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An interview with Somers Kempe on the 2022 Newport Bermuda Race

by David Schmidt 14 Jun 08:00 PDT June 17, 2022
Teams line up for the start of the world-famous Newport Bermuda Race © Daniel Forster / PPL

Simply put, there are few East Coast sailing adventures finer than the biennial Newport Bermuda Race, which is organized by the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. The first Newport Bermuda Race unfurled in 1906, and 2022 marks the 52nd edition of this 635 nautical-mile rite of passage.

The event is lovingly nicknamed “the thrash to the Onion Patch” due to the conditions that competitors can expect to encounter as they depart the Eastern Seaboard, cross the Gulf Stream, and then negotiate truly open water before reaching the finishing line off of this beautiful island nation.

The race was originally contested as an annual affair before switching to its current biennial tempo in 1926. Likewise, the race’s starting line moved around, from Brooklyn, New London, Marblehead, and Montauk, before setting in Newport in 1936.

Since its formation, there have only been three breaks in racing, the first from 1911-1922, the second for World War II (1940-1944), and the third for the Covid-19 pandemic (2020). Needless to say, there’s some pent-up excitement for the 2022 edition.

The 1906 event may have only attracted three starting competitors, but the event grew to 44 starters by 1936; by 1972 there were 178 boats on the starting line (that’s a lot of sextants in one starting area!). Also, while Frank Maier and his Tamerlane crew won the inaugural race with an elapsed time of 126 hours and 9 minutes, the current record belongs to Comanche, which sailed the course in 34 hours, 52 minutes and 53 seconds.

I checked in with Somers Kempe, race chair of the 2022 Newport Bermuda Race, via email, to learn more about this classic bluewater contest.

Can you please describe the culture of the Newport Bermuda Race to sailors and readers who have not had the chance to participate in this offshore classic?

The culture of the race centers around a Corinthian, safety-conscious group of ocean sailors who appreciate taking on the challenge of sailing from the shores of North America down to Bermuda.

It’s a wide-ranging group, including families and friends, mainly Corinthian sailors, sprinkled with some pros. The crews are usually people who have sailed together many years. The race represents the pinnacle of East Coast ocean racing.

What’s the competition like, and what kinds of sailors can one expect to meet on the docks before the start?

Even in the Finisterre (Cruising) Division, everybody has that competitive streak in them. All enjoy the challenge of managing the variables the best they can to get their boat across the finish line as quickly as possible. The crews you’ll meet on the dock are all friendly and looking forward to an enjoyable experience.

Probably the biggest variable is the makeup of the crew itself. That’s one of those amazing sociological experiments—if you have found the right people who will get along in the right ways, they will play a larger role in your success than whether you buy a new sail.

Can you break the race down into chapters for readers and sailors who haven’t sailed this classic course?

I think of it as having three chapters—and the race itself is the second of those.

First is in your preparation, going through the sail wardrobe, looking at the crossovers of different sails, and preparing your navigation choices. Doing the research into the weather and the Gulf Stream pays off in spades when you start seeing conditions that you expect. Working together as a crew ahead of the race typically makes for an easier passage, because each crewmember becomes part of something larger and takes ownership of different areas of the yacht. This includes dealing with boatyard, paint, getting equipment fixed or working in the galley and planning and provisioning.

Once the race starts, you’re into chapter two. It might look like a straight line, but there are many twists and turns along the way for the navigator. After the start, as you cross the continental shelf, you decide on your approach to the Gulf Stream. Then you sail through the Stream, looking for the most favorable currents, as the Stream itself follows a meandering course.

Finally, on the last stretch to Bermuda, you look to the south-flowing side of any warm eddies as you line up your approach to the finish, hopefully at the most optimal angle for your vessel.

The third chapter is about spending time in Bermuda amongst locals and exploring the island together as a crew. For me it’s also home. For out of towners, the delivery of the boat home can be more enjoyable without the pressure of the race, but it’s still important to recruit a crew of people with many of the same qualities.

What kind of entry numbers are you seeing this year? Also, how do these stack up to previous editions of the race?

This year’s fleet won’t be the biggest ever—that was [265 boats] in our 100th anniversary year (2006). But we’ve definitely seen stronger interest than in the past couple of cycles and [we] are expecting a 200-boat fleet headed to Bermuda.

What about the double-handed division? Are you seeing increased interest levels there? If so, what’s driving this?

Interest is up in double-handed sailing worldwide, and we’re seeing it across a wide range of different design boats.

My assumption is it has something to do with COVID and possibly the drive to do this type of event at the Olympics.

We’re supportive of that type of sailing and have been since we initiated a double-handed class in 1994. We will probably have two [doublehanded] classes with more than 20 boats sailing.

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter between the Ocean State and the Onion Patch in mid-June? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

The worst case is when a hurricane threatens. Usually, skippers face a frontal-type pattern as they leave the coast and then as they get closer they sail into the Bermuda High, which is starting to set up in June.

Generally, this makes it a reaching and upwind race, and if you’ve done it right, you’re coming into the island on starboard tack. Temperatures can be chilly the first night, then you’re wearing shorts and sunshirts or clammy foul weather gear in the Gulf Stream. Temperatures are in the 80s by day and high 70s at night when you arrive, with occasional passing showers.

What are the standing course records for the Newport Bermuda Race? (Monohull/multihull, who set it and in what year?) Also, what kinds of odds are you placing on Argo, Snowflake (multihulls), the two VOR70s, Malama, or Windquest (Oc86) (monohulls) breaking these records this year?

There are plenty of records for the course, including the 105-foot catamaran, Lending [Club], which sailed the course in 2015 outside of one of our races in a time of 23h:9m:52s.

During a race, the best time by a boat in our regular racing divisions was set in 2012 by Rambler in a time of 39h:39m:18s. That’s the time we consider our outright record. However, in 2016, sailing in the Open Division, the 100-foot Comanche sailed the course in 34h:42m:53s.

The fastest multihull time to date was the Gunboat 62 Elvis, in 2018. That was the first year we had multihulls in the race, and it was a light-air race. Her time of 63h;25m:32s could well be obliterated this year by one of the Mod70s doing the race, Argo or Snowflake. We’re hoping the Jet Blue flight we’re riding will beat them to the island!

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta’s environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the regatta?

We instituted the Green Team initiative of encouraging the assignment of an environmental officer on each boat, and we have more than 50 E-Stewards signed up.

We’re also following the guidelines of Sailors for the Sea as a Clean Regatta at the Gold Level as we did in 2018, and we’re hoping to improve on those practices. This includes simple examples like having refillable water stations in Newport, working with the Goslings and the yacht club in Bermuda to reduce single-use plastic usage, and not printing the sailing instructions, which everyone has on their phones and computers.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

I’m looking forward to the race starting and finishing with as many boats in Bermuda as possible. The race has been a family event for me for longer than I can remember.

My dad, Stephen Kempe, first sailed the race as a young guy with Eldon Trimingham in 1966. I did my first Newport race with him and his friends in ‘96. Now we’re both involved in the organization—he handles the Bermuda Logistics Committee—so I see him every other day and we can talk quickly about things. I am not involved at the yacht club any more, but my brother-in-law Craig Davis is the current commodore. You can imagine what we talk about when we get together for family dinners.

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