The Fastest Race

Out of Body Experiences – Reflections on the 2012 Race

When the boats in the 2012 Newport Bermuda Race poured into Hamilton Harbour a day earlier than usual after their record-breaking sprint across the Gulf Stream, the crews made tracks for the open-air bar at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and there they told their sea stories.  There were tales of knockdowns and blown-out sails and water flying everywhere, and even one about a boat’s encounter with a shark that hung up first on the keel and then on the rudder before breaking in half and being left astern.

But what the sailors remembered most vividly was speed. For the first time in years, there were spinnakers at the start, followed by days of exhilarating reaching in a fresh to strong northerly.  When first to finish Rambler, George David’s 90-footer, averaged 16 knots, her elapsed time of just over 39 hours sawed more than half a day off the old record. Scott King (Bermuda Station) reported that his boat, Team Tiburon, felt slow when the speed dropped to 11. “I’ve been in boats where 11 knots was not even part of the plan.”

Everybody had thrilling stories of reaching at top speed for two days straight, often through vast fields of phosphorescence. “An out-of-body experience” is how Larry Glenn  skipper of the J-44 Runaway, described the voyage.  “It was a very, very unusual race – in fast cool dry northerly air, and it was a great ride. Can you imagine a 44-footer finishing near Bolero’s record?”  Yes indeed, Runaway’s time was just five hours shy of the 73-foot yawl’s 1956 elapsed time record of a little over 70 hours.

Amid the celebrations for this sensational sprint, the 2012 Newport Bermuda Race produced examples of exemplary seamanship and inspiring concern by sailors for their fellow seamen.  A pair of race boats, Spirit of Bermuda and Flying Lady, went to the aid of a competitor, Seabiscuit, one of whose two crewmembers was suffering from complications of dehydration and needed to be evacuated.  Flying Lady’s owner, Phillip Dickey, explained his motivation very simply: “It was the right thing to do.”

The long worrisome night ended with Nate Owen in a cruise ship under professional medical care and the three yachts continuing the race.  Royal Bermuda Yacht Club Commodore Jonathan Brewin telephoned Jonathan Green on Seabiscuit’s satellite phone to express concern about his health and state of mind after the harrowing experience. “I’m just fine,” Green replied brightly, “and the boat’s making 9 knots!” After Seabiscuit finished the race, the the International Jury decided that a sailor who remains on board should not be punished for a shipmate’s injury. Seabiscuit was declared an official finisher, taking fifth in the 16-boat Double-Handed Division.  At the race’s prizegiving ceremony the race organizers awarded citations for exemplary seamanship to Flying Lady, Seabiscuit, and Spirit of Bermuda, a handsome replica of a traditional Bermuda working three-masted schooner in the new Spirit of Tradition Division.

Spirit of Bermuda was one of four classic wooden boats in the race. Each was designed many years ago, has breathtakingly sleek lines, and is equipped with gear that’s foreign to most modern sailors. One of the crew of the 83-year-old, 52-foot yawl Dorade, exclaimed, “There was water everywhere!  And those vents really work!” “Those vents” are the tall air scoops that an ingenious yacht designer of another era, Rod Stephens, designed for his family’s boat in 1930. These ventilators revolutionized ocean sailing by letting air into the cabin and, in a system of baffles, keeping the water out in the rough seas of a typical Bermuda Race.

Two other woodies from the pre-World War III days of the yacht design firm Sparkman & Stephens were in the race, the meticulously restored New York 32 class sloop Isla, owned by Henry S. May III, and the 68-foot yawl Black Watch, commanded by Joseph C. Robillard. This elegant classic was sailed with classic cunning by an experienced crew: “Our strategy was to go fast the first two days toward the island and see what we found when we got down there,” said Robillard.  This strategy left them open-minded for the new conditions that swept in with the surprise pop-up low coming north from Bermuda.  With her long waterline and yawl rig, Black Watch was optimized for reaching with five sails set – a very effective rig for this very unusual Bermuda Race, with hundreds of miles of reaching across the wind.

The woodies had one very important thing in their favor: silence.  The new carbon and fiberglass boats were like drums with waves beating on their decks and topsides.  Alan Block reported from the very damp deck of Decision (top boat in the Onion Patch Series), “We’ve been averaging somewhere north of 13.5 knots for most of the trip, with a top speed just under 20, and it is loud, wet, difficult, and massively rewarding.”  The woodies were also wet and massively rewarding, and their natural fibre soundproofing made the sailing a lot easier on the ears.  Said Black Watch’s navigator, Peter Rugg (New York, N.Y.), “I’d forgotten how quiet a wooden boat is down below when you’re sailing in rough weather.”

May quiet reign over the Newport Bermuda Race until it is revived in 2014.

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