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Three Tales from the Bermuda Race

by Mystic Seaport Museum on 3 May 2006
The first maxi Boomerang blasting toward the finish off St. David’s Head and one of her three elapsed time victories. Credit: Bermuda News Bureau photo Mystic Seaport Museum
Three Tales from the Bermuda Race - Excerpts from John Rousmaniere’s new book,
A Berth to Bermuda: 100 Years of the World’s Classic Ocean Race.

Order your copy online from Mystic Seaport Museum

The 100-year history of the Bermuda Race – the great thrash to the Onion Patch – is a vast collection of anecdotes, humor, rough weather, triumph, disappointment, a little tragedy, and lots of misery. ('Did you enjoy the race?' a sailor was once asked in Bermuda. He replied, 'I’m damned if I’ll do it again until two years from now!')

Here are three of the best yarns -

Boomerang Wins in ‘96.

The first maxi Boomerang blasting toward the finish off St. David’s Head and one of her three elapsed time victories.

When the maxis returned en masse in the 1980s and nineties, the most consistently successful of them was George Coumantaros’s first maxi named Boomerang, a blue, aluminum masthead-rigged Frers IOR sloop that was first to finish three times. No other boat has had more elapsed-time victories. When newer IMS boats caught up, in 1996 Coumantaros built a white carbon fiber Frers design with a shape optimized for reaching. 'George could have had a boat designed for beating to do well anywhere else in the world,' said his long-time watch captain Jeffrey Neuberth, 'but he wanted to win the Bermuda Race, and it’s usually a reaching race. The Bermuda Race is closer to George’s heart than anything else he did sailing. He started racing down there in 1952 and did every one through 2002. That’s 26 races.'

Coumantaros’s first boat was a 52-foot yawl, Baccarat, which he bought with his winnings after breaking the bank at Monaco. Later came a 73-footer, Baccara, in which Coumantaros, in one simple, noble gesture, made his respect for ocean racing and his competitors clear. After finishing second on elapsed time, Baccara towed in the lead boat, Windward Passage, which was unable to make speed under power due to engine problems. But as they approached Two Rock Passage, Coumantaros ordered the tow line cast off so that Passage could be the first boat into Hamilton Harbor.

All that success – and he never won a Bermuda Race on corrected time.

After the new Boomerang was launched early in 1996, Coumantaros, now 72, and his afterguard spent two months breaking in the boat and her mostly amateur crew. Powerful enough to sail in an apparent wind of 40 knots without being reefed, she found her conditions. 'That boat was just flying,' Neuberth remembered. When she finished at 11:30 Sunday night, she became the first boat to complete a Bermuda Race in a long weekend and broke Nirvana’s 1982 course record by almost five hours.

Most important to her owner, Boomerang won on corrected time. When Coumantarous was presented with the Lighthouse Trophy in the award ceremony at Government House, he told the crowd, 'We’ve been like Jason chasing the Golden Fleece. . . . I’d like to give all who sail for the Lighthouse Trophy some advice: don’t despair, keep trying, and if you don’t win it by the time you are 75, withdraw.'

The Heroic Jolie Brise.

The Bermuda Race has been sailed 44 times and has involved a total of 4,205 boats, approximately 42,000 sailors, and some 2,600,000 miles of racing. In all that, just two boats have been lost, and one sailor.

On the first night out in 1932, the fleet was banging into a squally southwester that left a sailor describing the sea as 'valleys and mountains' (his schooner was dipping her kerosene running lights under water). It was somewhat easier going in James H. Ottley’s five-year-old, 78-foot schooner Adriana. Though her decks were relatively dry, Adriana’s cabin was cold and damp, and the off-watch crew stoked the coal stove until it glowed red-hot. Nobody noticed that the heat migrated through an insulated bulkhead into an adjacent locker, where rope and oilskins–literally cotton clothing soaked in linseed oil–were stored. The oilskins burst into flame, and as the oily, smoky fire quickly spread, Ottley determined there was nothing to do but abandon ship and fire rockets (what we call flares).

Three miles ahead of Adriana were the cutter Jolie Brise and her 35-year-old skipper, an adventurous English aristocrat named Henry Robert Somers Fitzroy de Vere Somerset – called Bobby by everyone. Descended from two dukes, he had been decorated for his services in the trenches on the Western Front, had lost a lung, and was described as 'a man of outrageously good looks' who exuded 'an element of the devil-make-care buccaneer.' He had brought Jolie Brise, a former French pilot cutter, over from England for the race.

Somerset turned back toward the flaming schooner. As the cutter reached down on her, her crew were seen struggling to launch the ship’s boat and heave spinnaker poles into the water to serve as improvised floats. With Somerset at the long tiller, the engineless Jolie Brise came alongside Adriana, whose crew was launching the dinghy. As the schooner’s helmsman, Clarence Kozaly, held position, the two yachts’ rails banged together, their upper rigging tangled, Jolie Brise’s tarred deadeye lanyards were charred. Adriana’s sailors piled onto the cutter’s deck; a witness would recall a naked Indian, the ship’s cook, leaping out of the companionway, brandishing a large knife.

Only the dutiful Kozaly was left. The two yachts were several feet apart when he finally let go the wheel and made his jump, only to tumble into the gap. Sherman Hoyt desperately threw him a line, but Kozaly’s heavy clothing drew him under once, then twice. 'The second time we never saw him again,' Ottley mournfully told the race committee. As Somerset jibed Jolie Brise around again, he ordered all the Adriana crew to go below while his crew conducted the search, but Kozlay’s body never came up.

The Almighty Navigator

In the days of the sextant, the navigator was like a priest.

Good navigators cover up the ambiguities of their avocation with a veneer of brazen confidence. 'Before Loran came in, the navigator was like a priest,' said Larry Glenn, who started racing down in the 1950s and is still doing it. 'People were always asking, ‘Where are we?', and when you blindly put your finger on the chart, they’d believe you and say, ‘Ahhh,’ in a respectful way.'

A little authority can go a long way – sometimes too long, as Mitchell Gibbons-Neff (known as Mitch Neff) made clear about the 1976 race, which saw the worst calm ever in the Bermuda Race: 'We sailed with six people in my family’s 40-footer, Prim – ‘four Neffs and two refs, we used to call it. In ’76 I’m the cook and also the navigator. We sail into the Stream, hit every current wrong, and after 24 hours of staying in the same place I’m getting pretty tired of everybody asking me when we’ll reach Bermuda. I’m in the galley cooking corned beef hash and eggs and announcing, ‘The next guy who asks me how many miles we have to go is going to get it!’

'Well, my older brother is in the head and doesn’t hear me. He comes out of the head and says, ‘How many miles do we. . . ?’ That’s as far as he got before I put a plate of corned beef hash and eggs right in his face.'

Rare tantrums aside, the navigator usually is a bastion of cool confidence even when engaged in the most anxious part of the job, which is the landfall. Henry A. Morss, who won his class in the 1907 and 1908 races, was famous for telling his crews exactly when to go aloft to spot Gibbs Hill lighthouse.

But Bermuda usually does not appear on command. 'There was always trouble coming into Bermuda,' said Glenn. 'In the usual rough water, in a small boat, it was very hard to get star sights so sometimes you just didn’t know where you were. Someone would ask you, ‘Where are we?’ and you’d have to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and then he’d say, ‘Well, I’m going to sleep with my feet forward in case we run into the reef.’'

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