Sunflower – Newport Bermuda Spotlight

First-time race skipper Mark Lenci and crew lead the pack by one crucial measure. Story by John Burnham

Experienced cruising sailors raise the bar a notch when they enter the Newport Bermuda Race, and Sunflower’s owner Mark Lenci knows it goes beyond upgrading the sail inventory and taking the dinghy off the davits on the stern of his Beneteau Oceanis 523. Performance is one thing; mindset is another.

Beneteau Oceanis 523 Sunflower

Sunflower, a Beneteau Oceanis 523, has entered the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race in the Finisterre Division.

Mark sailed the race once before as a crew aboard a friend’s boat, but this will be his first race as skipper, with Sunflower entered to sail in the Finisterre Division (previously the Cruiser Division). Come June 15, regardless of the forecast, he knows the mindset will be different. When it’s time to start the race, you’re not sitting at the dock waiting for the right ‘weather window.’ You either go or don’t go—and the latter is always a valid choice—but the prudent skipper will have boat crew prepared to push harder and in rougher conditions than if they were cruising.

Practice session for the Sunflower crew

Six of Sunflower‘s eight crewmembers at a practice session the fall before sailing the Newport Bermuda Race.

Cruising sailors don’t regularly practice crew work—in fact, who ever goes cruising with a team of eight anyway? Mark, a former nuclear attack submarine commander, knows a thing or two about teamwork on a boat and has recruited a crew with several racing sailors including two Bermuda race veterans. He started preparing his crew last year with a full weekend session to learn the boat and develop a list of desired improvements. Their first practice race is scheduled for the second weekend in April if another snowy nor’easter doesn’t blow through Sunflower’s homeport of Harpswell, ME.

Sunflower crew boarding life raft

The crew of Sunflower learn about the challenges of boarding a life raft together during Hands-On Training. “Due to their experience,” skipper Mark Lenci notes, “several crew members have purchased new PFDs.”

But performance is only part of the equation. Mark decided his crew would exceed the Safety at Sea certification requirements for the race. In fact, when it comes to safety training, the Sunflower crew has already done a horizon job on most of the fleet. The Newport Bermuda Race rules require that 30 percent of the crew complete the Safety at Sea classroom sessions and that a minimum of two crew take the Hands-On safety training. Sunflower’s entire crew successfully completed safety-at-sea training. Six of them attended the event hosted by the Cruising Club of America in early March and the other two at West Coast venues.

“They all took the US Sailing online course,” Mark says. “Everyone thought that was valuable. And based on the training, we reworked our ditch bag contents. Now we have a better ditch bag and abandon-ship plan.”

Sunflower crew learns about firefighting

Practicing shipboard firefighting emphasizes teamwork as well as technique.

Relief crew will be joining Mark and his second in command for the return trip after the race, and all four of them have all received training, too, by taking US Sailing’s Offshore Safety at Sea online supplement course.

With less than three months to go before the race, Mark says, “I’m very glad I decided to race Sunflower because it has taken the skills of the crew and the outfitting of the boat to a new level. We have an eight-person crew, and every one of them has completed the hands-on training. We are at 100 percent because we believe in it.”

You could say Mark is engaged in a proof-of-concept exercise. A member of the Cruising Club of America, he leads the club’s Safety at Sea education program, a position he’ll hold for the next six years.

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