A BERTH TO BERMUDA100 Years of the World’s Classic Ocean Race
Excerpted from John Rousmaniere’s new book, published by Mystic Seaport and the Cruising Club of America. Available from the Mystic Seaport Bookstore
1972: THE YEAR OF THE GALE
What everybody who sailed the roughest of all Bermuda Races remembered best was the true thrash, if not thrashing, to the Onion Patch. The 178 boats were lashed for the last two days by a 30-50 knot southeasterly running dead into the teeth of a 3-knot Gulf Stream meander and kicking up terrific breaking seas. On the smaller boats, crews felt close to the edge. “It was like driving a truck into a stone wall three times a minute for two days,” one sailor said afterwards. On board Bob Bavier’s 40-footer Witch, somebody noted in the log, “The watchword for today is survival.”
The big test came on the approach to the finish. Warren Brown, of War Baby fame, ranked the difficulty of 1972’s landfall with the one in 1960. Even in the best weather, finding the finish line required the closest coordination between navigator, helmsman, and crew as the buoys guarding the reef are located and checked off — North Rock, Northeast Breaker, Kitchen Shoals, Mills Breaker — on the gradual but anxious arc toward St. David’s Head. The 1972 fleet made its landfall after three days without sextant sights (Loran was still not allowed), a two-knot north-setting current, erratic RDF bearings, and so much flying spray that visibility was often a matter of yards. Few if any navigators would later admit to having known anything near their exact positions near the island.
We in the Swan 55 Dyna, owned and navigated by two superb seamen, Clayton Ewing and Dick McCurdy, approached the island just before at dawn. Our race until then had been plenty eventful but without excessive anxiety. After almost hitting a whale west of the Gulf Stream, we watched the barometer plummet just before dawn on the third day, and soon it was blowing a solid 35, gusting into the forties. Shortened down to the number three jib and four rolls in the mainsail, we were regularly taking solid green water. One wave was high enough to reach the cowl of a ventilator rising two feet above the cabin. Like a firehouse, the vent redirected the water down into the cabin, right onto McCurdy as he was engaged in cleaning his sextant. Some navigators might take this as a personal insult, but McCurdy let out a loud guffaw.
Navigating solely on dead reckoning, McCurdy told us to start looking for the island before dawn. Luckily, the low cloud cover briefly opened up to allow us a bearing on Gibbs Hill Light. Our depth sounder and other electronic instruments had shorted out, leaving us to find the finish line by eyeball and feel. We held port tack until the waves became shorter and steeper (a sign of shoal water), tacked out quickly, and when the seas lengthened again, tacked back. In this way we felt our way around the reef, yet without knowing exactly where we were until we could find and identify one of the dimly-lit buoys through the gloom. After what seemed like an age of fruitless searching by our watch, the other watch captain, a burly Australian fisherman named Sid Brown, stuck his head out of the companionway, looked around, and, pointing almost abeam, announced, “There it is.” We had no idea which buoy this was until McCurdy and Ewing instructed us to circle it and read its number. It was Northeast Breaker, and from there our path to the finish was relatively straightforward.
Meanwhile, there were 14 withdrawals — three due to dismastings, some to other damage, and many due to the seamanlike caution of their owners. Approaching Bermuda with rigging problems, Stanley Livingston in Wailele found the radio bearings unreliable. An escorting Royal Navy frigate that was nearby hailed, “Are you satisfied with your position?” Livingston looked up, saw rocks, and promptly anchored. When he could not start his engine — he later found the fuel tanks full of salt water — he decided to accept a tow. When the 68-foot ketch Equation reached the vicinity of Northeast Breaker at midnight, the crew spotted the buoy but quickly lost it in a squall. She drew 12 feet with her ballasted centerboard down, so her owner, Jack Potter, sailed around for more six hours until he decided that with his boat and crew at risk he should use an Omni navigational device to find the finish, even if it was illegal. Equation was disqualified from the race.
Other boats simply slowed down. Ondine hove-to until dawn. When Carina’s radio direction finder bizarrely showed danger on one tack and safety on the other, the Nyes became cautious. “We hove to for a couple of hours and watched other boats go by,” Richard Nye said. “My father was beside himself. He wanted to call ashore and say he was safe. He asked how to use the radiotelephone but we had a unanimous memory lapse and forgot how to work it.”