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An interview with Allan McLean about the 2017 Marion to Bermuda Race

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 5 Jun 2017
Marion-Bermuda Race Fran Grenon Spectrum Photography
While I’ve sailed some miles, I’ll never forget that magical helm session in mid-June of 2003 when we entered the Gulf Stream aboard Southern Cross, my Dad’s modified J/44, during the Marion to Bermuda Race. I had been on the wheel for maybe 20 cold and fairly miserable minutes when my Dad started popping his head out of the companionway, repeatedly asking about conditions and announcing small water-temperature differences. Then, instantly, the water warmed, the waves got big (call it foreshadowing of what was to come), and my Dad proudly welcomed us first-timers to the Stream. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any finer, the torpedoes arrived, firing fast and furious past our bow in super-trippy flashes of brightness in an otherwise-inky night.

I remember carefully keeping one eye on my compass heading (and sneaking glances at my wind instruments) while reserving the other eye for trying to figure out what the heck (ok, slot in stronger vernacular!) was shooting torpedoes at us…and then it dawned on me that these “torpedoes” weren’t aiming to sink Southern Cross-rather, the dolphins were simply joy-riding in our bow wake, their svelte bodies kicking off the bioluminescent algae’s light-giving properties.

The seas continued to grow larger and more erratic, but the water was bathtub warm, and the constant dousings, both at the helm and later while perched on the windward rail, felt wonderful compared to that first frigid night out of Marion. And while we were a long way from shore, we were finally in the night fight that we had been preparing for months to engage, our brand-new number three jib perfectly complimenting the single reef in our mainsail.

A couple of days later we spotted Bermuda, a seemingly tiny spec of terra firma on a big, bold swath of blue. Thoughts of a hot shower, cold beer(s) and a steady horizon beckoned us to shore, but no sooner were our dock lines made fast than I started dreaming of my next offshore adventure. Instantly, all thoughts of endured misery vanished, replaced instead by the pride of having crossed a chunk of saltwater with my Dad and a solid group of Corinthian sailors.

To say that the hook was set was an understatement, but such is the way with “Type II” fun (read: miserable in the moment; glorious in hindsight), a mountaineering term that applies perfectly to offshore sailing. Plenty of other distance races have followed, but I sincerely hope that I never forget the lessons I learned on that first Gulf Stream crossing, or the magic of first seeing those torpedoes flash past our bow.

The 2017 Marion to Bermuda Race is set to kick off on Friday, June 9, so I caught up with Allan McLean, the race’s executive director, via email to learn more about the race’s history and evolution, its challenges, and the special America’s Cup experience that awaits Marion to Bermuda sailors upon reaching the Onion Patch.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in a race like the Marion to Bermuda Race? Also, are these challenges typically faced en route to Bermuda, or before the boats even leave the dock?
The biggest challenge in my opinion is the preparation, not only of the boat but the crew as well. If you have not prepared properly, the race could become a major challenge. One cannot take anything for granted, given that the offshore conditions can adversely impact not only the boat but crew as well. The race will be what it is, but the preparation will determine how well one manages to cope with the conditions and unexpected circumstances.

How important are the Safety at Sea seminars to ensuring the success of an event like the Marion to Bermuda Race? Can you explain?
Safety is out number-one priority. We have always run an excellent and well-attended Safety Seminar. In 2011 we expanded the normal one-day program to include a second day, so that we could offer much more detailed briefings on weather, coping with the Gulf Stream [conditions], and offshore medicine. We also provide actual in-pool training for individuals to deploy their PFDs and learn to get into a life raft, as well as to right an overturned [life] raft. In 2017, we had 250 attendees of whom almost half participated in one or more of the additional programs. A Safety at Sea seminar is one the initial keys to proper preparations for the race

Any advice for first-time Bermuda sailors, or for anyone who has yet to cross the Gulf Stream?
Expect to have an exhilarating experience and weather conditions that you may have not ever previously encountered. Do everything you can to avoid seasickness, even if that has never been a problem for you. In short, be ready for any eventuality.

What about the approach to Bermuda? Does this require any tricky navigation?
The navigation to an island surrounded by shoals is always a challenge. You might very well be approaching in the dark and in adverse weather. To be doing so after what might have been a difficult passage, and when quite fatigued, requires that you pay extra attention to your exact location and what lies ahead. Careful reading of the race’s Sailing Instructions will help you keep out of harm's way. Keep the champagne corked until you dock!

Am I correct that the Marion to Bermuda Race is one of the only major ocean races afloat to offer a celestial-navigation division? If so, can you give us some backstory on how this class evolved, and why the race still supports this division in an age of easy GNSS-based navigation?
When the race began in 1977, the use of celestial was the only way to navigate offshore. The race continued to be a 'celestial only' until 1997, when Loran C and GPS were allowed. We know of no other race today that has a celestial class. Offshore racing appeals to individuals who like to be challenged physically and intellectually. The fact that one can put aside the modern tools and rely on techniques that worked for our sailing ancestors makes the passage more satisfying. It also places a much heavier burden on the crew, which needs to participate more actively in steering a proper course and maintaining logs to assist the navigator.

Can you tell me about the special arrangements that the Marion Bermuda Race has made so that the fleet can see some of the America’s Cup racing this year?
Our first concern when we heard that the Cup would be held in Bermuda was whether it might seriously impact our race. However from the very beginning, the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club made it clear to us that our race was their number-one priority. They also promised that we would be guaranteed dockage for all of our entrants, and that they would also make space available to any of our boats that wanted to remain longer to enjoy the festivities. This was all done in spite of the fact that the Dinghy Club is also temporary home to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, which is the host club for the America's Cup.

There are many ways to see the Races and there is a link to these on our website.

Will you be racing to Bermuda yourself this year, or do your official responsibilities keep you ashore?
I will be racing on Pouchy, a beautiful Hallberg-Rassy 44, owned by a good friend. My official duties ashore when the race is over are social and ceremonial and I am sure they can survive nicely without me until I arrive and take a shower.

Anything else that you’d like to add for the record?
The race will be memorable for all who participate. Bermuda is a wonderful place to spend time any year, but with all of the added attractions surrounding the [35th] America's Cup, this should prove to be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anyone who enjoys the thrill of sailing as well as seeing it up close. You will be able to observe the greatest sailors on the planet as well as boats performing at a level not even dreamed about only a few years ago. In addition there will be Super Yachts and J-Boats racing. The boat and people watching will be spectacular.

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