Today, when three of the Newport Bermuda Race’s major prizes are replicas of Bermuda aids to navigation, and when many other prizes honor sailors, it may come as a surprise to learn that the race’s very first award (for the winner of the founding race in 1906) was named for Sir Thomas Lipton, who donated it. The five-time America’s Cup challenger’s fame, interest, and generosity helped establish the Bermuda Race in the public’s eye as an important event. It didn’t hurt that his trophy was spectacular and widely publicized. One of many prizes that Lipton and the Lipton Tea Company dedicated for sailing competition around the world, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy was won by the 40-foot yawl Tamerlane.
Tamerlane’s skipper, Thomas Fleming Day, was also the race’s inventor and promoter. When many critics complained that amateur sailors in smaller boats do not belong at sea, Tom Day fought back, arguing, “The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant. Small vessels are safer than large, providing they are properly designed, strongly built, thoroughly equipped, and skillfully manned.” The race was necessary, he insisted. “Sailors wanted to get a smell of the sea and forget for the time being that there is such a thing as God’s green earth in the universe.” Honoring Day’s vision, the race awards the Thomas Fleming Day Memorial Trophy to the boat under 40 feet with the best corrected time. (There’s also a Sir Thomas Lipton Memorial Trophy, for the winner of Class 7 in the St. David’s Lighthouse Division.)
After 1906 winner’s trophies were donated by the Bermuda government. In 1946 the top prize was a stunning sterling silver replica of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse. Reaching up 362 feet above sea level, the light itself is the first piece of Bermuda that racers see. The winner of this first lighthouse trophy was the 57’ sloop Gesture, whose skipper and owner, A. Howard Fuller, is otherwise celebrated in sailing history for developing a pioneering method for making extruded aluminum masts. Lighthouse prizes became a permanent fixture of the race in 1954 when a sterling silver replica of the island’s other big light, St. David’s Lighthouse, which marks the finish line, was awarded to Dan Strohmeier for winning the race in the Concordia yawl Malay. Since then St. David’s Light replicas have been keepers for the overall winner or, recently, top boat in the St. David’s Lighthouse Division.
St. David’s Lighthouse is at the tip of one of Bermuda’s more historic islands. Before the airport was built in the 1940s, St. David’s Island was physically isolated and culturally distinct from the rest of the country, its islanders speaking Elizabethan English with a West Indian accent, many of them working as harbor pilots who sailed or rowed out to greet Bermuda Race boats and guide them through the reef.
Recently, the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Trophy was revived for the Gibbs Hill Division, and the North Rock Beacon Trophy was added for the top boat in the race under the IRC Rule (the others prizes are for ORR). All three trophies are donated by the Bermuda Department of Tourism. The North Rock Beacon itself is the first of the string of markers that guide boats around the perimeter of the reef to St. David’s Lighthouse. “North Rock, North East Breaker, Kitchen Shoals, Mills Breaker”—all navigators can repeat that sequence in their sleep. They may not be as physically imposing as the two lighthouses, but the beacons are just as essential to the security and safety of sailors making their approach to Bermuda, in the final miles of Tom Day’s and Tommy Lipton’s race.