For many sailors, the prospect of sailing in a Newport-Bermuda Race remains the stuff of dreams, an adventure for "other" sailors who are somehow more worthy--which is too bad.
The Newport to Bermuda Race is one of those events that is truly larger than life. The brainchild of sailing legend Thomas Fleming Day, it takes sailors directly offshore so that the first land they see after setting out from the mouth of Narragansett Bay is Bermuda itself—a full 635 miles away, on the other side of the notorious Gulf Stream. According to legend, before the inaugural race in 1906 (which started off Brooklyn, New York) funeral wreaths were delivered to the three boats taking part, presumably so their crews would be prepared for a decent burial at sea.
Since then, of course, hundreds of boats and thousands of sailors have successfully navigated the semi-annual “thrash to the Onion Patch”—so named because of the onions that once grew on Bermuda before the financial services industry took root there. However, for many sailors, the prospect of racing to Bermuda remains the stuff of dreams, an adventure for “other” sailors who are somehow more worthy than they are and therefore up to the challenge—which is a shame.
Not that I don’t understand where they’re coming from. This past June, as I was getting ready for my own first go at the race, I couldn’t help wondering if I really belonged there. My ride to Bermuda was a fairly ordinary one—a vintage J/37 performance cruiser named Sleijride that paled in comparison to the various Grand-Prix offshore racers around us in the harbor—and our crew was an equally humble one, with only limited racing experience: worlds apart from the pro crews and rock stars aboard boats like the mini-maxis Bella Mente and Shockwave.
Still, a funny thing happened on the way to Bermuda. We not only had a great time, we did damn well, had a great adventure and learned a lot about our boat, the sea and ourselves. Clearly, the Newport to Bermuda Race is about a whole lot more than just a gathering of the world’s racing elite.
Preparation for the 2014 Newport-Bermuda Race
I met up with the crew a couple of days before the start, as we all gathered aboard Sleijride, where she was moored along the Newport waterfront. The first person I met was the owner, John Gorski, a veteran sailor who’d recently brought the boat up from his home port of Annapolis. After that came Andy Schell and his wife, Mia Karlsson, who run the World Cruising Club’s Caribbean 1500, and Rory Finneren, who sails on the Chesapeake Bay and had crewed for John in a number of races before. Last but not least was Dr. John Wylie, a West Virginia ear, nose and throat specialist, who is a friend of John Gorski’s and was promptly dubbed “Doc” so we wouldn’t confuse the two.
I confess when Doc first stepped aboard Sleijride I couldn’t help wondering how he was going to fare. West Virginia? Not exactly sailing country, and by his own admission, Doc’s offshore experience was limited at best. Still, he seemed like a good guy and was certainly game, so I decided to trust in the wisdom of Capt. John and see how things went.
The next day there was the usual flurry of activity that precedes any offshore race, with the entire crew ferrying gear and provisions back from the grocery store and West Marine, and going through a kind of pre-customs at the New York Yacht Club’s Harbour Court facility overlooking the bay. Then bright and early the morning of the race itself, Andy, John, Doc and I all attended the traditional weather briefing held by Gulf Stream expert Dr. Frank Bohlen and meteorologist Ken Campbell of Commander’s Weather (commandersweather.com).
According to Bohlen and Campbell, the good news was that the Stream, although as unpredictable as ever, didn’t look to be overly unpleasant for the next few days. There was even a “cold eddy” just east of the rhumbline on the northern edge of the Stream that could provide a nice boost to those who hit it right.
Unfortunately, the bad news was that there didn’t seem to be much wind. To start out, Campbell said to expect light conditions, followed by moderate winds out of the east and northeast. After that, there would be good pressure out of the southwest on the other side of the Stream for the next couple of days. But by the time the little guys like us got there, it would likely be gone.
Bottom line, our best bet would be to stay a little west of the rhumbline to hit the edge of the eddy and hopefully pick up the southwesterlies as soon as possible. At the same time, we shouldn’t get too fancy and start chasing eddies off the rhumb. It was going to be a light race, and the shortest distance between the two points was still a straight line. Any navigator interested in taking a flier “off to the Azores,” Campbell warned, would be in for a long race.
Sure enough, six hours later, the start off Castle Hill had all the drama of a 100-meter sprint at the turtle Olympics: with the smaller boats struggling to crawl across the line under spinnaker, only to have to “gybe” soon afterward in response to an 180-degree windshift. Aboard Sleijride we took some comfort from the fact that things seemed equally chaotic aboard Rives Potts’s McCurdy & Rhodes 48 footer, Carina—overall winner of the race on no less than three occasions. But that did little to lessen the reality of what was looking like a truly grim ETA.
Luckily, the easterly that caused all that trouble slowly built afterward, so that the entire fleet was soon heading straight for Bermuda on a close reach. Around sundown, things got squirrely again, and we brought the spinnaker out on deck as the wind veered around. But it stayed a little too far forward, so we left it in its bag and continued on under genoa.
Later the wind went light again so that the night watches were forced to chase puffs in the dark. Andy and Mia even had an hour or so of dead calm before the wind came on steady from the east-northeast again, so that we were able to knock out a decent 150 miles in our first 24 hours. Alas, there was more of the same after that, easterlies inevitably faded and left us drifting, sometimes for hours on end, all through the afternoon and evening—frustrating sailing, to say the least.
As compensation, around sundown, we spotted a sperm whale and her calf lolling about in a patch of Sargasso weed. A pod of dolphins also paid us a visit during the second-midnight calm, their breathing sharp and clearly audible in the still air as they streaked back and forth under Sleijride’s bow, leaving phosphorescent trails behind them. Still, there was no getting around the fact we had a damn long way to go to Bermuda.
Drive ‘er! The Wind Picks up for the Sailors
Then it happened, while Andy and Mia were on watch in the wee hours of Sunday morning: a breeze sprang up from the east-northeast— and this time it held. By 0900, when it was my turn to come on deck with John, it was blowing in the teens and Sleijride was doing 5.5 to 7.5 knots on a close reach, parallel to and about 12 miles west of the rhumbline. An hour later, a squall line popped up, and the seas got a bit confused as it became apparent we were entering the Gulf Stream. But still the wind held so that by the time Doc and Rory came on deck, Sleijride was thundering along at 8-knots-plus, and Andy and I were starting to think about reefing. A short while later, we did just that, taking in a first slab out of the main and rolling up some jib. A short while after that we rolled in some more. All the while Sleijride seemed to go faster and faster, as we clicked off the miles by the dozens for hours on end.
By midnight things felt like they might be on the verge of getting out of hand. Andy, Rory and I were all in the cockpit, having stayed on deck past our watches, while John, Mia and Doc, tried to rest below. The wind was now blowing a steady 20-plus, still out of the east-northeast, with gusts of 25 knots and more. The seas had also become steeper and more confused so that the entire world was a welter of wind and spray, eerily illuminated by Sleijride’s red and green running lights up in the bow. Around 0100, Andy, Rory and I all found ourselves wondering how Doc was doing up in the forepeak, where he’d chosen to sack out. “Poor Doc!” we thought, until around 0400 a voice said, “Hey there, fellas, mind if I join you?” And then the next thing we knew, there he was, tethered in with the rest of us in the cockpit, having the time of his life.
“How was it up there, Doc?” we asked.
“Rough. I believe I may have been airborne a few times,” was his response. Good old Doc!
I think Rory, who was at the helm at the time, steering Sleijride through the growing wind and seas with the panache of a Volvo Ocean Race veteran, may have been proudest of all. Sometime earlier, he and his watch mate had dubbed themselves the “Alpha and Omega” (don’t ask me why sailors can be strange people) and were fast developing into a heck of a sailing team.
And so it went, all that night and on into Monday morning, so that at noon we were celebrating an 185-mile run over the last 24 hours. Only 200 more miles to go!
Parked: The fleet of sailboats runs into a calm
It was around this same time we started getting passed by a number of larger boats that had no business being behind us this late in the race. We were, after all, aboard one of the smallest boats in the fleet, and a cruising boat to boot. We also had a fairly small crew, which meant no endless hours of railmeat duty or equally endless headsail changes. Instead, it was two on watch, two on standby, two sacked out, and plenty of rest. For some time we’d wondered how were doing simply following the rhumbline. Now it was apparent we weren’t doing half bad. It was one of the most satisfying stretches of offshore sailing I’ve ever done.
Alas, as the wind gods giveth so the wind gods taketh away, and the first sign of what lay ahead was a VHF transmission we heard in which one sailor welcomed another to the “Newport-Bermuda parking lot.”
“We’ve got lots of quarters,” was the optimistic reply, but it did little to assuage our dread. We had long since grown to fear calms like the plague.
Around 1500 we saw it ourselves, dozens of sails fanned out across the horizon as far as the eye could see, utterly motionless. The good news was there were plenty of stalled boats much larger than our own—the enormous calm had done a good job of compressing the fleet. The bad news: like the rest of the fleet, we were soon struggling even to maintain steerage.
Just before sunset, the wind went west-southwest as we passed under a line of clouds, and we thought maybe we had broken through to the new wind. No such luck. All that night we struggled just to keep the bow pointed in the general direction of Bermuda, as Sleijride did her best to maintain her way in all but the very lightest zephyr.
At one point we drifted to within a couple of hundred feet of a Hinckley we’d been dueling with ever since we entered the parking lot. It was weird hearing their hushed whispers and the ripple of their infinitesimally small bow wave drifting across the still water after 400 miles of racing. Because it was a moonless night, they would have been nearly invisible if it hadn’t been for their starboard running light.
Throughout it all, neither they nor the crew of Sleijride ever gave up, nor did anybody else in our general vicinity. I’ll never forget how John and I spent hours desperately trying to “power the boat up” to all of 2.5 knots, only to fall back to half a knot a few minutes later. We may not have made a bunch of headsail changes, but I can say with complete confidence there wasn’t a sailor in the entire fleet who raced any harder that night than the crew of Sleijride.
Finally, around 0300 a small breeze sprang up out of the southwest, and we were on our way again, after a full 12 hours of being helplessly, hopelessly, terribly becalmed. After that, for the rest of both the night and the following morning, we held our collective breaths whenever the wind threatened to fall light again. But it held, and even went forward a little so that we once again we were close reaching, this time on starboard tack. A couple of times we toyed with the idea of putting up the kite again, but it never made sense. Sleijride’s big genoa just kept pulling and pulling. Why mess with a good thing?
By now we were a bit east of the rhumbline, after having chased the wind around in the calm, and we wondered whether we might have to beat to Bermuda. However, we got just enough of a lift to get us where we wanted to go and even had to crack off after closing Kitchen Shoal and making landfall late Wednesday morning. From there we skirted the reefs north of the island until we reached the tip of St. George’s Island, where we traded tacks with the J/42 Schematic as made our way upwind to the finish off St. David’s Lighthouse. John was now at the helm and loving life as gray clouds began rolling toward us from the island. Doc and Rory even got out on the rail to keep Sleijride flat and fast as we tried to beat the squall to the finish. You’ve never seen a happier crew as we crossed the line.
After that, we started up the engine and motored around to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in Hamilton for Dark ‘n Stormies. In the end, we finished 9th in our section and 21st out of nearly 100 in the St. David’s Lighthouse Division. Not bad! We’d also proved to ourselves that both we and our boat were more than up to the challenge of sailing in one of the world’s great ocean races—and I’m here to tell ya, it doesn’t get much better than that!