WHAT is it about the Dunhill San Fernando Race that irresistibly lures yachties back time and time again to a fishing port in the northern Philippines which boasts black sand as one of its principal tourist attractions? Two men well qualified to grapple with that question are Royal Hongkong Yacht Club commodore and former DSFR organising committee chairman Vic Locke and Keith Jacobs, who between them have competed in every race since it was first held in April 1977. Crewmates in 1979 and 1981 but rival skippers ever since, the pair are unanimous on one point - no two races are ever the same. ''I have just as much expectation and uncertainty about this year's race as I did the first,'' explained Locke, one of the select band who took part in the first race, which featured a tiny fleet of four yachts. ''I suppose I remember that race most vividly because it was the first but also because it is the only China Sea crossing that I have retired from,'' Locke, now a veteran of 18 crossings, added. The first race was run in reverse with a cruise to northern Luzon then a race back to Hongkong. In keeping with the race's knack of producing the unexpected, the four competitors were hammered all the way to San Fernando and becalmed on the return leg. ''We fell into a hole (on the return leg) and it got to the stage that if we didn't motor, some of the crew were going to be late back to work,'' said Locke, who was crewing aboard the S&S 34, Donaree. Locke was back in 1979 at the helm of his own boat, the Chance 37, Charisma, and had aboard that now celebrated Australian raconteur Jacobs. Charisma won that race and Locke and Jacobs were hooked by an event that offered exhilarating reaching just off the wind and the added challenge of dead accurate navigation. ''In the early days before Sat-Nav it wasn't uncommon for boats to sail right past San Fernando into Laubung and lose their plot completely,'' Jacobs recalled. For the uninitiated, if you happen to sail past San Fernando you can continue across a bay with the next landfall nearly 100 miles distant. Anywhere else in the world navigational aids are designed to be a mariner's friend but not so in the Philippines where most of the time they just don't work and if they do, they may well have been moved. Jacobs vividly remembers navigating to the finish one year by what later turned out to be a set of traffic lights. ''None of us could work out why the light kept changing from red to green.'' Where else in the world would a set of sailing instructions include directions to San Fernando in Spanish and native Tagalog for a frustrated skipper who had made landfall and didn't have the slightest notion exactly where he was. And where else would skippers in the days before Sat-Nav look skywards to the Cathay flight from Hongkong to Manila to get a back-up fix on their location. The flight would conveniently turn over Poro Point, the finish of the race up to 1987. Sat-Nav has done away with dead reckoning and opened up the race to a new breed of cruiser-racer. ''I probably haven't had the sextant out of the bag in six years but I can still remember those days hanging off the rail trying to take a sun shot,'' said Jacobs. A self-confessed racer rather than a cruiser, Jacobs has garnered more silverware than most in his three Dobois-designed boats, all campaigned under the Aboriginal name, Bimblegumbie. While Jacobs' boats have all been highly competitive racers, he firmly believes there is no substitute for good crew work and outstanding seamanship. He recalls fondly an incident involving his navigator, Steve Jones, whose dead reckoning was being questioned by the crew. ''We stuck to his plot for 60 miles and missed the finish buoy by 10 feet. You can't do much better than that,'' Jacobs recalled. The race has spawned a host of stories which have now passed into the realms of folklore, none more so than the incident involving the crew aboard Contessa 35, Slalom Glade in 1987. A victim of a ''minor'' miscalculation, the crew were low on provisions and hopelessly lost so it was decided some of them would row ashore to get their bearings. Pigeon Tagalog and unintelligible Spanish revealed they had overshot the finish but what they hadn't bargained on was returning to the sea only to find their boat had gone. Penniless, the marooned crew had to sell provisions to pay for a 40-mile ride to San Fernando where some hours later they were reunited with the rest of the crew. Just why the boat departed without the landing party remains conjecture but the crew became the proud recipients of the Ramon ''Clapper'' Delgado-Bimblegumbie Bucket awarded for the craziest incident during the race. And then there's Bart Kimman, who not only forgot to sign off after one race but walked past the office no less than six times! Recalling tales about previous DSFRs would be incomplete without mentioning the drinking exploits of some of the competitors. Jacobs recalls celebrations in 1991 by members of the Rothmans crew after the Humphries-designed 83-footer shattered the race record. ''The party went on for two days and by the end of it nobody was standing,'' Jacobs said. Locke best described the atmosphere at Bausang Beach where the fleet moors. ''It's a small area and people are virtually thrown together for impromptu beach parties.'' And then there is the tradition of the stage act each crew must perform as part of the celebrations. No prizes are awarded and little imagination is needed to work out the ''tone'' of many of the performances. The DSFR offers good sailing conditions and the added bonus of a tropical beach location. The local residents are welcoming and the San Miguel beer is cheaper than water. Paradise many would say!