Reflections while Standing Watch to St. David’s Light

Stuart Streuli writes from Defiance. “Win, lose or draw, there’s nothing that compares to the feeling to hitting the dock after 600 miles of racing from Newport to Bermuda.” Along the way there are plenty of lessons learned about boats, people, and organization, especially in the last big surge to the finish.

The Royal Bermuda YC marina fills up/ (John Rousmaniere)

The Royal Bermuda YC marina fills up.  (John Rousmaniere)

By Monday morning our intricate rotating watch system on Peter Noonan’s Swan 56 Defiance had dissolved.Whether this was because we expected to be in by that time, or because of the casual attitude of a Cruiser Division crew, is hard to say. We had been set on finishing Monday afternoon. Once that became an impossibility, the routine became an issue. Too much sleep was as likely a culprit as too little; whoever was on deck assumed control of the ship.

For anyone who has done the Bermuda Race, this isn’t too surprising. After three days, everything tends to break down a little bit. It always leaves me anxious, nonetheless. I’ve been a part of numerous distance races that have been won (or lost) in the wee hours by those teams that have maintained discipline and order, and kept pushing through the finish line. As the newer member of the crew, I tried to get as much sleep as possible and prepare myself for what could be a long 36 hours to the finish.

The Most Enjoyable Sailing

Round about sunset on Monday evening, I found myself on deck with two other crew members, and we quickly gelled into a cohesive unit. The wind filled in from the southwest and we put the hammer down, working the boat like we hadn’t to that point in the race. We chewed through 40 miles in five hours, rolling over much of our competition. It was without a doubt the most enjoyable sailing of the race. Upwind in 10 to 12 knots of wind speed, the Swan 56 comes alive. We swapped through the helming rotation every hour, working the main and jib constantly and pushing the boat to the edge of its potential.

Defiance iTalbot Wilsonl/PPL)

Defiance (Talbot Wilson, PPL)

The question I now ponder is an eternal one for distance races: whether the rotating watch is better than the wholesale swap. I’ve always been a fan of the rotating system, where one or two people come on watch every hour and continuity is assured.

But this race opened my eyes to the advantages of a set team of sailors for an entire race. After spending much of the previous three days working together though the vagaries of the watch system, we finally developed a pretty strong sense of teamwork that is required for a successful distance race.

We didn’t need to talk everything through. We locked in and put our experience to work. I wondered what would’ve been possible had this group been working like that for the entire race.

For the 51st thrash across the Gulf Stream to the Onion Patch, many of us will line up on the starting line off Castle Hill. Some will use rotating watches, others with go with more traditional systems. We’ll all race hard and the in the end those who have found the best combination of luck, crew work and boat preparation will be crowned the winners.

Ocean racing is as much about the people as it is the boat, or the forecast. Perhaps that’s the ultimate beauty of distance racing. There isn’t one solution. And while my experience in 2016 may have fallen on one side of the discussion, there’s no guarantee that 2018 will offer a repeat. The rest will enjoy the party, and the experience. Win, lose, or draw, there’s nothing that compares to the feeling to hitting the dock after 600 miles of racing from Newport to Bermuda. Every year is different. Every year is a unique puzzle.

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