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51st Newport to Bermuda Race: Coast Guard Alumni like the sea and its lore

by Newport Bermuda Race 1 Dec 2018 07:34 PST
Rear Adm. (ret.) William “Bill” Merlin '56 (far left) sailed aboard the legendary Merlin for the 2018 Newport to Bermuda Race with his son Chip. Merlin is shown shortly after the race started. © Daniel Forster / PPL

The 51st Newport to Bermuda Race provided a true test of seamanship to several modern-day Coast Guard Academy adventurers. By Bob Lally '08, Rear Adm. W. F. Merlin '56, Lt. Cmdr. J.J. Shock '06, and Capt. Chris Sinnett '83.

The Newport Bermuda Race is regarded among sailors as one of the greatest and most accessible ocean races in the world. Starting in Newport, RI, crossing the Gulf Stream, and finishing off at St. David's Lighthouse in Bermuda, the race provides a navigation and seamanship challenge with few rivals. First sailed in 1906 with the goal of encouraging sailors of reasonable-sized (less than 80 feet) sailboats to race on the high seas, the Bermuda Race has existed as a true test of seamanship for over a century. This past June, the 51st edition of the "Thrash to the Onion Patch" was raced with 170 yachts on the line and no fewer than six Coast Guard Academy alumni participating.

It's no wonder that CGA alumni are drawn to this race; it tests one's leadership and skill, it is well organized, and there is a tremendous focus on safety. Add in the camaraderie of a small crew, the adventure of ocean crossings and the wonderful celebrations awaiting you at the finish and it has "Go Bears!" written all over it.

Behind each sailor is a story of the adventure, typically rehearsed over a Dark 'N' Stormy after the finish. Although this year was a very light wind year for some, the adventure was still great for all. Here are some of their stories as told by some modern-day CGA adventurers.

Lt. Cdr. J.J. Schock '06

This is my fourth Bermuda race, second as navigator. The race was very slow for us as we were stuck in high pressure for most of the time. Although the lack of wind was frustrating at times, there was no lack of adventure. Halfway through the race, we spotted something on the horizon that had a black bottom and orange top...a life raft. We immediately stopped racing, started the engine and made best speed towards the raft, all the while hoping that anyone aboard was OK. Luckily, as we approached, we found that it was not a life raft but a large blow-up toy raft which was empty (whew! – we all were terrified about what we were going to find). After taking the raft aboard and stowing it, we went back to the location where we stopped racing, recorded it in our log book, and continued on to Bermuda.

I love to race across oceans, and I have done so since turning 18. I can say that the skills you learn while on the ocean in a small vessel are unparalleled in their applicability to a successful career in any field: take care of the vessel and crew, train, constantly assess the risk in a changing environment! I sail because I love the freedom and sense of real adventure. The Bermuda race has this in spades.

Bob Lally '08

Despite four years on the offshore sailing team and participation in the summer ocean-racing program, competing in this race had eluded me until now. A good friend and retired Navy Captain decided to enter his boat in the race for the first time and invited me to join the crew. Even if I had to sail with a bunch of nuclear submarine sailors, this was my year for Bermuda! The entire process to prepare the boat was great. We made a lot of modifications to his 52-foot boat to be race ready. While we competed in the cruising class, the safety and outfitting requirements are equally robust for all yachts. Safety is really a top concern for the organizing committee and over the years this race has helped to define the requirements for offshore cruising and racing. One of the requirements of the race is for members of the crew to attend a hands-on safety at sea training course. There are few things more humbling than inflating a life jacket in a pool and trying to embark a life raft under the most benign, controlled conditions. It really makes you think seriously about one hand for yourself and one for the ship; you do not want to go overboard at sea.

We had the opportunity for some practice sails before the race, including an overnight delivery of the boat from Harpswell, ME to East Greenwich, RI, which really fine-tuned the crew. Probably the best part of the experience was having the opportunity to sail with my wife. She and I met sailing at Charleston Race Week in 2011 when I was stationed on the DALLAS and she coincidently had some CGA alumni racing on her boat. It is nice to have a spouse that shares a liking for the sea and its lore. While race conditions were mild compared to years past, we still saw a wide range of weather. In the middle of the race we fought through nearly 24 hours of little to no breeze, yet the last 36 hours we saw winds in the range of 17 to 22 knots, and average boat speed of 9.3 knots (not bad for a heavy cruising boat)! Overall, we finished 5th of 14 boats in our class. I know the crew is itching to improve that result in 2020; we have already started talking about practice sessions and further boat modifications.

Capt. Chris Sinnett '83

My reason for continuing to sail offshore is the same reason that brought me to the Coast Guard in the first place. I embrace the team environment that you have to have to succeed in sailing a boat offshore, whether it's a Coast Guard cutter or a small sailboat. Over 30 years ago, during a race to Bermuda, I wound up on the foredeck of a sailboat with classmates, fighting the foresail during a storm and bringing it down to replace it with a smaller sail while seas were in the 15- to-20 foot range. To say it was exhilarating would be an understatement. I think during my 30-year career and my 14 years of sea time as a cutterman, I have always been supported by my sailing experience.

On this 2018 Newport to Bermuda race and the trip back, I wound up on the foredeck twice with Cadet Eric Gimple, both times at O-dark-thirty pitch black night, hauling a blown-out sail down to either fix it and put it back up, or replace it with another sail. On one of those nights, we wound up slashing the sail to ribbons with our rigging knives in order to disentangle it from the rig and stuff it into the sail bag, while in 13- to 15-foot seas. We were both clipped in with our harnesses and as safe as we could be, but it took us 20 minutes to get that asymmetric spinnaker down and in the bag, and we were both washed down with salt water multiple times before we made it back to the cockpit. You simply can't replicate that experience anywhere else. I'm glad I'm still in good enough physical condition to fight those sails on the foredeck with a young cadet, but it always comes down to the entire team on the boat.

To me, this is what it's all about. If you have a liking for the sea and its lore, then you have to embrace the challenges that the sea offers. It forces you and your team to work together to achieve mission success. It's that simple. Master the Basics, Achieve Mission Success.

Rear Adm. W. F. Merlin '56

This was my third Bermuda Race, but with a long time since my first two ('54 & '56). I received a surprise invitation to go on the race from my son, Chip Merlin, who bought the yacht Merlin for offshore racing. Despite my years, I could not turn down the opportunity to sail in this challenging race, with the lure of the azure Gulf Stream and clear nights under the stars. The midday "doldrums," while frustrating, tested our skills at sail selection and strategy to navigate the Gulf Stream. The only excitement came one night, when a spinnaker blew out, which required prompt action to furl the damaged sail and replace it with a genoa jib. I marveled at the rapid, coordinated response by my crewmates. While impressed with the many advances in navigation assistance with the modern electronics systems, I found myself at home using the basic seamanship applications of wind and current and weather patterns to help us with a satisfying (uncorrected) finish, and the camaraderie of sailing with a fine group of sailors will give me many pleasant thoughts until we can do this again.

Sound bodies, stout hearts, and alert minds...the Bermuda Race requires all of that. The next time the Bermuda Race will be sailed is in 2020, and I bet several of the gentleman mentioned above are already starting to prepare. As time marches closer, let's see if others are participating and perhaps hold an Alumni gathering before or after. Even better, let's invite some cadets to get involved!

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