The Newport Bermuda Race
The Newport Bermuda Race is a 635-mile ocean race, much of it out of sight of land, usually lasting three to six days. It crosses a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean known for challenging weather, especially in the Gulf Stream, where there are strong currents.
Every two years in mid-June, more than 150 boats start from the historic seaport of Newport, Rhode Island. The fleet has five divisions to allow seaworthy boats of many sizes and types to be raced fairly and aggressively for an array of trophies awarded in Bermuda at an elegant ceremony at Government House, the residence of the governor of this tropical island.
In keeping with the 100-year traditions of amateur sailors and strong family spirit, most of the boats tend to have amateur crews comprised of friends and family members. The race maintains its international prestige through competitive fairness, an exemplary safety record, and a responsive race organization handled by the volunteer members of the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. Sailors everywhere dream of adding the Newport Bermuda Race to their life list of adventures.
Divisions and Trophies
The race has five divisions – essentially five separate race fleets: St. David’s Lighthouse (for amateur crews on dual purpose racer-cruiser boats), Gibbs Hill Lighthouse (professional crews on modern competitive boats), Double-handed (only two people on each boat), Cruiser (amateur crews on boats not designed for racing) and Open (boats of a size or construction type beyond the normal range of the fleet). The divisions are divided into classes so that boats of similar size start together and compete for class honors. Each division is scored using a handicap or rating system by which slower boats are allowed more time than faster boats to complete the race. After the finish each boat’s “elapsed time” on the course is “corrected” based on the time allowance. The boats with the best corrected times win. Trophies are awarded for the top finishers in each class and each division.
|St. David’s Lighthouse Division||St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy|
|Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Division||Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse Trophy|
|Cruiser Division||Carleton Mitchell/Finisterre Trophy|
|Double-Handed Division||Phillip S. Weld Prize and Moxie Prizes|
|Open Division (formerly the Demonstration Division)||Royal Mail Trophy|
See the complete prize list for 2014 (.pdf)
In addition to the class trophies, boats can compete for special awards such as winning navigators, best finish for a boat over 15 years old, top-finishing family crews, and several regional awards. The Newport Bermuda Race is one of several races in a series sponsored by several yacht clubs and sailing organizations. In addition to the Newport Bermuda ocean race, which has been co-managed by the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and the Cruising Club of America since 1926, the oldest collaboration is the 44-year-old Onion Patch Series in which teams of three boats compete in day races in Newport and Bermuda, as well as in the ocean race. The team with the best combined score for all phases wins.
The Race Course
The Newport Bermuda Race course looks deceptively simple. The starting line is set near Castle Hill Light at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. The finish is 635 nautical miles to the southeast across open ocean. This is one of very few long- distances races that is a true ocean race, with land over the horizon almost from the start to the finish. Because the winds and currents change almost constantly, the boats can rarely sail the straight “rhumbline” course of 149° True.
Satellite tracking transponders are fixed to all boats in the race. Several times a day the position of each boat in the fleet is updated and shown on a map at the Newport Bermuda Race website. The site received up to 10,000 visits a day during the 2006 race as family members and sailors from around the world followed the progress of the fleet. The racers also download the positions of their competitors who are spread far across the course and out of sight.
The ocean temperatures off Newport are cool and the visibility can be cut to a boat length in fog. Before nightfall, the fleet is out of sight of land as the crews sail toward Bermuda at speeds of four to 15 knots (nautical miles per hour) depending on a boat’s size and the wind strength. The sailors on each boat are divided into watches to allow some of the crew to sleep and eat while the others steer and trim the sails. The watches change every few hours to prevent fatigue. The navigators rely on GPS to track their positions. The skippers and tacticians plan their strategies based on where they expect to be as the weather systems alter the wind strength and direction over the days of the race.
The shape of the Gulf Stream and the position of related ocean currents become obstacles or advantages over the next day or two. A favorable current is like an invisible conveyor belt that can carry a boat miles ahead of its competition. The warm, swift current of the Gulf Stream also can generate violent squalls and breaking seas. Day and night the crews must react to every change trying to maximize their progress toward Bermuda. The second half of the race typically has light winds. Persistence and concentration are keys to keeping the boats going. The water is warm, the sun is hot and the crews yearn to reach Bermuda.
Only in the last 20 or 25 miles can the competitors glimpse the low profile of Bermuda rising from the horizon. Excitement builds as other boats come into sight converging for the final sprint to the finish line set off the St. David’s Lighthouse at the east end of Bermuda . The navigators stay very wary of the coral reefs that extend miles to the north of the main island. The boats must sail to the seaward side of a set of navigational aids that mark the reef. Once across the line, the boats proceed to Hamilton Harbor using a channel through the reef. It takes a couple of hours before the sailors finally can step ashore and join the post-race festivities three to five days after leaving Newport