A teenage crew shocked the fleet in 2016, crossing the finish, second to Comanche, winning the Stephens Brothers Youth Prize, and placing third in the St. David’s Lighthouse Division. By John Burnham
(Editor’s note: This story contains excerpts of 2016 stories published in Windcheck and Ocean Navigator. It first appeared in the Newport Bermuda Race Program 2018 and has been updated and expanded.)
Competing for the Young American Junior Big Boat Team, seven youth sailors and three adult advisors raced the 41-foot High Noon to Bermuda in 2016. They received the inaugural Stephens Brothers Youth Prize and won much more, as well. Excerpts from two onboard accounts tell the story.
Will McKeige writes: Two days and 200 nautical miles into the race, a pack of seven boats battled for the lead…From Saturday night through Monday afternoon, we surfed huge swells on a blast reach… We were behind two much bigger boats, Maximizer and Siren. Being first to hit Bermuda didn’t seem possible until Monday night when the wind died.
…With her large powerful sail and superlight hull, High Noon was built to fly in the light air. …This was our time to pounce. Collin and I worked the boat nonstop until sunrise. He steered and I trimmed the sails. We pounded Red Bulls and danced High Noon through the spotty patches of light air. As the night passed, we watched Maximizer’s mast light slowly move from in front of us, to abeam of us, to behind us. We had regained the lead.
…The last 30 nautical miles were agonizingly slow…Nobody said a word all morning. The island slowly came into view with the sunrise, the first land we had seen since Friday. We saw no boats between us and the finish line. We finessed the boat slowly downwind and…were first to cross the finish line off St. Georges, Bermuda.
High Noon finished in 88 hours, 27 minutes, 5 seconds, earning third place overall in the St. David’s Lighthouse Division and receiving the Stephens Brothers Youth Division prize. According to Peter Becker, co-chair of the program with Rob Alexander, the 2016 Race was the culmination of several years of work by the juniors. They had paid their dues, sailing overnight and longer-distance races, then found opportunities to sail offshore.
Carina Becker writes: The seven of us have been sailing in the same water most of our lives and have a similar passion for sailing. The High Noon Juniors’ special bond was derived from not only our history, but also from the tight quarters. We were able to find humor and joy in the more “painful” moments, like when someone called to set the Code 0 for the tenth time… We helped out packing kites when others weren’t feeling well, or consoled one another when the wind and seas got too big for our comfort.
Peter Becker had his sights on a Bermuda Race for the team, but their pipe-berth-equipped J/105 wasn’t up for such a race. Luckily, a charter was arranged with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, which had just received Heidi and Steve Benjamin’s 41-footer as a donation. There was only one hitch. They had to put the boat together.
McKeige: We were given High Noon with all the gear in huge boxes. Every fitting had been removed before she was painted. We had to reassemble the entire boat and restore her to peak racing condition. It took us more than three months of work to move her from the winter storage shed to being race-ready—putting her back together was like doing an enormous jigsaw puzzle. We repaired and updated deck gear, waterproofed her and bolted every fitting. We got to know every inch.
The other key to the program was the adult advisors, Rob Alexander, who also led the boat-assembly project, Becker, and four-time Volvo Ocean Race pro, Guillermo Altadill, who paired up with two or three junior watchmates each.
Becker: Having Guillermo aboard was one of my favorite parts. …he was tough on the crew and had high expectations that we all wanted to live up to. His presence kept us on track and energetic about moving fast. He taught us that “sailing fast isn’t free” and there is always risk involved when pushing yourselves and your boat. But he taught us how to manage that risk. When needed, Guillermo was never shy of a reef or a smaller headsail, but he was always ready to get more sail area whenever possible. He definitely pushed all of us out of our comfort zones and made us better sailors for it.
In 2018, the Young American program became the Young American Sailing Academy, a non-profit organization. Peter Becker and Rob Alexander have cast a wider net and built two teams for the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race including one sailor from the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. The older, mostly college-age sailors on the team, several of whom sailed on High Noon, will sail Young American – Gambler, a Reichel-Pugh 63. Younger, mostly high-school age sailors, were planning to race on Young American – Ticket to Ride, a Swan 45—but the boat suffered a mishap during the Block Island Race and this team will shift their season’s focus to regional distance and day races on the J/105 Young American.
The High Noon team’s example has inspired other youth teams to sail the 2018 race. Last December, the youth sailing program known as MudRatz, in Eastern Connecticut, received a donation of Dreamcatcher, a Swan 48 that has sailed to Bermuda several times. A team has been recruited and is training for the race with several adult advisors, including former owner Steven Kylander.
Another youth boat will be FEO, profiled in a recent story on BermudaRace.com. The boat will be skippered by Izze Best and a crew of her friends, with owner Eric Best sailing aboard as “silent cook.”
The “High Noon alumni” didn’t sit around waiting for the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race before sailing offshore again. Several have extended their bluewater experience. Collin Alexander delivered Wizard from Hawaii to the West Coast after the Transpac last year, along with Carina’s older brother, Key. As for Carina, she raced in the all-women crew of Climate Action Now in the 2017 Sydney Hobart Race.
Alexander and Becker’s focus on youth big-boat sailing with the creation of the Young American Sailing Academy is intriguing. Watching several youth boats compete in this year’s race to the Onion Patch will be exciting, but YASA’s plans also include the 2019 Transatlantic Race. Stay tuned.