Smell the Sargasso En Route to Bermuda

Three distinct stretches of water define the racecourse to Bermuda from Newport, RI. By Andrew Burton

The span of water between Newport and Bermuda is furrowed with sailboat wakes. Mysterious currents whirl, challenging and frustrating navigators. Weather systems move rapidly across the course, or camp for days, dishing out largess to some at the expense of those who’ve chosen the wrong strategy. Storms can test crews and gear in ways unanticipated during the planning stages for the race. Sailors seasoned by the Southern Ocean treat this bit of water with respect. Overcoming these challenges is only part of the reason for entering the Newport Bermuda Race.

Few of us are going to achieve a podium finish in the race, and many who sail the race enter with no expectation of winning. So why do skippers and crews keep coming back every even year? It’s the sailing, of course.

sargasso weed Gulf Stream

The extraordinary colors, sights and smells on the way to Bermuda are not to be missed. Behan Gifford photo

Though I’ve raced to Bermuda only a few times, my job as a delivery skipper has led me over the course more than 100 times during the past few decades. I’ve seen the route in many different moods and all of them are awe-inspiring. While we will never experience them during the race, there is an indescribable beauty to watching snow squalls barrel across the water toward you in the Gulf Stream during a winter delivery.

At any time of year, though, we are likely to experience a good blow en route. But in between wrestling with sail changes or tucking in another reef, take a moment to get your head out of the boat and look around to absorb the scenery. Notice the brilliant turquoise at the top of a wave below the break as the light gleams through it. If the weather is sunny and it’s blowing hard, notice how, when you’re at the top of a wave, the vista extends for miles and is reminiscent—if you squint a little—of the Austrian Alps.

The Newport Bermuda Race takes us through three different stretches of ocean. First is the gray-green, nutrient-rich waters of the continental shelf, where the depth sounder is still registering and the sea-temp gauge is likely showing a cool 55 degrees. We may sail through shoals of baby sharks as we pass between Block Island and No Man’s, and it’s always worth having eyes outside the boat, watching for whales and dolphins. At night, the phosphorescent plankton glows in our wake as deck lights of fishing boats loom over the horizon, or dazzle and puzzle as we try to figure out where they’re going.

Soon enough, we sail off the continental shelf, and the water starts to change to that indescribable deep, clear indigo. The depth sounder loses signal and generates random numbers. As the water warms, we watch for stretches of sargasso weed, revealing current lines, and the navigator watches the speed over ground and sea temperature for the uptick that shows we’ve entered the Gulf Stream or a warm eddy. Once in the Gulf Stream, the waves become choppier and less organized. Here is where sailors who’ve forgone the Bonine because they “never get seasick” discover whether they’ll still be making that boast in three days. Deep into the fast water, you may see the poisonous pearlescence of the sail on a Portuguese man-o-war drifting with the Stream at three or four knots toward England.

South of the Stream, the seas lengthen and become more regular. Though Bermuda is still half a race away, we feel as if we’re on the final stretch. T-shirts and shorts are dug from sea bags. Schools of flying fish scurry away from the boat, soaring a hundred yards or more before plunging into the back of a wave. Even in a rainy easterly, the water remains that deep blue and turquoise, and at night, flying fish become a hazard as they rocket out of the black, startling sleepy crew. The calm clear voice of Bermuda Radio starts to be heard 100 miles out, and the loom of the island glows dimly on the dark horizon in front of us.

During the race, I would expect my crew to focus on making the boat go fast at all times, but I’d be disappointed if we all didn’t take time to stop and smell the sargasso every now and then, too.

Andrew Burton has been a Newport-based delivery captain for more than 30 years. He has entered the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race for the first time as skipper aboard his Baltic 47, Masquerade.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply