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A Q&A with Andrew Howe about winning the 2015 Marion to Bermuda Race

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 7 Jun 2017
Andy Howe taking a sight aboard Founder's Trophy winner 'Ti' in the 2015 Marion Bermuda Race. He will navigate for Ray Cullum aboard 'Frolic' in this 2017 race starting June 9 in Marion MA Andy Howe
While there are plenty of great things to be said about the biennial Marion to Bermuda Race, one of its most defining and interesting characteristics is the fact that it’s the only major offshore contest that offers a class for celestial navigation, allowing seasoned navigators and crews to add a significant degree of challenge to an already challenging offshore passage.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Marion to Bermuda Race begins in the northwest corner of Buzzard’s Bay and carries the fleet out of the Bay, past Cuttyhunk Island and out into the open Atlantic Ocean. Conditions obviously vary year to year, but the first night out is typically cold. This changes fast, however, once one reaches the Gulf Stream and the clear blue waters beyond, and it’s not uncommon to finish the race wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a sun hat.



While each year is different, anytime one elects to sail some 645 nautical miles across an open swath of ocean that’s bisected by the powerful Gulf Stream, one can usually expect an adventure, but this can be compounded exponentially when one elects to navigate by the sun and stars, rather than GNSS. Not only are there the usual seamanship concerns related to not knowing one’s exact position relative to rocks and reefs, but-from a performance-sailing perspective-not having an accurate position adds a ton of perplexing question marks.

In 2015, skipper Greg Marston and the crew of Ti, a 1967 Alden Mistral, racing under celestial rules, were the overall winner of the 2015 Marion Bermuda Race Founders Division and the recipients of the Goslings Rum Founders Trophy, beating boats that were enjoying GPS accuracy all the way from Marion.

Marston’s cousin, Andrew Howe, served as the all-family team’s celestial co-navigator (along with Chase Marston), a role that Howe had previously performed five other times en route from Marion to the Onion Patch, and he guided Ti to one of the most impressive wins in the race’s recent history. Together, Howe and Marston were awarded the Navigators Trophy for their impressive effort.



On the eve of the 2017 edition of this storied race, I caught up with Howe via email to learn more his 2015 win, and about his plans to race aboard Frolic, owner and skipper Ray Cullum’s Bill Dixon design 44-foot pilothouse sloop, as the crew’s celestial navigator in this year’s Marion to Bermuda Race, which starts on Friday, June 9, 2017.

(In the interest of full editorial disclosure, Andrew Howe and I are longtime friends and former colleagues from my days working as a desk editor at SAIL Magazine, where Howe continues to serve as the magazine’s eastern sales manager. Not only does Howe have great taste in music and an impressive bluewater resume, but he’s also a lifelong skier and all-around great guy.)

How did you get into celestial navigation? Was this how you grew up sailing, or was this a piece of tradecraft that you learned sailing offshore?
I learned celestial while a Quartermaster in the U.S. Coast Guard in the late 70s. After the USCG, I spent a few years running private yachts and had to get better at celestial to get the boats back and forth to the Caribbean as GPS didn’t exist and Loran didn’t work offshore.

For several years I also worked at a [sailing-related] magazine where one of my roles was teaching celestial navigation courses around the country and also aboard their sail-training schooner. Teaching interested sailors about celestial [navigation] really helped me get better at [this art], and ultimately led to my first invite to navigate a Marion to Bermuda Race using celestial.

What, typically, is the hardest part about racing to Bermuda using celestial navigation? Getting good sightings?
Celestial navigation requires the discipline to capture as many sights as possible to refine the dead reckoning (DR) position every day. Racing offshore means building exhaustion of all onboard, so overcoming that is probably the biggest challenge.

The mechanics of taking sights is pretty routine, but it really is the evaluation of the DR data, the Gulf Stream and weather information, and the actual sight data that takes focus and time. There can be some head scratching involved, so you just have to go with your best guess sometime!

When you look back on the 2015 Marion to Bermuda, what were the key racecourse decisions that lead to your big win?
There was a huge Gulf Stream meander right on the rhumbline, providing racers a potential boost for many miles. But with strong forecast winds contrary to the current, as a crew we decided to sacrifice the potential gain from the meander and avoid the hours of close-hauled crashing through the seas with a much slower boat speed.

Instead, we headed 60-plus nautical miles west of the rhumbline and kept the boat sailing fast on a close reach, and tacked over to fetch Bermuda as we crossed the Gulf Stream at a narrow point.

How much of a role does race-specific experience play in this race, versus simply being a very solid celestial navigator?
Every race venue, be it coastal or offshore, has its own unique qualities that an experienced sailor can leverage. Understanding how the Gulf Stream situates on this course is critical, as are the typical trends of weather systems across the course. And then there are the subtleties of local Bermuda currents that can have an influence at the end when you least expect them.

Celestial works the same no matter where you are, but all those specific elements are very important to success.



Do you have a preference for sailing offshore using celestial, versus electronic navigation?
I’ve navigated other offshore and coastal races, and have no problem turning on the electronics, but I am by no means a whiz-bang VMG-Polars electronics navigator!

My wife and I also cruise our 35’ Allied Seabreeze sloop up and down the coast of Maine…using GPS and DR as I’m a traditionalist and always have a paper chart in the cockpit.

Any advice for other navigators who are interested in getting involved with a race such as the Marion to Bermuda using celestial navigation?
Take a classroom course to learn the skill, and then practice on a small boat to get competent. There is certainly an art to interpreting all the data, but there is also a skill to learn first.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?
Just a plug for the Marion Bermuda Race…they have always maintained a celestial class (with a three-percent rating credit) to support that element of offshore sailing. The race has kept me in the celestial game for decades!

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