By Chris Museler
Michael Cone was depressed when he walked into the Prize-Giving ceremony for the 1996 Newport Bermuda Race. “I swore that I’d never ever do this race again,” he remembered. His Bermuda 40 yawl Actaea was the last boat to finish that year, which meant that his wife, Connie, would be presented with the Galley Slave Trophy as the cook who had sailed the longest time and, therefore, prepared the most meals.
Salvation for the Cones came in the unlikely form of that year’s race winner, George Coumantaros. After he was presented with the St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy, he told the crowd that he had been racing to Bermuda since 1952—26 races, all with disappointing endings until now. “We’ve been like Jason chasing the Golden Fleece,” he said. “I’d like to give all who sail for the Lighthouse Trophy some advice: don’t despair, keep trying, and if you don’t win it by the time you are 75, withdraw.”
Cone recalled, “I was really upset, and he addressed that feeling in his wonderful speech. So I decided to come back.”
In their tenth Bermuda Race this week, Cone and Actaea came back. As he and his crew flaked sails at the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club on Thursday, they were aware that they were the winners of the coveted St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy, which is presented to the winner of the race’s largest division. They had beaten 96 other well-sailed racer-cruisers in the 49th “Thrash to the Onion Patch.”
How this humble little centerboarder went from bringing up the rear to conquering one of the greatest ocean races is a fascinating story of perseverance. If there were ever an example of the “Five Ps”— proper preparation prevents poor performances— this is it. “In 1996 we had a very green crew,” said Cone, who then started a multi-year upgrade process for the boat. He summed up the metamorphosis with two concise points. “We had a great working crew and a fine tool.”
That “tool” he was referring to was the refined body and rig of Actaea, one of the famous Hinckley Bermuda 40 yawls designed by Bill Tripp in the 1950s. Her sisterships had a fabled history in the Bermuda Race. Enter James Ryan, a naval architect who, Cone said, “Improved the boat’s heart and soul.” The Cones bought Actaea in 1989 after Connie convinced her husband to try sailing. “We just cruised at first,” said Connie. “Then we sailed a distance race and wanted to play with the big boys in Bermuda.”
Ryan was the only designer to show interest in Cone’s project, and he took it on with vim. Starting in 2000, the boat’s bottom and keel were reshaped. Later the aluminum mainmast and mizzen were replaced with carbon spars. And then there was sail development that resulted in boat speed “polars,” or target speeds for various wind speeds and angles.
There has been some grumbling that Actaea’s refit was a little out of keeping for the “classic plastic” Bermuda 40. But the optimization worked with this strikingly beautiful boat. “Jim’s improvements were to make a better boat,” said Cone, “without ruining the essential nature of the Bermuda 40.” A carbon fiber steering wheel and a contemporary layout were installed. The boat has an extensive racing schedule with a dedicated crew logging thousands of miles. Since 2010, the team has placed in 16 out of 17 distance races, with a class win in the 2013 Annapolis to Newport Race.
“It took us about 15 years to learn how to sail her,” said Cone. “People think yawls are easy to sail, but they’re not easy to race.” In the end, this happy boatful of friends executed a long-term plan for success and are reaping the rewards this week. Connie is still fond of the little coffee grinder in the shape of a winch that served as the 1996 Galley Slave Trophy. “It still has the price sticker on it from Triminghams,” she said. “Now we will have a book end with the Lighthouse Trophy.”