Bermuda Race Strategy for Beginners - SailNet Community
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Bermuda Race Strategy for Beginners

Some of the larger entries in the 176-boat fleet get off the line en route to Bermuda during the 2000 edition of this classic event.
On Friday June 14, 2002, at 1300 the Newport Bermuda Race gun will sound and 144 boats will charge out over the Atlantic, aiming toward that distant island nation, a point 635 miles southeast of Newport. Each boat and skipper will have a plan they believe will bring them to Bermuda first. But what is the key to success, to crossing the finish line off St. George's first?

It goes without saying that you first must have a sound, offshore vessel. After that, a competent crew. Those two are givens. But then you need to have a plan. And for this classic offshore contest, you must have a primary, secondary and tertiary plan. This might seem obvious. ‘I always have a plan….' most of us would say. But does your plan meet these requirements:

  1. Your crew knows each of your three plans, including all the details.
  2. Your crew understands, agrees with, and endorses your plans.
  3. Your plans are realistic and grounded on facts and actual crew and vessel capabilities.
  4. Your plan has feedback loops so you are able to confirm if it is working or not working.

Years ago I was asked to crew on a boat entered in the Annapolis-Bermuda Race by a skipper who was obsessed with winning. He was so driven that he threatened should anyone fell overboard he might not come back to pick them up. He also stated that food would consist of peanut butter sandwiches and rationed water to save weight. He was in the midst of stripping the interior of his expensive boat (to reduce weight as well) when I learned of these impending conditions, so I politely declined the invitation. (Yes, I am a whimp!). The point being that a boat's crew is more important than the boat. And to win, you need a talented, energized, and motivated crew.

Teamwork and the optimization each crewmember's skills are two important keys to success in distance racing. Ask any of the players in the Volvo Ocean Race and you'll hear stories about working together to keep the boats moving in optimum form. Of course plenty of good food and copious amounts of water will help keep a crew going and motivated. (As a frame of reference the military recommends consumption of one quart of water per hour for work being done in hot weather, which is anything above 90 degrees F.)

A basic polar diagram indicates the performance potential measured in knots of boat speed (the numbers on the horizontal axis). The red line indicates the speed of this particular boat given various angles to the wind (30 degrees, 60 degrees, etc.). The boat depicted here is a particularly slow design.
Once you've ensured that the crew will be well cared for, it's time to concentrate on strategy. From a tactical perspective, ask yourself what you need to begin forming your three plans? First you need your boat's performance parameters spelled out in polars. (Polars are the plotted representations of your boat's optimum performance relative to various wind speeds and headings.) Without polars, at a minimum you need to know the target boat speeds for velocity made good upwind and downwind, or otherwise you cannot make the best tactical decisions. Where do you obtain your vessels polars? From the naval architect who designed your boat or from US SAILING. (US SAILING, PO Box 1260, 15 Maritime Drive Portsmouth, RI 02871-0907. 1-800-USSAIL1, or 401-683-0800;

Now that you've got a measurement for your boat's performance potential, you need to go down the following check list, ensuring that the data is continually gathered right up to the time of the skippers meeting on Thursday, June 13 at 1700.

  • Know the placement and forecast movement of the Atlantic high-pressure area. Why do you need to know where the high is now and where it is going? Because of the pressure gradient. Without a pressure gradient, there is no wind. You need to find the perimeter of the Atlantic High to have pressure and wind. If you stray too close to the inside of the high and you'll have FAC (flat ass calms). Get too far away from the high's edge and you suffer through changing and difficult-to-forecast, coastal-influenced weather. So how do you track the high? Use the Marine Prediction Center's website( to get 24, 48 and 96-hour forecast charts. Use both the surface and the 500-Mb charts. On 500-Mb charts the 5640 height contour (always a darker and thicker black line) should be used as the reference for tracking upper air energy. If the 5640 line is moving towards the racecourse then more energy will become available on the surface, but if the 5640 line is retreating then less energy will be present.

    Satellite imagery like this, derived in real time from on-line sources, can help sailors determine the flow of the Gulf Stream. In the image above, captured on June 4, 2002, the red and yellow hues indicate warmer water, and thus the path of the Stream. The Cape Cod peninsula is discernable in the middle of the image near the top.

  • Know where the Gulf Stream lies and where its meanders and eddies are located. Stay away from areas that look confusing on thermal (infrared imagery). Choose straightforward, easily analyzed features to cross, and always, always keep the Gulf Stream's current abaft the beam. The slightest current forward of the beam will destroy all chances of finishing in front of the fleet. So where do you find Gulf Stream info? Use the US Navy's Ocean Features Analysis (OFA) and the MPC 24-hour wind wave chart (which contains a Gulf Stream overlay). These products are found as links on the MPC website. Also, read Frank Bohlen's articles found on the Newport Bermuda website, where he has also listed the best sources of Gulf Stream data. (

  • Find the wind gradient for the five days (120 hours) following the start, and repeat to yourself over and over these words, "Show me the pressure gradient, show me the pressure gradient". What am I saying? Where there exists temperature and pressure differences there will be transfers of energy, or what we know as wind. Look for clouds (convective activity signalled by cloud formation brings wind); look for developing low-pressure systems east of Cape Hatteras; and look for developing tropical disturbances and depressions moving north into the race area course. All of these features will bring wind.

  • Know where the swells and seas are being produced that could slow your progress. Waves, more than wind, will slow forward progress. Often a change of course of just a few miles can improve sea conditions significantly. If you start to think waves are not an ingredient to winning a race think about how differently, and better, your boat sails in the flat water of, say, Narragansett Bay compared to the chop you encounter offshore. Waves and swells forward of the beam can truly slow your progress. So where is wave information found? Once again go to the MPC website and view the wind/wave and sea state forecasts.

    Despite its narrow entrance, St. George's Harbor in Bermuda is always a welcome landfall for sailors in this race, particularly since the coastline nearby is strewn with reefs.
    Print out or draw your proposed track lines from Newport to Bermuda. Measure the distances, either by hand or using a charting program, and determine how many miles will be added by any diversions left and right of track. And use weather routing software, if available, to compute multiple "what if" routes.

    When the starting gun goes go off on June 14, you should have a definite plan in mind. Know where you want to hit the north wall of the Gulf Stream, where you want to exit the Stream, where you are most likely to find pressure gradients, and which sails will be used to keep your boat hitting her polars.

    And if all this fails, then you might consider throwing all your gear overboard and threatening the crew. I am not sure any of those actions will improve your standing in the race, but they'll make for good stories while savoring those tasty—and obligatory—Dark and Stormies once you arrive in Bermuda.

    Suggested Reading:

    Heading out to Bermuda by John Rousmaniere

    Newport-Bermuda, the Navigator's Race by Bill Biewenga

    Gulf Stream Tracking by Michael Carr

    SailNet Store Section: Chartplotters

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