrey Bogart and Buddy Ebsen have also raced the regatta.
Amateur racing for 50-plus years is a mantle few share. Theirs is a tale of passion and romance for the seas. These sailors earn a name that evokes an ancient order of sportsmanship: Corinthian.
"We do have a few 50-year people, but they are few and far between, and you'd have to try real hard to find someone as competitive and Corinthian a sailor as John," Shockley said.
The Newport-to-Ensenada contest is also notable for how it features a panorama of the mountainous southern California and Baja coast and their offshore islands, ending in what's become the heart of Mexico's wine country. The Ensenada area produces 90% of Mexico's wines.
If there's a timeless standard for a true sailor, perhaps it lies in the non-professional skipper who finds a way onto the water even while raising a family and holding a full-time job.