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The Centennial Bermuda Race

The grandest of all deepwater races hits 100

The 2006 Bermuda Race marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of this classic blue water yacht race. Founded by Thomas Fleming Day, editor of Rudder magazine, it is not only the oldest of all ocean races but is considered the greatest as well. For the first race, Day could entice only two other boats to dare the 630 nautical miles of open ocean to Bermuda from the start, then in Brooklyn, and one of those was dismasted shortly after it got underway.

Day’s mission was to popularize offshore yacht racing, to prove that small sailing vessels, properly built and handled, could safely sail far from land. Many were claiming that a race to Bermuda was a daredevil exercise. However, Day’s vision received solid endorsement from the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club when they later offered to sponsor and manage the race he initiated. They have managed them well, adapting the rules to reflect major advances in yacht design and technology over the years. More than 4,000 yachts and 40,000 sailors have participated in the forty-four biennial races (six were suspended during the two world wars). In all these races, only two boats have been lost— one ran on the Bermuda reefs, the other caught fire — and only one person lost at sea in spite of at least two years when the fleet was beset by hurricane weather. This year’s fleet of 264 boats broke all previous records — a far cry from the little fleet of three that left Brooklyn in 1906.

The centennial race was plagued by light air and turned out to be one of the slowest on record. However, this did not deter the skippers and crews of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. There was plenty of reason for rejoicing when they assembled in Bermuda for the awards ceremonies: Of the club’s twelve entries, eight were 1st, 2nd or 3rd in their class, an absolutely outstanding performance. One of the never-ending arguments among sailors is over how to establish fair and proper handicaps for yachts. Since reaching a consensus is next to impossible, the Bermuda Race Committee allows yachts to qualify under their choice of two rating systems or both. Indian Harbor’s boats chose to race under both, and it didn’t matter which one was used — the results were nearly identical.

In addition, Indian Harbor was the runaway winner of the Onion Patch Series, a name derived from the days when onions were the island’s main export, and since the race is mostly to windward, it became known as “the thrash to the onion patch.” The seven teams of three boats each represented various yacht clubs and sailing organizations. The series begins with day races at Newport, encompasses the results of the Bermuda Race and ends with team races in Great Sound in Bermuda. The winning IHYC team was composed of Brown Eyed Girl, Scott Dinhofer, skipper; Christopher Dragon, Andrew Weiss, skipper; and Crescendo, Marty Jacobson, skipper.

Crescendo was also awarded the Henry B. du Pont Trophy for first individual performance in the Onion Patch Series. In the Bermuda Race itself, she captured 6th place in the entire fleet under one rating system and 10th in fleet under the other. It was a remarkable performance for Crescendo under trying conditions that did not generally favor the larger yachts.

Other outstanding performers from Indian Harbor were Bambakou, skippered by John Coumantarous, with a 2nd and 3rd in class and 9th and 10th in fleet; Mischievous, Trey Fitzgibbons, skipper, with a 1st and 3rd; and Snow Lion, Larry Huntington, skipper, with a 1st and 2nd in class. A veteran of eighteen Bermuda Races, Huntington commented on how this race differed from most. “The weather was very benign. You couldn’t really tell you were in the Gulf Stream it was so flat; normally the Gulf Stream seas are wild. The race was challenging because in light air you have to work extra hard to keep the boat moving. And everybody on board is anxious because you’re imagining that some boat just over the horizon is going 10 knots. In my experience, light weather is tougher than heavy weather.”

But the most heartwarming performance was delivered by a small fifty- year-old wood-hulled Concordia yawl named Westray. Skippered by John Melvin, her all–IHYC crew included tactician Jim Cummiskey, brother of IHYC’s commodore Peter Cummiskey. Westray came in 2nd and 3rd in class under the two rating systems, and an amazing 3rd on corrected time in the entire fleet! The antithesis of today’s big, powerful racing machines, the Concordia was designed by Ray Hunt for coastal cruising. In heavy seas she can be wet and uncomfortable.

“How did you pull it off?” we asked Melvin. “Well, we jumped on a large eddy [of the Gulf Stream] and for almost a day we rode it, averaging ten knots with the help of about two and a half knots of current.” He added, “We sailed the course to the west and were able to keep the boat moving off the wind most of the race.”

Remarked Peter Cummiskey about Indian Harbor’s record, “Our members are very proud of how our boats performed in the race this year. IHYC’s participation
in the Newport to Bermuda Race is such a big part of our heritage that this year’s race takes on even more meaning. We are delighted to add to our long legacy of fleet and class winners in such a convincing way. I am perhaps proudest of Westray’s performance. She was among the oldest in the race, was without many of the sophisticated electronics that other boats used, and was without the benefit of her two spinnakers that were destroyed.”

Entrants from Riverside Yacht Club this year were fewer than planned with the dismasting in Newport of Steve Munger’s brand-new Harrier. She would likely have been a strong contender among the big hi-tech blue water racers. However, Walt Alder skippered Great Shoal to a very respectable 5th in class and 47th in fleet. With daughter and son-in-law in the crew, he earned a 4th place in the family award category. Scott Frantz entered his legendary 1930s Herreshoff ketch Ticonderoga more as a show of support for the centennial than with high hopes of returning with silver. The Big Ti, as she is referred to, has set records in the past for the Transpac to Hawaii and the Marblehead to Halifax Race. The mostly windward Bermuda Race, however, is not her cup of tea. While her passage may have been slower than some others, those who sat on the rail of the big racers could envy the style and comfort enjoyed by the crew of the Big Ti. One yacht, Bombardino, had the distinction of racing with a father-son combination under two yacht club burgees: father Jim Sykes of American Yacht Club and son Mac Sykes of Riverside. Apparently they make a good team, because they pulled in 2nd and 3rd under the two respective ratings.

There is an entry from the Pequot Yacht Club in Southport that also deserves mention. This was the twenty-third Bermuda Race for Edwin Gaynor — a period that spans forty-six years of this biennial event. He served first as navigator for CCA’s Blue Water trophy winner Newbold Smith on Reindeer, and for the past thirty years has skippered his lovely Aage Nielson yawl Emily to two 1sts in class and what may stand as a record number of 2nds. His philosophy: “If you have a good boat or good woman, stick with her.”

Newport to Bermuda is a three-part race: first is the approach to the Gulf Stream, when it can be cold and wet and where many races are won or lost based on whether a boat has been able to find a southern meander of the stream that can boost it on its way; the second phase is the Gulf Stream itself where it is hot and humid and often rough and squally; and then the final sail through what Bermuda Race sailors refer to as the “happy valley” to “the land of milk and honey” — and Gosling rum!

In fact, You can add a fourth part: the time of fun and camaraderie with fellow sailors, reunioning with wives and families, and exchanging stories — short and tall — at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club or the Bermuda Dinghy Club. There are award ceremonies and parties aplenty, and this year Britain’s Princess Anne was there as honored guest to present some trophies.

Another part of the fun of the Bermuda Race adventure can be, but not always is, the return to the U.S. Often the racing crew flies home and a less experienced pickup crew is taken on. If weather conditions turn nasty, this can lead to some interesting situations. We were happy to hear that what could have been a disaster for one such return trip was handled very capably by a crew that included an IHYC’s skipper’s three teenage children. Accidentally filling the diesel tank with water is everyone’s nightmare. In this case, water in the fuel tank wasn’t discovered until six hours out of Hamilton. George Bailey, the yacht’s owner, decided to continue heading Daddaboat to the U.S. without power, which also meant without instruments or lights. After all, “Sir Francis Drake and many others in years past have sailed all over the world without power,” he told his crew, “so why couldn’t we?” Fortunately, he had a handheld GPS and made his landfall five days later without incident. At one point, Bailey overheard one of his kids saying to another, “This is crazy! But, I love every minute of it!”

Because so much depends on the ability to locate and use the eddies of the Gulf Stream to advantage, along with predicting whether the most favorable weather patterns are to be found east or west of the rhumb line, the Newport to Bermuda Race is often described as a crapshoot. That notion is belied by this year’s record of eight winning boats by the Indian Harbor sailors. Knowledge, seamanship and careful preparation are still the keys to success in this most challenging of ocean races.