This classic Sparkman & Stephens yawl was built for the Newport Bermuda Race, and she’s a threat every time she crosses the starting line. By Chris Museler
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This idiom can be modified for this year’s Newport Bermuda Race to say a “logo” is worth 80 years of history. One such logo is a take-off on the iconic Schaefer beer logo, with its fire engine-red badge and golden barley sprig; it reads “Black Watch, 1938.”
This creative symbol represents a celebration of the 80th Bermuda Race anniversary for the Sparkman & Stephens yawl Black Watch and a nod to the boat’s original owner, Rudy Schaefer, member of the Schaefer brewing family. This week, the symbol will is emblazoned on crew shirts and commemorative stickers, and flies on a battle flag set on the 68-footer’s forestay.
As one of the oldest, yet still competitive boats in the race—she won her class in 2012—Black Watch hasn’t slowed down, and her syndicate of five owners are hoping that the steady, reaching breeze forecast will prove once again that this beautiful, heavy displacement boat is meant for this race.
“It’s hard to think about a better boat to do the race,” says John Melvin, a member of the ownership syndicate, who was a guest aboard Black Watch when the team won in 2012. “Her whole reason for being is to do this race. She’s such a sweet boat to sail with her heavy displacement and level of comfort. You can push a little more, and she’s always going to be a little different than the other boats.”
Few boats were designed specifically to win this race, and that was the design brief Schaefer gave to Sparkman & Stephens in December of 1937. By May of ’38, for a sum of $40,000, the Nevins yard in City Island, New York, completed and launched her as Edlu II. That summer, she finished second in class to another big S&S yawl, Baruna.
This will be Black Watch’s eleventh Bermuda Race. Once named Tabor Boy, a training ship for Tabor Academy in Massachusetts, she received her current name in 1954. Her modern race history started in 2006 when the current syndicate was formed, and she has been sailed in every race since, save 2010, when a delayed refit left her at the dock.
Though not an entirely unique boat for her time, today Black Watch keeps proving her worth, in comfort and speed. And there is always a long list of improvements, recently including a new suite of B&G electronics and 3D-modeled bronze chainplate reinforcements.
This level of maintenance is what Kyle Dufur, the boat’s captain, says is necessary to keep Black Watch racing competitively in the ocean. And the schedule is packed. Besides family cruises each summer in New England, the boat usually spends the winter doing ocean and buoy racing in the Caribbean.
It doesn’t’ necessarily take five owners to run Black Watch, though it helps financially and fills out the crew of 15, but what this syndicate has found is that the race-ability, history and feel of the boat is something addictive and worth sharing.
“Racing a bigger boat becomes more about running a big team,” says Melvin, who raced to Bermuda several times aboard his diminutive 40-foot Concordia Yawl, Westray, a design from roughly the same era as Black Watch. “I always try to bring a new person on Black Watch for each race, and we have the room to have one or two people who don’t have as much experience but have something else, some unique aspect.”
Trevor Fetter, co-skippering Black Watch with Melvin in 2018, has been with the syndicate since the beginning and is bringing along his sister, JJ Fetter, an Olympic sailing medalist. Dufur says she “brings a great level of positivity.”
Melvin is bringing his two teenage children, Michael and Carolyn, before they head for college in the fall. Michael has sailed the race twice aboard Westray, but this will be Carolyn’s first time.
“She always felt she wouldn’t be able to contribute,” says Melvin of his daughter. “This year we needed a cook and she said, ‘Absolutely! I know how to cook!’ Even though her brother has done the race, I told her that she now out ranks him.”
Melvin says that food is a serious affair on Black Watch. Though the powerful hull is truly a racing boat, meals are actually what one would expected of a boat that has perfectly varnished mahogany combings and polished bronze winches. The Bermuda Race menu is the same each year: first night, filet mignon with cream spinach, then shrimp scampi, chicken marsala over rice pilaf with a prune and olive sauce, and chicken tetrazzini towards the end of the race.
“All served in dog bowls,” he adds, “just like most boats.”
There is something special about this boat, otherwise she wouldn’t still be sailing in the Bermuda Race 80 years since her first time. Dufur has only sailed this race aboard Black Watch. He spends most of his free time digging though CCA records and Mystic Seaport archives to learn more about her. He and Melvin both say they have no interest in sailing anything else to Bermuda.
“You feel like you’re on a real race boat,” says Melvin, “but when you go down below to eat some chow, you feel like your sitting still. I’m happy to do the Bermuda Race in Black Watch until I can’t sail any more.”