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Old 10-07-1999
John Kretschmer John Kretschmer is offline
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The Bermuda 40

Sea-Testing the Bermuda 40

There is a simple saw in the sailboat delivery business: Time is money. Preferring to work for an "all-in" fee, I make the same amount regardless of how long the voyage takes. Naturally, I try to complete deliveries as fast as possible, within the bounds of safety and good seamanship. So when the wind is light, I usually don't hesitate to turn on the engine. This could have the potential of breeding an over-reliance on internal combustion; however, that is not so. Old Neptune seems to have an uncanny knack of maintaining my balance.

Bermuda 40A few years ago, I delivered a 15-year-old Hinckley Bermuda 40 sloop from St. Thomas to Buzzards Bay, via Bermuda. Leg one was almost perfect as we rode steady southeast breezes northward, straddling the 65th meridian until meeting that thick charcoal line in the distance, which on the fifth day became Bermuda. The new owner, Paul Sullivan, his brother Dan, my friend Eric and I enjoyed a ride that only the trade winds and a responsive sailboat could provide—a sensation that will never be duplicated in a theme park. After a brief stay in Bermuda, Paul and Dan returned stateside, due to commitments—families, jobs, and those other inconveniences that conspire to shorten a good voyage. Eric and I continued on to Buzzards Bay.

It's about 700 miles from Bermuda to anywhere on the northeast coast. Based on our performance on the first leg, it seemed logical to expect another five-day passage, particularly because our tanks were brimming with diesel fuel. I was hoping, however, that we wouldn't need to motor much. After the first leg and my first distance sail on a venerable Bermuda 40, I was surprised and impressed by its ability.

Guys in the cockpitReaching up from the islands to Bermuda, we rarely dipped below six knots and often surged above seven. The steering was easy and well balanced; the autopilot controlled the boat without breaking a sweat. With the centerboard down, the boat tracked well; and for a shoal-draft design (board-up draft is only four feet and three inches), the motion was surprisingly sweet—even in beam-on seas. As we reeled off successive 175-mile days, the classic, then-37-year-old, Bill Tripp design seemed anything but out of date.

The easterly airflow continued as Eric and I sped out of Bermuda. Anticipating the northeast kick of the Gulf Stream, we steered west of the rhumb line. After 12 hours, the winds dropped and then, ominously, backed to the northeast. The forecast from the Bermuda weather service called for a near gale nor'easter to develop east of our track. I didn't want to take any chances so decided to fire up the Westerbeke diesel.

To start the engine, I flipped the switch for the now low-charge batteries and then depressed the start button. The starter turned over, grinding and groaning, then abruptly stopped. I immediately smelled smoke. Eric and I dashed below; I pulled away the companionway steps. The starter solenoid was smoldering. Eric turned off the battery switch; while I, cursing the miserable access to the back of the engine where the starter was mounted, hastily pulled off the leads that ran to the starting battery. The stench of burned wires filled the cabin.

Out of sheer necessity through the years of this trade, I've become a decent diesel engine mechanic. I felt confident that I'd have the engine purring in minutes. After replacing the burned wires, I tapped the starter with a hammer, suspecting that it was jammed. The solenoid switch was obviously shot, so I bypassed it with a screwdriver and jumped the two main terminals. Nothing. The lifeless starter would not spin. I pulled the starter off the engine, filed the brushes and cleaned the commutator. It didn't help; the engine would not crank. After several hours of knuckle-scraping work, I quit. I put back the companionway steps and that was it. Eric and I went back to what we billed ourselves to be: sailors on a sailboat.

Eric laughed, saying that once you accept that the engine is out of commission, life on board becomes not only simpler but also much better. We trimmed sail with newfound enthusiasm. We dropped the headsail so I could adjust the leach, something I'd been meaning to do since we'd left Bermuda. Eric freed up a jammed stop on the mainsheet traveler. Before long we had the boat slipping along at nearly five knots. It wasn't as easy as motoring, but it was so much more enjoyable.

Despite its long-keel design, the Bermuda 40, with a displacement of 20,000 pounds, is not an especially heavy boat. Contrast this with a cruiser like the Pacific Seacraft 40 displacing 24,000 pounds, the Passport 40 weighing in at almost 23,000 pounds and the Valiant 40/42 tipping the scales at about 25,000 pounds. While not particularly weatherly, the B-40 sails adequately in light air. We would soon have a chance to see how she handled heavy weather.

Bermuda DimensionsLike most CCA boats, the Bermuda 40 has a pronounced sheer with long overhangs. The interior volume is limited, especially by today's standards, but the cockpit is quite large. The helmsman is rather isolated at the helm, but visibility above the low-slung deckhouse is excellent. One person can effectively trim both sails from a position just forward of the wheel. The cockpit coaming boards make stiff seatbacks, and cushions are essential for long tricks at the helm, something we came to understand first-hand. The real drawback of losing the engine was that we had no way to charge the batteries. Amenities like the autopilot and the refrigerator couldn't be used. We hoarded power at every chance, hand steering and drinking warm beer.

The nor'easter arrived on day three. We tied a single reef in the main and gradually rolled in more and more headsail. We were obliged to sail close-hauled, which made the ride wet and cold, particularly for Eric who lived on the tropical isle of Roatan for 30 years. Under shortened sail, the helm balanced nicely, making the watch routine of four hours on and four off less grueling. The Gulf Stream is not the best place to encounter a stiff nor'easter, but the Bermuda 40 plowed through the confused 8 to 10-foot seas without missing a beat. The winds eased as we neared Nantucket lightship, enveloped in pea-soup fog. We heard the eerie resonance of foghorns from other boats and the engine rumblings of ships we never saw. From a safety standpoint, I would have loved to have had the use of the engine, but the silence of sailing gave our senses the chance to shine and come to life.

The fog lifted and we raced through narrow Cutty Hunk channel into Buzzards Bay. We reached down the bay before tacking toward Concordia's yard in South Dartmouth. By this time, Eric and I were handling the boat with confidence and we didn't hesitate to short tack through the packed mooring basin just inside the breakwall. We politely refused a tow and, nestling up to a short finger pier, eased her smartly into a slip. The passage took six days, which might have been shortened by a day with use of the engine—but think of the sailing we would have missed.

Lessons Learned

1. Sailing without an engine requires a philosophy of acceptance and then it becomes very enjoyable. At some point you must stop lamenting what you don't have and enjoy what you do have: wind and sail.

2. If we'd had an alternative means of generating power, the passage would have been less demanding. Although solar panels would not have been much help during our cloudy, rainy passage, in sunnier climes they are terrific. A wind generator or a small gasoline generator would have been helpful, especially for keeping up with the autopilot.

3. Carry a spare starter and solenoid switch. After hundreds of deliveries, I've found that starters tend to pack it in with regularity. It's a fairly common malady. If the starter is zapped, it can be very difficult to start the engine.

4. Carry the proper guides and charts. I had tide and current tables for Buzzards Bay which allowed us to negotiate Cutty Hunk channel with a favorable current.

5. Remember that we all call ourselves sailors—when you have the chance to experience, don't pass it by.