Alone, With a Long Way to Go
“I haven’t been able to practice as much as I would have liked,” confessed Clay Burkhalter, of Stonington, Connecticut. “I’ve been really busy running my restaurant, and working on upgrades to my boat project. I haven’t been offshore too much recently.”
The morning of the start of the Bermuda One-Two race (June 5) started cold and snotty, with about 10-12 knots of breeze, a low-hanging cloud ceiling, and a persistent rain that refused to let the fleet of 39 boats, ranging from a Westsail 32, a Cal 2-30, to Class 40’s, to a new J/133, and seven 21-foot “Mini” sailboats — diminutive vessels that carry seemingly far too much sail area for their LOA, massive bowsprits, and, in the case of prototype Mini’s such as Burkhalter’s, canting keels, carbon rigs and hulls, water ballasting, and any other go-fast feature that the designer could think to incorporate — start under clear skies.
Walking the docks, the air was pregnant with expectation: some skippers were nervous, other excited, and a few were scrambling around, trying to sort out last-minute details. In many ways the scene was the same as that of any big ocean race…except for the fact that the crews each consisted of a lone sailor. The format was simple enough: each skipper would solo his/her boat 635 nautical miles to Bermuda, recuperate for a few days, make any necessary repairs, enjoy a few Dark n’ Stormies, and then race back home, this time double-handed. A race for the faint of heart this is not, especially considering that the evening’s forecast called for winds up to 30 knots, sloppy seas, squalls, and lashing rains. Not what any of these skippers call perfect, but as with other facets of ocean racing, each sailor takes what he or she is dealt, ideally with a smile on his/her face.
As for Burkhalter’s “lack” of preparation, perhaps modesty ranks up there with his exceptional sailing skills. While it’s true that he hasn’t been sailing offshore that much in the past two years, he is no stranger to his innovative little boat. In 2007, Burkhalter scored twelfth place in the Mini Transat, a race that runs for 4,200 miles from France to Brazil. His was the best American finish in this race in 28 years, a feat that is not easily duplicated. Plus, his boat has had a bit of help from one of the foremost designers of modern racer/cruisers, namely, his uncle, Rod Johnstone, of J/Boats fame. Take a close look at Acadia and it’s obvious that she shares many J/Boats signature attributes: her cabintop, her stern section, and a hull form that looks especially speedy upwind.
“This may be the world’s fastest Mini for sailing upwind,” commented Rod, who was at the dock to see his nephew off. Rod had considered joining Clay for the return trip (they have raced double handed in Europe together), but ultimately passed up his “berth” (there’s not a lot space belowdeck on a Mini) to Frederic Boursier, a Frenchman who now lives in Maine and who has also sailed the Mini Transat. “We recently added flip-up rudders, and floating jib leads, so we think that she should be a bit faster, especially when Clay can pull up the windward rudder and save some drag.”
Interestingly, Burkhalter donated Acadia to the Mystic Seaport maritime museum last year, where she is on display next to boats centuries older than herself. The museum allows Clay to race its exhibit, and even to make modifications to her. Call her living art with a serious pedigree and a lot of offshore potential.
Elsewhere in the fleet, the Class 40s made a strong appearance in this year’s event with five boats (four Class 40s and one Open 40 Paris). These fixed-keel, water ballasted rocket ships are a feeder class in Europe, where solo sailors start in Mini, progress to the Figaro class or Class 40s, and then make the quantum leap up to Open 60s. Study their hull form and rig package and they look like small Open 60s, with flat undersides that practically yearn to get up on a plane and surf. Talk to their skippers, and they too just want to get offshore and get their boats caning towards the Onion Patch.
“Sailing to Halifax was the test for me,” said Mike Dreese, owner of the Akilaria Class 40 Toothface (the icon of his business, Newbury Comics, a staple New England comic, novelty, and music shop). Dreese and his double-handed partner, Ken Luczynski (of Boston Sailing Center), practiced all winter, sailing offshore in sometimes-brutal conditions off of New England, getting ready for the challenge that lay ahead. In late fall the duo sailed Toothface from Boston to Halifax, and then in the “warmth” of January they sailed her to Jersey City, just for the experience.
Flash forward to the starting line and the RC got all of the classes off like clockwork. The rain started spitting with earnest as the last of the classes, the Minis, got their start. Not surprisingly, the first two Mini’s to cross the starting line and set themselves up for a great start to their adventure were none other than Burkhalter’s Acadia, and former SAIL staffer, now North Sails sailmaker, Jay Sharkey aboard his Carbon Neutral. While their boats are small, neither sailor wasted any time rolling bigger, heavier boats as they flew kites out of Narragansett Bay, heading South Southwest. It was a strange sight to see these tiny boats with a lone sailor, decked out in serious offshore gear, heading such a long ways offshore alone, but for many of these guys, the Bermuda One-Two is simply training ground for bigger offshore adventures.
The next few days proved interesting. Several boats turned back, including Sharkey’s Carbon Neutral. Hours into his race, Sharkey noticed that one of his rudders had failed at its pins, threatening to tear off the boat. As he prepared to gybe back towards land, a fitting in his forestay tragically failed and his rig came tumbling down. Then, he noticed that his other rudder had also failed in the same spot as the first. Excellent seamanship saw Sharkey back to dry land, but sadly he was forced to deep six his rig and sails in order to save his boat.
Burkhalter met with happier results. Not only did he win his class, he also finished sixth overall, besting boats much bigger and faster than Acadia. For a guy who hasn’t sailed too much in recent months, he didn’t seem too out of sorts with his boat, his skills, or his level of preparedness. Few Americans have as many solo miles under their belts as Burkhalter, and while it can’t hurt to have a wizard naval architect as your uncle and your boat’s designer, there’s no question that exceptional sailing skills and great judgment saw Burkhalter across the line with a bullet.
Still, it begs the questions of how many other museum pieces can boast the number of offshore miles, wins, and big grins as Acadia? Likely not many.