(Compiled by race historian John Rousmaniere in 2016; updated, Jan. 2019.)
The 635-mile biennial Newport Bermuda Race is the oldest regularly scheduled ocean race, one of very few international distance races, and (with the Transpac Race) one of just two of the world’s regularly scheduled races held almost entirely out of sight of land. Founded in 1906, the Bermuda Race was held for the 51st time in 2018.
The race’s purpose was stated in 1923 by Cruising Club of America Commodore Herbert L. Stone: “In order to encourage the designing, building, and sailing of small seaworthy yachts, to make popular cruising upon deep water, and to develop in the amateur sailor a love of true seamanship, and to give opportunity to become proficient in the art of navigation. . . .”
Between 150 and 200 boats typically sail the race. The largest fleet, 265 boats, sailed in the centennial race in 2006. The second largest, 197 boats, turned out in 2008.
A Typical Newport Bermuda Race
Although it is identified with the New England coast, the race attracts sailors from across North America and the globe, with recent entries from Russia, Britain, Germany, and other countries. The average crew has 10 men or women, often including many from the same family. Typically, 25 to 30 percent of captains are sailing their first Newport Bermuda Race in command. The race starts off Newport, R.I., in front of many spectators, on the third Friday in June. It takes more than two hours to get the fleet started. Boats are rated and handicapped under the Offshore Racing Rule.
Depending on the weather and the currents in the Gulf Stream, and the boat’s size and speed, the race takes two to six days. The first boat arrives at the finish line off St. David’s Lighthouse on Sunday or Monday, and the smaller boats arrive between then and Wednesday or Thursday.
The race is demanding. The rules say, “The Newport Bermuda Race is not a race for novices.” The course crosses the rough Gulf Stream and is mostly out of the range of rescue helicopters, and Bermuda is guarded by a dangerous reef. The race is nicknamed “the Thrash to the Onion Patch” because most Bermuda Races include high winds and big waves (a combination sailors call “a hard thrash”), and because Bermuda is an agricultural island.
The race demands good seamanship, great care, and a boat that is both well-built and properly equipped. The boats must meet stringent equipment requirements and undergo inspection, and the sailors must also pass a review and undergo training in safety. The bonds formed by these sailors are strong. Numerous sailors have sailed more than 10 races, often with family and friends, and the Gulf Stream Society recognizes long-time participants.
The race was first run in 1906, and going back to 1923, the relationship between the organizing clubs has stood the test of time, too. Over all those years, the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club have served as co-managers, working through the volunteer Bermuda Race Organizing Committee.
There are up to eight divisions, each for a type of boat. The race has no overall winner, only division winners, though the winning boat in the St. David’s Lighthouse Division—the largest in the race, and a division dedicated to amateur sailors—is often regarded as the race’s top boat.
- St. David’s Lighthouse Division, for normal multi-purpose cruiser-racer boats sailed by amateur or mostly amateur crews. This division is the largest, at nearly 100 boats. There are limits on the number of professional sailors in these boats, and only amateurs are allowed to steer.
- Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Division, for all-out racing, lightweight, high-performance boats often sailed by professional crews, who may steer. Canting keels and water ballast are allowed, but displacement-reducing foils are not allowed. As many as 20 boats enter this division.
- Finisterre Division, for boats that normally cruise, not race, is named for Carleton Mitchell, three-time winner of the race aboard his yawl, Finisterre. The division is sailed by mostly amateur crews, with only amateur helmsmen. The division usually has about 30 boats.
- Double-Handed Division, for boats sailed by two sailors. Twenty boats usually sail in this division. One crew may be a professional and steer.
- Multihull Division, for catamarans and trimarans at least 58 feet in length that meet other specified safety and stability standards.
- Open Division, for racing boats with displacement-reducing foils. A handful of boats usually sail in this division. There is no limit on professionals.
- Spirit of Tradition, for traditional boats, most recently the Bermuda Sloop replica Spirit of Bermuda. No limit on professionals. (There were no entries in 2018.)
- Super Yacht Division, for super yachts over 90 feet, racing under the ISYR. No limit on professionals.
- Total races (1906-2018)—51.
- Total entries—5,492 boats with approximately 52,000 sailors.
- Total miles sailed (approx.)—3,300,000 miles of blue water.
- Largest fleets—265 (2006), 198 (2008).
- Average fleet size 1990-2018 (except 2006), approx. 160 boats
- The typical fleet is about evenly divided between stock (class) boats and custom boats.
Typical participation by region:
- First-time Captains, 40 boats (ca. 25 percent)
- Non-North America, 15 boats
- Bermuda and Canada, 11 boats
- New England, 75 boats
- Middle Atlantic, 60 boats
- Deep South, 10 boats
- Midwest, 7 boats
- West Coast, 5 boats
- Service academies, 4 boats
- Cruising Club of America members, 35 boats
Fostering and Recognizing Diversity
In recognition of the great diversity of modern sailing, the race has recently created divisions and classes for unique type of boats (for instance cruisers and double-handers) and has introduced several special awards:
- Family prizes for top boats with four or more crewmembers from the same family.
- Regional prizes for the top boat from these regions: Chesapeake Bay, Deep South, Great Lakes, West Coast, and Canada. Prizes are also presented to the top Bermuda boat and the top boat hailing from outside North America.
- Youth entry prize for the top boat with a majority of the crew between the ages of 14 and 23, among other qualifications.
- A prize for the top boat in the Cruiser Division sailing with a crew of four.
- Prizes for boats with the best combined performance in the Newport Bermuda Race and the following races: Marblehead to Halifax, Marion to Bermuda, and Annapolis to Newport.
Trophies and other prizes (more than 100 in all) are presented by Bermuda’s Governor at a ceremony at Government House, overlooking Bermuda.
The Bermuda Race Roll of Honour recognizes the contributions of sailors to the race’s stature and long history. Honorees are Thomas Fleming Day, race founder in 1906; Clarence Kozlay and Robert Somerset, who together saved the lives of ten sailors from a burning boat in the 1932 Bermuda Race; Sir Eldon Trimingham, who revived the race and represented the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club for many years; Carleton Mitchell, three-time race winner 1956-60; George Coumantaros, skipper with the most elapsed time victories and sailor in 26 Bermuda Races; Olin J. Stephens II, designer of many Bermuda Race winners and a longtime race advisor; Bermudian Warren A.H. Brown, who sailed in 20 Bermuda Races and voyaged to the corners of the seas; E. Llwyd Ecclestone, Jr. who won the St. David’s Lighthouse Division in 1998 while sailing 23 races through 2018; and Richard S. Nye, who sailed many races aboard his yachts named Carina and was a two-time winner (1952 and 1970).
First Bermuda Race, May 1906, Brooklyn to Bermuda. There were three starters between 28 and 40 feet in length. The winner of the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy was Tamerlane, 38-foot yawl owned by Franklin Maier, skippered by Thomas Fleming Day.
Bermuda Race progeny: The race inspired the Fastnet Race in England, the Port-Huron to Mackinac Race on the Great Lakes, and the Off Soundings Club (among others).
Accidents: Boats lost: two (Adriana, fire 1932; Elda, grounding 1956). Lives lost, one (in the fire).
- Largest, 112 feet: Kawil, 2018
- Smallest, 28 feet, Gauntlet, 1906
- First built for the race, Zena (Bermuda), 1907
- First race winner with Marconi rig, Memory, 1924
- Last race winner with gaff rig, Malabar X, 1934
Fastest race: Comanche, 34 hrs., 42 min., 53 sec. (ave. 18.3 knots), 2016
Slowest race: Venturer, 121:13:12 (ave. 5.2 knots), 1960
Largest winner: Margaret, 93 feet, 1909; (modern) Boomerang, 80 feet, 1996
Smallest winner: Burgoo, 37 feet, 1964
Most victories, skipper—
- 3 (tie)— John Alden in three Malabars (1923, 1926, 1932), and Carleton Mitchell in Finisterre (1956, 1958, 1960)
- 2 (tie)— Robert N. Bavier Sr., Memory (1924) and Edlu (1934); Richard S. Nye, Carina (1952, 1970); Peter Rebovich, Sinn Fein (St. David’s Lighthouse Division 2006, 2008); Rives Potts, Carina (St. David’s Lighthouse Division, 2010, 2012)
Most victories, boat—
- 3—Finisterre (1956, 1958, 1960), Carina (1970, and St. David’s Lighthouse Division, 2010, 2012)
- 2 (tie)—Baruna (1938, 1948) and Sinn Fein, Peter Rebovich (2006, 2008)
- 3—Finisterre (1956, 1958, 1960)
- 2—Sinn Fein(2006, 2008), Carina (2010, 2012)
Non-U.S. winner: Noryema, U.K., 1972
Freshwater winner: Scaramouche, Chuck Kirsch (Sturgis, Mich.), 1974
Most first to finishes, skipper: 4, George Coumantaros in two Boomerangs (1984, 1990, 1992, 1996).
Most first-to-finishes, boat: 3 (tie): Baruna, (1936, 1946, 1948), Bolero (1950, 1954, 1956), Boomerang (1984, 1990, 1992).
Most wins by a yacht designer: Olin Stephens, 14 (1934-1994)
Winning skippers who also won America’s Cups – Harold S. Vanderbilt, Ted Hood
Most races by a sailor:
- 30—Jim Mertz, (every race except two, 1936-2004)
- 26—George Coumantaros
- 24— Edward Greeff and Edwin Gaynor
Most races by a boat under one owner:
- 16, Emily—Edwin Gaynor (1978-2008)
- 15, Prim—Gibbons-Neff family (1954-82, 2008)
Most races by a boat:
- 21, Carina – Richard S. Nye and Rives Potts (1970-2014)
- First, Thora Lund Robinson, Gauntlet, 1906 (the first race)
- First woman skipper, Queene Hooper Foster, Sephedra, 1986
- Highest placing woman skipper, Sheila McCurdy, Selkie, 2nd, 1994 and 2008
Oldest winning skippers:
- 74—DeCoursey Fales, Niña, 1962
- 72— George Coumantaros (1996) and Peter Rebovich (2008)
Youngest winning skipper: Kyle Weaver, Constellation, 1992 (22)