100 Years of Thrashing to the Onion Patch

By John Rousmaniere

If the Newport Bermuda Race is any one thing, it’s historic. Founded in 1906 as the first ocean race for amateur sailors in normal boats, it has inspired other long-distance races, and has attracted almost 4,500 boats crewed by some 46,000 men and women who have raced nearly 3 million miles to Bermuda. It’s a blue-water habit obsession. More than 50 sailors have sailed at least 15 races, four have done 22 or more. The record is held by Jim Mertz – 30 races, two-thirds of the total. Asked after a rough race if he had enjoyed himself, a sailor snapped, “God, no, it was terrible! I’ll be damned if I’ll do it again until two years from now.”

The very first Bermuda Race was an act of rebellion. In 1906, the Establishment believed that it would be insane for amateur sailors to race offshore in boats under eighty feet. Thomas Fleming Day, the feisty editor of The Rudder magazine, vehemently disagreed, insisting, “The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant.” Certain that an ocean race would be enjoyable and safe – and also develop better sailors and better boats – Day founded one on his own. The Brooklyn Yacht Club started the race in New York Bay, and down on the island paradise, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club finished it off St. David’s Head.

Critics predicted disaster…