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Newport Bermuda Race - Sailors experience enchantment and thrill

by John Rousmaniere on 25 Jun 2012
Black Watch, the top scoring classic yacht. Barry Pickthall/PPL © http://www.pplmedia.com
A Newport Bermuda Race veteran of times gone by described his initial steps when he staggered ashore following a Thrash to the Onion Patch this way: 'We made tracks for the yacht club, and now, at last, with one foot on the rail of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club bar, we might truly be said to have reached our goal.'

And so again after the 48th Bermuda Race. When the boats poured into Hamilton Harbour a day earlier than usual after their record-breaking sprint across the Gulf Stream, the crews made tracks for the open-air bar at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and there, over libations, they told their sea stories. There were tales of knockdowns and blown-out sails and water flying everywhere, and even one about a boat’s encounter with a shark that hung up first on the keel and then on the rudder before breaking in half and being left astern.

Despite those and other edgy moments, what the 1,500 sailors in the 2012 Bermuda Race fleet felt most often was enchantment. Everybody had thrilling stories of reaching at top speed for two days straight, often through vast fields of phosphorescence. 'An out-of-body experience' is how Lawrence Glenn (Locust Valley, N.Y.), skipper of the Runaway, described the voyage. 'It was a very, very unusual race – in fast cool dry northerly air, and it was a great ride. Can you imagine a 44-footer finishing near Bolero’s record?' Yes indeed, Runaway’s time was just five hours shy of the 73-foot yawl’s 1956 elapsed time record of a little over 70 hours. 'That’s a lot,' said Larry Glenn, 'and it was exhausting.'

Among more than 100 prizes awarded for the fastest race to the Onion Patch ever including Rambler breaking the record by 14 hours, Carina, Shockwave, Lilla, Mirelle and Med Spirit won the big Silver. Carina took home her second consecutive St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy, Shockwave took the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse and the North Rock Beacon Trophy for first in IRC, Lilla took the Carleton Mitchell Finisterre Trophy for first Cruiser, Med Spirit won the Royal Mail Trophy for the Open Division title and Mirelle won the Weld Prize for the Double-Handed.



Amid the celebrations for this sensational sprint and for the great boat that won it (Carina has now equaled Finisterre’s record of three Lighthouse Trophies), the 2012 Newport Bermuda Race produced examples of exemplary seamanship and inspiring concern by sailors for they fellow seamen.


On Sunday night, a pair of race boats went to the aid of a competitor, Seabiscuit, one of whose two crewmembers was suffering from complications of dehydration and needed to be evacuated. The fact that the sailor, Nathan Owen (Norwell, Mass.), was picked up by a cruise ship doesn’t minimize the heroic efforts of the crews of Spirit of Bermuda and Flying Lady, or of his shipmate, Jonathan Green (Wakefield, R.I.).

Flying Lady’s owner, Phillip Dickey (New Haven, Conn.), explained his motivation very simply: 'It was the right thing to do.' It’s also mandated by law, starting with Racing Rule 1.1 ('A boat or competitor shall give all possible help to any person or vessel in danger') and including U.S. and international statutes.

The long worrisome night ended with Owen in the cruise ship under professional medical care and the three yachts continuing the race. Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Commodore Jonathan Brewin (Hamilton, Bermuda) telephoned Green on Seabiscuit’s satellite phone to express concern about his health and state of mind after the harrowing experience.

'I’m just fine,' Green replied brightly, 'and the boat’s making nine knots!' Seabiscuit finished the race. Although having a smaller crew than the one she started with is a technical violation of a racing rule, the International Jury decided, sensibly, that a sailor who remains on board should not be punished for a shipmate’s injury. Seabiscuit was declared an official finisher, taking fifth in the 16-boat Double-Handed Division.

At the race’s prizegiving ceremony the race organizers awarded citations for exemplary seamanship to Flying Lady, Seabiscuit, and Spirit of Bermuda, a handsome replica of a traditional Bermuda working three-masted schooner in the new Spirit of Tradition Division.

Another 'right thing to do' contribution to safety must be mentioned. On the Sunday before the start, Thomas W. Tobin (Rye, N.Y.), co-skipper of Inisharon, identified a conflict between two types of important equipment, Garmin chart plotters and Kannad SafeLink crew overboard alarms, which could cause the plotters to shut down. His assiduous work over the next two days resulted in Garmin’s sending three technicians to Newport to provide necessary software upgrades.

Spirit of Bermuda was one of four classic wooden boats in the race. Each was designed many years ago, has breathtakingly sleek lines, and is equipped with gear that’s foreign to most modern sailors.

Running into the crew of the 83-year-old, 52-foot yawl Dorade, I asked, 'Was it a wet race?' The answer was, 'There was water everywhere! And those vents really work!' 'Those vents' are the tall air scoops that an ingenious yacht designer of another era, Rod Stephens, designed for his family’s boat in 1930. These ventilators revolutionized ocean sailing by letting air into the cabin and, in a system of baffles, keeping the water out and thus making the boat habitable even when water’s rushing across the deck in the rough seas of a typical Bermuda Race. The vents were immediately baptized with the name of the boat where they were first employed, Dorade – the very same Dorade racing in this year’s race, thrilling every sailor who saw her.


Two other woodies from the pre-World War III days of the yacht design firm Sparkman & Stephens were in the race, the meticulously restored New York 32 class sloop Isla, owned by Henry S. May III (Houston, Tex.), and the 68-foot yawl Black Watch, commanded by Joseph C. Robillard (Chatham, N.J.). The best result by a wooden boat was Black Watch’s win in Class 6.

This elegant classic was sailed with classic cunning by an experienced crew: 'Our strategy was to go fast the first two days toward the island and see what we found when we got down there,' said Robillard. This strategy left them open-minded for the new conditions that swept in with the surprise pop-up low coming north from Bermuda. With her long waterline and yawl rig, Black Watch was optimized for reaching with five sails set – a very effective rig for this very unusual Bermuda Race, with hundreds of miles of reaching across the wind.


Besides their appearance, the woodies had one very important thing in their favor: silence. The new carbon and fiberglass boats were like drums with waves beating on their decks and topsides. Alan Block (Berkeley, Mich.) reported from the very damp deck of Decision (top boat in the Onion Patch Series), 'We’ve been averaging somewhere north of 13.5 knots for most of the trip, with a top speed just under 20, and it is loud, wet, difficult, and massively rewarding.'

The woodies were also wet and massively rewarding, but with their long keels they weren’t so difficult to sail fast – and their natural fibre soundproofing made the sailing a lot easier on the ears. Said Black Watch’s navigator, Peter Rugg (New York, N.Y.), 'I’d forgotten how quiet a wooden boat is down below when you’re sailing in rough weather.'

May quiet reign over the Newport Bermuda Race until it is revived in Bermuda Race website

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