Skipper Peter Holmes explains how the race is so much more than the five days spent at sea between Newport and Bermuda.
Much has been written about the 112-year-old, biennial Bermuda Race, more familiarly known as the Thrash to the Onion Patch. Having recently completed my fourth race to Bermuda in seven years, I was asked by the editor of our newsletter at the New Bedford Yacht Club to share a few thoughts and observations from my experiences. I’m happy to share them as well with the larger audience of Newport Bermuda Race fans, competitors and would-be competitors.
Conventional wisdom holds that the 635-mile race consists of three components. First is the race along the continental shelf, with cool water temperatures in the 60s; then on to the Gulf Stream, with weather all its own and 80-degree water; and then on to the finish at St. David’s Lighthouse in Bermuda.
Aboard my 38-foot Calusa, however, the race is an event with four distinct components. Leave out any one of them and you haven’t really experienced the whole adventure.
The first part is preparing your first-time boat to meet the rigorous safety and inspection requirements, for which I recommend allowing three months to prepare. For a stock boat like my Sabre 386, that included installing new items such as back-up manual bilge pumps, AIS electronics, and specially designed hatch boards. Much credit at this stage lies with Concordia Boatyard, in South Darmouth, Mass., and to Joe Mello who saved the day with a custom-built bracket to house the life raft. Without his solution, I would have been denied entry to the race.
The final inspection is carried out just before the race by veteran members of the Cruising Club of America. The checklist takes over two hours to move through and contains over 100 items, ranging from hull and construction guidelines to safety equipment to Survival at Sea training skills. Inspectors are there to ensure your boat is fully prepared to go.
Assembling a crew is only one of several critical pre-race preparations, along with provisioning, onboard training, race strategy, weather forecasts, and the latest charts noting the Gulf Stream’s meanders and eddies.
For my first Newport Bermuda Race, in 2012, I opted for a crew that combined youth with experience. Tom Peelen, Peter Driscoll—who had eight previous races under his belt—and I provided the experience, and Jake Peelen and a high school chum brought the youth. For the cooking duties I had the good luck to meet up with Peter McCarthy, the owner and chef of the successful Cambridge restaurant EVOO. Not only did Peter bring a deft touch to the helm, he also provided delicious entrees for all five nights at sea. This year may have been the best, as it featured fresh sockeye salmon, beef stroganoff, chicken curry, and seafood gumbo. No freeze-dried dinners aboard Calusa!
Murphy’s Law will always be there, no matter how thorough the preparation. Just before this year’s start, a crewmember was bending on a light-air jib when I heard, “Skipper, you’d better come have a look at this!” There, gaping along the leech, was an 18-inch hole courtesy of my basement mice. I can only blame my Maine Coon cat, Lucius, for dereliction of duties. A frantic patch job involving maximum strength duct tape, and we were off.
The second component is the race itself. Finally, we’re in the midst of the fleet for the start off Castle Hill in Newport. What a glorious sight! Last year, there were 170 entries compete across seven divisions in boats ranging from multihull to double-handed, with a mix of professional and Corinthian sailors aboard. Calusa was the tenth smallest boat in the entire fleet, and finished 23rd out of the 39 boats sailing in the Finisterre Division.
As always, this year’s race included the pure exhilaration of a hard reach in a strong breeze approaching Bermuda and maddening lulls that saw us throw potato chips overboard to check if the boat was moving. But the greatest joy for me was night sailing with phosphorescence streaming off our stern wake in the blue Atlantic, when the speed of the boat was heightened and a pod of dolphins came up alongside. With the constellations in full view thanks to a new moon, we passed the night pointing out Mars and Venus with our celestial maps.
Many consider the best part of the race to be the third component, the wonderful days after arriving in Bermuda, where the fleet is the toast of the town. Pennants flying in every direction, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club is a nonstop party, with hundreds of joyful sailors happy to be on dry land.
This is also a time to reconnect with fellow New Bedford Yacht Club members and friends. After Kinship’s great finish in 2016, Tom and Carolyn Selldorff hosted a tidal wave of NBYC members at their Mid Ocean Club headquarters for several days. Another year, Art Burke’s Shindig finished a full day earlier than we did, and the crew were waiting at 9 a.m. to welcome us at the dock with a tray of Dark ‘n’ Stormies! Not to be missed, of course, is the Prize Ceremony at Government House, when everyone gathers together for the year’s awards to be presented.
The fourth and final component of the Bermuda Race is the return to Padanaram, Mass. New crewmembers, new forecasts, and for some, their first blue water experience. When the wind drops, on goes the iron genny. No sail changes at night in rain squalls, and the pressure is off when it comes to looking for puffs and clouds that beckon with better winds. US Customs is there to greet us at the Yacht Club dock.
I write this report not to sing either Calusa’s or my own praises, but to exert a subtle nudge to that sailor at my club or another who might be thinking of giving the Bermuda Race a shot. You’ll never get to know or appreciate your boat better, nor come away with as many fond memories and friendships. John Pinheiro, whose encouragement and wise counsel has been invaluable, told me at the beginning, ”Pete, when you cross the finish line off Bermuda, you’ve won the cake. Anything more are crumbs.”
This article first appeared in the New Bedford Yacht Club’s Scuttlebutt newsletter. For more on sailing the Newport Bermuda Race, see the Competitor’s Guide.