Prepping for Bermuda: The Centennial Edition

By Kimball Livingston, Senior Editor, West Coast

I confess. I may be obsessed with West Coast sailing, rock and roll, and things that go whoopie! in the night, but I’ve always hankered to sail the Bermuda Race. It just seems so, well, “classic.” Probably because it is. The approach of the centennial edition had my hormones busting down the floodgates, and the fact that I’m now on the flip side of the country and getting ready to go (man but they have a lot of trees back here) has finally hit home. Sailing the 2006 Newport-Bermuda will nicely balance my ride in the 2006 centennial Transpac. So was blue water racing really taking off a hundred years ago? Apparently.

With a record number of entries, the centennial Bermuda Race is history-making in itself. Think 270 boats from 32 feet to 98 feet leaving the mouth of Narragensett Bay—off Newport, Rhode Island—on Friday. First gun at 1250. And like the Mexico and Hawaii races already on my resume, this is a race to the warm. We finish 635 miles later in the otherworld of Bermuda, off St. David’s Lighthouse, with only one thing guaranteed: whoever wins the race will also have won the mission-critical crossing of the Gulf Stream.

I’m crewing aboard Gryphon Solo, an all-carbon, cant-keeled Open 50 with twin rudders. A hot rod. It’s the ex-Tommy Hilfiger, Brad Van Liew’s division winner in the last Around Alone. Now owned by Joe Harris of Boston, Mass., she’s still red as the devil with the history of a 345-mile day under her belt. Not bad for 50 feet. Joe plans to solo-race around the world in 2007 in the Global Ocean Challenge; his warmups include a second in the 2004 Transatlantic and first in division in the Transatlantic Jacques Vabre. For Bermuda he’s crewing up with a total of five, and we’re racing in the so-called Demonstration Division, which I guess means it’s OK to go without any Breton red trousers. Brian Harris, Hugh Piggin, and Jaimie Haines complete our crew of five. Joe is a pretty competitive guy, and the way I get it (being the rookie and all), the goal is to beat the 98-foot, all-carbon, cant-keeled Maximus boat for boat. To quote Han Solo, “Don’t ever tell me the odds.”

So, OK, we’re sort of the funny boats, but fast. The grand traditions of the race reside in the St. David’s Lighthouse and Gibbs Hill Lighthouse divisions, where more-typical fleets will be scored ORR and (for boats that present the certificate) IRC. It’s worth noting that when sailor-journalist Thomas Fleming Day proposed, promoted, and won the inaugural Bermuda Race in 1906 (in a five-day passage), just sending people to sea to race in small boats was considered, by many, to be beyond the pale. We’re over that.

In 2006, Cruising Division skippers who have sailed in consecutive Marion to Bermuda and Newport Bermuda events will also compete for the new multi-race trophy, The Bermuda Cruising Yacht Trophy, presented by SAIL Magazine. There’s also a doublehanded division, never imagined in 1906 even by the avant-garde, and to bring the race home to family, friends, and the wish-I-could-be-there’s, a link to iBoattrack’s satellite tracking system is on the race web site at iBoattrack promises to provide not just boat position but wind strength and currents. Imaginable but not available even 20 years ago.

The Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club share organizing responsibilities for the race, and what are the practical consequences of a record fleet? For one thing, the island is full. RBYC’s contacts (thanks, guys) helped me find a bed so that I won’t have to sleep aboard the boat (after I get there). More than one bed, actually. Three hotels in my planned four nights in Bermuda. Did I mention that the island is full? I tried to work this through my own travel agent, who called back a day later to report, “I’ve tried everything and I can’t find anything. You see, there’s some yacht race happening . . . “

Oh, no wonder.


There’s a lot of tide (generating a lot of current) to think about in the first 15 miles of the race. After that, according to a race description on the Bermuda Race web site, quoting with small adjustments:

The race is divided into three general parts, each with its own problems and strategies:

1 Between Newport and the Gulf Stream
Sailing in cold water and often in fog, the navigator must select a route to the optimal position on the northern edge of the Gulf Stream, avoiding the bad side of warm eddys north of the stream, or taking advantage of the favorable side of the clockwise rotating warm eddys. Current in the eddys may reach 3 knots, and the warm eddys can be 60 to 100 miles in diameter. Satellite photos and nterpretation are available, so these days the navigator has a pretty good idea of the location of the stream and its major eddys. It is often difficult to stay near the rhumb line, and navigators often worry about falling off to the east. Recent winning strategies, however, have maximized VMG to the island in the early phases of the race, wherever that leads.

2 Crossing the Stream
Depending on the configuration of the Gulf Stream (there is no typical configuration) the navigator must choose to cross the generally east-flowing current (up to 4 knots) in the most efficient manner. Due to the extreme temperature difference between the stream and the slope water to the north, it is not unusual to have thunder squall activity in the Stream. The racers often find light winds punctuated by powerful, fast moving cells of wind and lightning. The Stream itself is often quite lumpy as the current and the wind interact. There are many theories about how to cross (including) as quickly as possible to avoid the vagaries.

3 Happy Valley!
The 300 or so miles from the bottom of the stream to Bermuda are generally most pleasant. The racers are in warm water, the winds are warmer and generally southwesterly if the Bermuda High is established, and fetching the island is often possible. Bets are made on when the island will be sighted, and there is anticipation of first catching the aroma of Oleander. Occasional cold eddys south of the Stream hold out the hope of strategic advantage. This is a time for maximum VMG and boat speed.

The Finish
Bermuda is guarded on its approach from the north and northeast by a barrier reef that cannot be ignored. In the old days, the landfall was more dramatic because of these reefs and the fact that yachts may have been sailing a DR track without a celestial sight for days. LORAN, then GPS, made the navigator’s task easier, and now there is less stress in skirting the reef ‘ round the Northeast Breaker Buoy, Kitchen Shoals, and the Spit on the way to the finish line at St. David’s Head.

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