Racing to Bermuda
Few tests of blue-water seamanship are as iconic as the 635-mile Newport Bermuda Race. The 2016 race (starting on June 17) is the 50th and also marks the 90th anniversary of the partnership of the organizers, the Cruising Club of America and Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Here is an overview of the race with links to helpful articles on this website.
Sailed almost entirely out of sight of land, the Bermuda Race was created in 1906 by Thomas Fleming Day, a yachting writer who believed in the then-radical idea that amateur sailors in small yachts could sail safely in blue water. The colorful Tom Day was a pioneer in the sport of long-distance racing. In the 1920s the race inspired Britain’s Fastnet Race and Royal Ocean Racing Club, and also the freshwater Bayview-Mackinac Race on Lake Huron.
In a typical race, a chilly first night brings the fleet out into the Atlantic. As the sailors enter the realm of their new lord and master, the Gulf Stream, the race often makes good on its nickname, “The Thrash to the Onion Patch.” Once through the rough Stream, the sailors press on to the finish off St. David’s Lighthouse. Inhaling the sweet smell of oleander, they motor up the winding channel to Hamilton, where the Dark ’n Stormies flow until the prize ceremony on Government House’s spectacular hilltop, where handsome and historic trophies are presented by Bermuda’s Governor . Prize or not, any crew can glory in the satisfaction of having raced to Bermuda. Recent entries and race results are listed on the race website.
International fleets of more than 160 boats compete in the biennial race. There is also the Onion Patch Series, a parallel inter-club and international team-race event.
The 2016 Newport Bermuda Race has seven divisions, each with its divisional and class prizes. The race has no single winner. Except Super Yachts, each division is rated under the Offshore Racing Rule (ORR)
- St. David’s Lighthouse Division: cruiser-racers with amateur helmsmen.
- Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Division: racers with professional helmsmen permitted.
- Cruiser Division: cruisers/passagemakers with amateur helmsmen.
- Double-Handed Division: one crew may be a professional.
- Open Division: cant-keel racers with professional helmsmen permitted.
- Super Yacht Division: 90-plus feet long, International Super Yacht Rule.
- Spirit of Tradition Division: replicas and other traditional boats.
Safe Sailing and Fair Racing
The race is dedicated to the principles of safe sailing and fair racing. “The Newport Bermuda Race is not a race for novices” says the Notice of Race. All boats are inspected, and all crew lists are reviewed. These and other race rules are in the Notice of Race.
The Cruising Club of America has asserted strong leadership in rating rules for nearly 90 years. From the 1930s to 1970, the Bermuda Race was handicapped by the CCA Rating Rule. The CCA supported research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that developed the Velocity Prediction Program (VPP). Using the entire boat and not just a few measurements, VPPs predict the boat’s velocity on all points of sail, in all conditions.
Today’s VPP system is the Offshore Racing Rule. The race prefers the ORR because it does the best job in fairly handicapping different boats in a diverse fleet without favoring one type of boat in any condition. A great many other organizers agree with this choice. For more on the ORR visit www.offshoreracingrule.org.
Gulf Stream Strategy and Tactics
By Dr. W. Frank Bohlen, Bermuda Race Organizing Committee, Physical Oceanographer (18 Bermuda Races)
Developing a winning Newport-Bermuda Race strategy that accommodates variability in weather, ocean current, and sea state requires skippers and navigators to consider a number of factors. Among them are Gulf Stream conditions. The point at which the Gulf Stream is encountered is often considered a juncture as important as the start or finish of the race itself. The location, structure, and variability of this major ocean current and its effects all present a particular challenge for every navigator and tactician.
The Gulf Stream follows a reasonably well defined northerly track along the outer limits of the U.S. continental shelf. Beyond Cape Hatteras, currents turn to the northeast, and flow trajectories in this area (which includes the rhumb line to Bermuda) become increasingly non-linear and wavelike, with characteristics similar to those observed in clouds of smoke trailing downwind from a chimney. On occasion these meanders will become so large that they will “pinch off,” forming independent rotating rings or eddies in the areas to the north and south of the main body of the Stream. All of these features may significantly affect set and drift. Efforts to locate the Stream and map its location and structure typically begin months before the race with the collection of satellite sea surface temperature (SST) images available at a number of web sites.
The Gulf Stream also exerts significant influence on weather and sea state. This favors cloud formation and intensification of advancing pressure systems over a large portion of the North Atlantic. Intensification is particularly pronounced in fast-moving cold fronts. When these fronts encounter the warm waters of the Stream, they increase the rate at which moisture-laden warm air moves aloft, favoring formation of intense thunderstorms replete with wind, rain, and sometimes hail.
These features illustrate the care required when developing a race strategy, and the need to consider much more than simple analytical data describing Gulf Stream or wind and wave conditions. The boat’s type, condition, and crew also matter. The successful integration of all of these factors is the challenge that represents the particular attraction of the Newport Bermuda Race.
For more information, www.BermudaRace.com
Bermuda Race Organizing Committee, Chairman A.J. Evans,
Newport Bermuda Race Media