This year's race from Newport, RI, to Bermuda opened with two of the fastest and most delightful days and nights of sailing I have ever had. Close-reaching in a 20-knot southwesterly breeze, under a full moon, Kirawan
made over 200 miles in her first 24 hours at sea and then again in her second. The moon and breeze waned on the third day, and the fun eventually was replaced by frustrationbut not without an amazing bit of seamanship that I'll soon describe. When we finished the 635-mile course in three days and 22 hours, we had every reason to believe that we'd seen almost everything.
The 176-boat fleet was a near-record turnout. This attendance can be attributed in part to the good economy, but largely to the challenges of the course, the joys of Bermuda, and the superb organization of the race sponsorsthe Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Cluband their assiduous attention to encouraging good boats and good seamanship. This race lures the same boats and sailors back, race after race. Nobody has raced to Bermuda more often than my friend Jim Mertz, who started out in a big schooner in 1936 and this year competed in his 28th race aboard his J/44. Large numbers of sailors who first went to sea as youngsters bashing across the Gulf Stream are now going out there with their own children.
There were divisions for cruiser-racers, hot racers, out-and-out cruising boats, double-handers, and classic yachts. I sailed in the latter class aboard Kirawan
, a 64-year-old, 54-foot Philip L. Rhodes-designed wooden sloop that had been shipped east from her homeport of Marina del Rey, CA, by her devoted owner, Sandy Horowitz, to compete once again in the race she won in 1936. Although Phil Rhodes died in 1974, his spirit infused the race. First and second on corrected time were two smaller boats of his design: Eric Crawford's 35-year-old fiberglass 41-footer Restless
, from Maryland, and the fleet's lowest-rated boat; and Carvel Tefft's wooden 43-footer Bangalore
, designed in 1929 and from New Hampshire. Maturity and relatively small size also characterized most of the other boats in the top 10, including three Cal 40s and a Hinckley Bermuda 40 that were designed in the early 60s by Bill Lapworth and Bill Tripp, Sr., respectively.
Owners of big, pricey, new-millennium custom racers who complain about being beaten by small, old, stock cruising boats are wasting their breath. The Bermuda Race is so unpredictable that its motto might as well be "peacock today, feather duster tomorrow." If the eddies and breaking seas in the Gulf Stream do not teach humility, the calms of the Bermuda high-pressure system will.
This year the Stream behaved pretty much according to predictions about its complex eddies and meanders (described recently on SailNet by Bill Biewenga in his article "Newport to BermudaThe Navigator's Race"). John Jourdane, our able navigator on Kirawan, put us in favorable currents that gave us boosts of two to three knots for hours at a time. On the third day, the breeze faded into the teens, pulling the apparent wind ahead and presenting a difficult tactical problem familiar to all sailors. With the wind now on the nose, should we sail high and slow, or low and fast? Our heavy boat needed speed, so we replaced our double-headsail rig (outer jib and forestaysail) with a big genoa and eased sheets a little. We were not alone. Many other boats cracked off from 30 degrees apparent wind to as much as 40 degrees. "Cheap speed," as this has been called, is a short-term investment; distance lost to leeward often has to be made up in the future, and this year's Bermuda Race was no exception. As we eased into the flats of the Bermuda High, the wind faded and backed into the south, imposing a long, slow beat to the finish. We were reminded once again that the only objects that make much progress over the water in a five-knot headwind are sea birds and jet planes.
Ahead of us, according to the morning roll calls, the 75-foot maxis Sagamore, Sayonara, and Boomerang had spent their first two days reaching along almost side-by-side, knocking off nearly 300 miles in their first 24 hours and seeming destined to break the course record. Then they drifted into the High and made only 50 miles in their last 24 hours while the smaller boats carried the good breeze and came up astern, compressing the fleet like an accordion. The spread between the fastest and slowest boats, usually about two days, shrank to less than 10 hours. In the end, the boats that did the best were the smaller ones that resisted the lures of cheap speed and held high so they had fewer tacks to make in the calm at the end.Kirawan
, the largest boat in the Classic Yacht division, had pulled well ahead of her competitors in the breeze. The boat was in her element, fast and with an easy motion. Even in the hard reaching, with spray flying most of the time and solid water occasionally sweeping the decks, our crew of seven was able to sleep, eat, and move around relatively easily on the sturdy platform of the vessel's heavy displacement and long overhangs. We were well prepared in gear, manpower, and spirit (see sidebar), yet there were some surprises. The first night out, in a cold fog, we were shaken by the thunder of a powerful fog horn from a large commercial vessel that had stumbled into the middle of the race. Her crew, who must not have been keeping up with Notice to Mariners, made their surprise and unhappiness known by horn and radio. When Coast Guard instructed the captain to clear Channel 16 because he was not in an emergency situation, he testily replied that if looking at the radar and seeing 100 boats aimed at him was not an emergency situation, he did not know what was. (A sailor interrupted: "You mean 176 boats.") There were no collisions.
We reached fast into the second day, which brought my first-ever sighting of an albino dolphin. Later came a small pod of these graceful, more conventionally hued animals and, near the island, a breaching whale.
On the third day we sailed out of the Gulf Stream and engaged in the feat of seamanship that I referred to earlier. Here is what happened:
Sitting at the navigator's station, John Jourdane felt a spray of water on his legs. Inspection revealed that a seam near the waterline on the windward side had opened up. Tom Adams, who had supervised the boat's refit, quickly devised a solution. A bosun's sling was hooked to a halyard and to two guy lines, one leading forward and the other aft. Wearing his combination safety harness/inflatable PFD, Tom sat in the sling and, steadied by the guy lines, was lowered over the side to the seam, just above the water. Smacked regularly by waves, he methodically filled the gap with polysulfide sealant as we sailed on at six knots. After an hour of this strenuous work, Tom and inspectors inside the hull declared themselves satisfied with the repair. I had never seen anything like this performance, which was handled as routinely as a change of jibs.
We carried on with some trepidation, but no leaks, and as we entered the Bermuda High and the forces on the boat died with the wind, the planks sprang back into place, allowing us to sail confidently on port tack. In Bermuda, Tom bought some caulking string but found no need for it. His ingenious, improvised, but careful repair had done the trick, allowing us to enjoy the island with only little worry.
Preparing Boat and Crew for an Offshore Passage
Good seamanship lies in the details. In last month's column I described my personal preparations for the passage, and here I'll talk about the boat and crew. Here is a summary of our long checklist:
| ||Crew organization The afterguard decided on the chain of command and decision-making procedure in emergencies. The entire crew discussed emergencies, and duties were assigned for abandoning ship; the assignments were written down and posted in two prominent locations in the cabin. We established a watch schedule of individual rotations (one crew on deck is replaced every hour). The navigator gave instructions for log entries. A first-aid officer was assigned.|
| ||Safety We established a policy for wearing safety harnesses/inflatable PFDs (they were to be worn on deck except in light wind and smooth water). Jacklines were laid out taut from the bow to near the stern for clipping on safety harnesses, and a grabline was placed near the companionway to help people come on deck. We went out into Narragansett Bay and practiced crew-overboard rescues for two hours using the quick-stop method, Lifesling, and heaving line.|
| ||Sails We hoisted and inspected every sailfrom reaching jibs to storm sailsto make sure they were in good repair. The storm trysail's slides and track had to be altered so it could be hoisted easily, and a jib needed new battens and two hanks. The mainsail's battens were sewn in to keep them from flying out. The correct jib lead for each headsail was identified and written on the clew with an indelible marking pen. We practiced reefing and marked the halyard for each reef so the crew would not waste time experimenting with halyard tension.|
| ||Rigging We taped the lifeline shackles and pelican hooks and replaced all flimsy-looking cotter pins. To prevent the main boom topping lift from flying about, fraying the mainsail leech and wrapping around the backstay, we secured a length of shockcord several feet up and led it forward to the boom so the lift could be pulled forward and steadied. For odd jobs, we bought several rolls of electrical tape, 200 feet of quarter-inch line, lots of lighter line, and shock cord.|
| ||Down below We rigged a strap at the galley to restrain the cook, bought thermos bottles to hold hot water, and prepared leecloths on the bunks to prevent people from falling out. Cleaning duties were discussed in detail, with strong encouragement for everyone to keep the cabin picked up and dry. A clothesline was rigged in the forepeak for wet clothes. Extra flashlights were bought and placed in a handy location. |
| ||Miscellaneous Before heading out, we all emphasized the importance of sailing well, sailing safely, and having fun. As the one East Coast sailor among six Southern Californians, I took the role of the nag warning about three features of the Bermuda Race that they might find quirky: (1) it is often very rough; (2) much of it is usually sailed close-hauled; and (3) Bermudians are a traditional people and expect men to wear jackets and ties to dinner. Number 3 was the one that most surprised my new friends, but they brought their blazers. |
They also brought a CD player, two speakers on deck, and a pile of tunes. There is something very charming about a fast reach accompanied by The Eagles.