By John Rousmaniere
Hamilton, Bermuda, June 24. Tonight and tomorrow, 120 or more boats will sail around Bermuda’s reef toward St. David’s Head and cross the finish line of the 49th Newport Bermuda Race. None of this will be easy for the 1,600 sailors exhausted by four days of sailing. Yet the most challenging job of the moment is not on the boats. It is in a small blockhouse standing alongside St. David’s Lighthouse.
The responsibility of recording each finisher lies in the hands of the race’s Finish Line Committee, chaired by Eugene Rayner. His duties are as impressive in their way as towering red-striped St. David’s Light. The three dozen members of his committee stand watches of four or six hours for many days, a minimum of four members in each watch. Many of these men and women are not sailors. Chairman Rayner once took a sailing course, but his main interest is ham radio. When he heard that the Finish Line Committee was looking for a radio expert to handle communications, he volunteered and has been a member for 30 years. In 2003 he was named chairman, and now, at age 73, he is about to retire. This race’s finish is the fourteenth he has chaired for the Newport or Marion Bermuda races.
The finish process begins when the race boat is five miles from the line. The crew identifies her by radio and by switching on the required Automatic Identification System (AIS), which sends a unique message. At night the crew must be prepared to illuminate their sail numbers with lights.
As the boat sails (still racing hard) into the waters off St. David’s Lighthouse, she is identified by an official powerboat as her AIS device finds two buoys marking the outer limits of the finish line area. The boat officially finishes when, as she sails between the buoys, the compass bearing to the intersection of the light’s green and red sectors is 291 degrees magnetic (276 degrees true). Moments later, in order to avoid running up on a reef, the boat must turn toward the sea, leaving the outer buoy to port, while calling the committee to confirm her finish.
All this time, Chairman Rayner and his committee on watch are poised to observe and record the finish. Their office is in a former World War II spotter outpost that has all the charm of a pillbox, with its observation deck on the second floor and accessible only by a ladder. Yet for racing sailors this might as well be the Pentagon. Here, Eugene Rayner and his Bermuda Race Finish Line Committee devote days to recording the finishes of 160-plus boats.
In the old days, the committee occupied a nearby cottage and did not abandon their station until the last boat was accounted for and the members had put down the last drop of the chowders cooked by the lighthouse keeper, Cecil O’Connor. Someone was always keeping a lookout through a telescope with a chronometer, a log book, and a pen close at hand.
An atomic clock eventually replaced the old chronometer, and the finishes were sent to the race’s official scorers by fax, and then by computer. But the official document of record is still the log. “That handwritten log is our Bible,” says Chairman Rayner decisively.
On the weekend before the boats arrive , the committee throws itself a party at St. David’s Lighthouse. To suggest the Finish Line Committee’s importance to the race and to Bermuda, their guests include the flag officers of the two sponsoring clubs and several Bermudian officials — one of whom this year was Bermuda’s Premier, Michael Dunkley.