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Old 06-13-2000
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Bill Biewenga is on a distinguished road
Newport to Bermuda—The Navigator's Race

 
A mega-fleet of nearly 190 boats will cross the starting line Friday, bound 635 miles southeast for Bermuda in this biennial classic.
 
Though this classic dash to Bermuda has been run for quite some time now, it hasn't always had the same tempo. The first edition of the race, held in 1906, was also the slowest, when Tamberlane won in 126 hours and nine minutes (they didn't count the seconds back then). Since that first Newport to Bermuda Race, only two line-honors boats have averaged over 10 knots of boat speed for the event. The first was Nirvana when she established her long-standing record of 62 hours, 29 minutes, and 16 seconds, posting an average speed of 10.2 knots in 1982. More recently, Boomerang established the 1996 record run of 57 hours, 31 minutes, and 30 seconds with an average speed of 11 knots.

Blasting past the competition to set a speed record on this 635-mile course is anything but easy. It took Boomerang's owner, George Coumantaros, 40 years to accomplish that feat. And it wasn't for lack of trying. No wonder then that the biennial Newport to Bermuda Race is often considered a navigator's race—an event that demands knowledge of navigation, oceanography, meteorology, and how those elements interrelate in a winning strategy. Bob Hale, Boomerang's navigator, regularly attends weather seminars, checks the state of the Gulf Stream, and discusses the options before the race with meteorologists. The winning navigator on corrected time in the 1998 event, Dan Dyer aboard Kodiak, is also a regular attendee at weather seminars and Bermuda Race planning sessions. This is a race about doing your homework. Of course luck will always play its part, but there's a surprising correlation between the ones who have done the studying and those who appear the luckiest.

 
Maxis Sayonara and Sagamore match strides around the buoys in a preview of what might be a very tight contest en route to Bermuda.
 
The most competitive and serious navigators commission climatology studies six months prior to the event. They begin to consider what the anomalous features in this year's weather patterns might be, and how they might affect sail selection or the configuration of the boat. All of that is a great start, but given the fact that this is the second post-La Nina summer in a row, there are only a few previously recorded years that can be used for comparing weather data: '55-'57, '74-'76, and '83-'85. Historical buoy data is more complete for the time between '83-'85. The June 1985 wind speeds were generally four knots lower than normal, and the most common wind directions were west to northwest, rather than a more southwesterly direction.

Such long-range climate studies proved quite effective for navigators in the last Bermuda Race,as well as the last TransPac, and the recent Cape Town-to-Rio Race. Due in part to this information, new course records were set in the latter two. Will it happen again on the road to Bermuda this year?

"This is a race about doing your homework &#133 and there's a surprising correlation between the ones who have done the studying and those who appear the luckiest."
Climatology can only give us a view of the averages. Real-time meteorology is what navigators use for a more reliable—if still somewhat sketchy—idea about what's coming at us on the racecourse. To verify the climatology information, navigators have been pouring over weather charts, satellite images, forecasts, and observations for the past three weeks, and this kind of homework can pay big dividends. If you haven't started already, now's the time because much of the raw information is currently available on the Internet.

Internet technology allows us to use looped, geostationary satellite imagery to zoom in on Bermuda and see if clouds associated with a sea breeze are forming over the Island in the early afternoon. Wind directions can be confirmed with observations recorded at the local airport. If the weather maps are calling for a gradient wind direction of southwest, but a sea breeze is pulling the winds to the left on the final approach to Bermuda, the actual wind direction the sailors may see on their approach could easily be southeast. To the unwary on the west side of the rhumb line course, that could mean tedious tacking to the finish. And for those who've done their homework and studied the local conditions for the time of their arrival, it could mean a reach to the finish and possibly a trophy.

 
It's called the navigator's race because the track to the famed Onion Patch runs across the Gulf Stream and the perplexing eddies that surround it.
 
A day or two before the start of the race, navigators will begin to select their waypoints. They will make two critical choices: which side of the course to favor in order to stay in the most beneficial wind speeds and directions, and how to play the Gulf Stream. Hitting the correct side of the warm eddies to the north of the Stream, riding down favorable currents in a meander, and correctly identifying and playing the cold eddies to the south of the Stream could add two to five knots of positive kick to the boat speed. Bermuda Races are won or lost on these differences.

Once through the Gulf Stream, however, the game is by no means decided. Waypoints will be re-analyzed and modified. How should the navigator set up for the finish? That will be decided by the ultimate development of the weather patterns and the local conditions expected within the final 20 miles of the finish.

Throughout the race, the navigators will be plugged into their weather faxes. Even now, several days before the starting gun goes off south of Newport, many of them are already collecting faxes, checking the surface analysis against the 48-hour and 96-hour forecasts as they hit their valid times. How strong are the highs? How fast are the lows moving in to change the high's position and shape? Are there still lows coming off Hatteras headed toward Bermuda, and how is their track going to affect the wind direction?

Some of the Bermuda Race boats will be equipped with real-time satellite picture receivers. By comparing the latest weather fax with the latest satellite picture, they will be able to plot and track local, heavy thunderstorms as they move across the Gulf Stream. They can also identify recent changes to the Stream itself, and be able to maximize the advantage of the current while avoiding the worst of it.

As the competitors close with the finish off St. David's Light on the north end of the island, the last 75 or 100 miles will be spent listening to VHF radio weather reports. The line-of-sight transmissions travel particularly far from Bermuda, owing to the towering location of their antennae.

 
A diverse mixture of boats make up the Newport-Bermuda Race fleet, ranging in length from 36 to 75 feet.
 
The finish line can be yet another trial by fire. It's not always easy to find both ends of the line in the dark, and once they do find them and cross them, the prudent navigator heads back offshore briefly to drop sails. It can be treacherously shallow close to the coast. Even after the sails are down, and some of the crew begin to celebrate their accomplishments, the trip through the channels to Hamilton can be trying for the navigator. One misstep outside of the marked channel can mean running up on any of the numerous reefs. The finish line is not the place for navigators to join in any premature celebrations.

Once the boat is tied up and the results begin to make themselves known, the stories will begin to be heard around the local watering holes. The fronts that came through, the ride through the Gulf Stream, who hit it right, and who drifted off toward Ireland—it will all be laid out for everyone to analyze. There will be the famous and the infamous—the heroes and the zeros. Some of it will come down to luck. Most of it will be the result of persistence, hard work, and homework done weeks in advance. Ultimately it will be a result of teamwork. But a fair measure will come from that person sitting down below in a lonely seat in front of a computer, multi-function displays, radios, and weather faxes.

Will the Titans Slay the Record?

Though the official mission of the Bermuda Race is to promote amateur racing, it's likely that the professionals competing in the two racing classes will be the ones who break the outright record in this 42nd edition of the event. Here's a look at those with the potential to rewrite the record book, along with a few long shots that might beat the titans on corrected time.

The Players
Boat Owner/Skipper Type Strengths
Boomerang George Coumantaros ILC maxi (74 feet LOA) Current record holder with veteran crew
Sayonara Larry Elison ILC maxi (75 feet LOA) Strong crew with tested navigator in Mark Rudiger
Sagamore Jim Dolan ILC maxi (73 feet LOA) Improved sail Inventory and Ian Moore as navigator
Trader Fred Detwiler Andrews 70 Long in the tooth, but a seasoned performer
Blue Yankee Robert Towse Reichel/Pugh 65 Good crew With Ross Field and Peter Isler
Zarafa Skip Sheldon Reichel/Pugh 65 A racer-cruiser, but it rates faster than Blue Yankee



The image on the homepage and the final image have been published courtesy of the Newport to Bermuda Race.

 

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