By John Rousmaniere
year marks the 30th anniversary of the marriage of two
revolutions that brought the Newport Bermuda Race into the modern age.
One was precise electronic navigation, the other a new approach to
the Gulf Stream.
1980 for the first time sailors were allowed to use Loran-C navigation
throughout the race. Though not as precise as satellite navigation and
GPS, which both came later, Loran was much more accurate than celestial
navigation. If you wanted to know where you were, and if you needed
to get somewhere precisely, the cutting-edge tool was Loran.
of the first sailors to appreciate the implications of Loran was
Richard Wilson, skipper-navigator of the heavy 43-foot cruising ketch
Holger Danske, designed by Aage Nielsen. Deciding to enter the
1980 Newport Bermuda Race, Wilson retained the old wind direction
(a wind sock) and anemometer (“the traditional, highly calibrated
wet finger”), but bought a Loran-C set, which cost a pricy $2,100.
He recruited a youthful crew of small-boat racers (“we had one old
guy, in his fifties”) and used the Loran to test his helmsmen’s
ability to hold a course.
Holger Danske, Richard Wilson's 43-foot ketch was armed with cutting edge technology for the 1980 Bermuda Race: a Loran and a captain with a bold approach to navigating the Gulf Stream.
also guided Holger Danske to three waypoints on the chart that Wilson
marked at favorable Gulf Stream eddies and meanders. He had chosen
those waypoints with the assistance of a young oceanographer whom he
found after a long search for a scientist who could offer practical
advice about exploiting the Gulf Stream. “Deep down in NOAA there
was this amazing woman called Jenifer Wartha who knew everything about
the Stream. All winter before the race, she was faxing me weekly
that I studied to familiarize myself with the Stream.”
then, a typical sailor’s knowledge of the Gulf Stream came from a
pre-race briefing and a regimen of taking the water’s temperature
by dipping a thermometer into a bucket of sea water. An especially
ambitious skipper might charter a plane a day before the start and fly
out to look at the Stream. Bermuda Race navigators’ big concern
about the Stream could be summarized in six words: Don’t stray from
the rhumb line.
that changed in 1980. Building on previous research and using newly
available satellite imagery, Jenifer Wartha (who later married Dane
Clark) advised Richard Wilson to get away from the rhumb line into
current. Holger Danske won the race decisively. She had a good
rating, but Wilson knew that was only part of it. “As we edged up
to the good side of a big warm eddy, we saw a lot of other boats footing
off and sailing away from it. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘all those boats
just took themselves right out of the race.”
Modern information about the Gulf Stream is gathered through many sources and publicly available to all racers. For more information see Frank Bohlen's Gulf Stream Tutorials.
lot of sailors learned a lot of lessons from the 1980 Newport Bermuda
Race. Jim Mertz had been navigating boats to Bermuda for more than 40
years, but he would say. “I had no sense of eddies and meanders until
Jenifer Clark came along.” Clark says the lesson is this: “Most
crews make the mistake of staying within 30 miles of the rhumb line.
But the boats that win get away. Taking a risk is what wins the race
most of the time.”
years later after the revolution of 1980, Richard Wilson is one of the
world’s most respected ocean sailors (he was the featured speaker
at the CCA’s safety-at-sea seminar in March). Today’s Bermuda Race
boats now carry elaborate instruments and laptop computers connected
to the Internet – but their navigators are still advised by Jenifer
Clark and other oceanographers to study the Gulf Stream and take risks
in Bermuda Races.
For more information on the Gulf Stream and the Bermuda Race, see the regularly updated Gulf Stream Tutorials by Frank Bohlen