The Spirit of the Bermuda Race
Ideal weather for the 2012 race produced record breaking speeds for the entire fleet over the 635-mile course from Newport, Rhode Island to St. David’s Head, Bermuda. But, for the crew of Angel it had a very special meaning
For dedicated blue water sailors, there is no greater source of inspiration, satisfaction and occasional frustration than the biannual “Thrash to the Onion Patch,” as the Bermuda Race has been referred to by generations of yachtsmen. The undulating Gulf Stream and variable weather patterns make it especially interesting and the sine qua non of ocean racing. Sailors, forgetting past discomforts, are lured to return to the challenge time and time again, and with faster and faster boats. A badge of merit for ocean racers is the number of Bermuda Races they participated in.
The conditions for the 2012 race were incredibly ideal. A stationary low trough prevailed over the entire course producing northeasterly winds ranging from 18 to 35 knots. The fleet was able to reach all the way to Bermuda on port tack, most of the time under spinnakers, with nary a tack or a jibe. As a result, new records were set for elapsed times not likely to be broken for many years. For some this was a very special race for another reason. It was a commemoration of Bill Langan, one of yachting’s most outstanding yacht designers and a much admired and beloved devotee and contributor to sailing and yacht racing.
Bill had a special love affair with the Bermuda Race. He sailed his first Bermuda race at age fifteen with Oivind Lorentzen, of Greenwich on Froya. At age seventeen he crewed again for Lorentzen in the 1972 race—one well remembered by those of us who participated in the giant seas and gale-force winds that caused many boats to withdraw with broken masts and swamped hulls. Bill continued as regular crew on Froya for many races and didn’t miss a single Bermuda Race until 2010, when he was hospitalized with leukemia. It would have been his twentieth. “Bill was bitterly disappointed that he couldn’t make it,” says Candy, his wife and partner of thirty years, who did the interior design for many of her husband’s yachts. Still, he held out hope of recovering in time for this year’s race, but it was not to be. He lost his long battle with leukemia in December 2010.
When he realized the end might be near, Bill had some very specific requests: Half his ashes were to be spread in Newport Harbor and half at the finish in Bermuda. Ed Anderson of Boston was a close friend of Bill’s. They had sailed often together, and Ed’s seventy-one foot sloop, Angel, was the last yacht off Langan’s drawing board. On hearing the news, he called Candy to offer condolences, and what could he do to help? “You don’t know it,” she told him, “but you are going to play a big part.” Then Candy asked him to take Bill’s ashes aboard Angel for the Bermuda Race, and to put together a crew of family and friends who would commit his ashes to the waters of Bermuda.
The crew, most of whom had never sailed together before, consisted of Bill’s son, Tom and brother Steve; Candy’s brother Crofty Register; Ed’s brother, Ty (current commodore of Riverside Yacht Club); and Ty’s son, Jay; plus good friends and experienced offshore sailors Eric Kreuter and Steve Munger of Riverside, and Dan Sullivan of Darien.
After a wild and fast passage of two days, fourteen and a half hours in which they averaged over ten knots, Angel crossed the finish line at St. David’s Head in the early morning as an overcast sky gave way to bright sunshine. They dropped their sails and for the next forty-five minutes held an informal service comparing their memories and stories about Bill. His ashes, in a special biodegradable container, were then lowered over the side. It was an emotional time for all. Behind them, there was no other boat in their division in sight. They were first to finish among thirty boats in the Cruising Division, winner of the Herbert L. Stone Trophy, and Third in Division on corrected time. It was a fitting tribute to Bill Langan and the quality of the yachts he designed— and, a posthumous fulfillment of his goal of twenty Bermuda Races.
Bill grew up in Greenwich where his parents Mike and Kay Langan still reside. Kay recalls her son’s early fascination with boats and sailing. All summer from age ten he spent sailing at the Belle Haven Club, and “all winter,” says Kay, “he would draw boats on his drawing board in his bedroom until lights out.” His best sailing buddy, according to Kay, was Stevie Hicks. “Bill never used ten words if he could use two. Stevie was the same way,” she recalls. “So, their conversations on board a boat consisted of ‘Would you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?’”
In college he was witness to a sailing tragedy. A boy was hit with a boom and died in Bill’s arms. He was the one who had to tell the boy’s mother. Thereafter, the two most important things about boats for Bill were safety and speed, and safety always came first.
Legendary yacht designer Olin Stephens appointed Bill chief designer for Sparkman Stephens. Bill later founded his own firm, Langan Design, and he was the creative genius responsible for dozens of famous yachts of all sizes at both firms (see sidebar). He created a special legacy for Bermuda in designing the Spirit of Bermuda. Ralph Richardson, past commodore of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, says, “One of the things Bill was most proud of was this three-masted sloop modeled after the traditional Bermuda-built sailing ships of the early nineteenth century. Spirit of Bermuda, owned and maintained by the Bermuda Sloop Foundation, is the official training ship for Bermuda sailors and has become a Bermuda icon. Over dinner one night Bill told Richardson that there were not going to be any tall ships on the ocean that could beat her. Richardson adds, “Spirit did live up to all the promises he made, including safety.”
The 2012 race was over so quickly it reminded Steve Langan of when his older brother Bill recruited him at age nineteen for his first Bermuda Race. It was an exceedingly slow race, and after about four days he kept asking Bill, “When are we going to get there?” Finally, Bill, with an edge of slight annoyance, replied, “You just don’t get it, do you?” Son Tom Langan confirmed that for his father, “The whole race was his passion. He wasn’t concerned about the competition; it’s the sail down that is so great, every minute to be enjoyed.”
Bill Langan’s legacy is not just as a visionary who designed so many fine yachts from 12 meter to mega-yachts. In the words of Paul Fagan, a good friend and Angel’s skipper, “Bill was one of the best sailors I knew and a wonderful ambassador of the sport. He was a great teacher, willing to share everything he knew. There are so many people touched by him, and his designs will be participating in this race for years to come.”