Gulf Stream Society: A Rare Group, A Singular Mission

June 13, 2024

By Elaine Lembo

Why do they keep doing it?

One guess is that somebody forgot to hit the reset button on the bucket list. The 300-plus sailors who are members of the Gulf Stream Society—whose sole prerequisite is completion of at least five Newport to Bermuda ocean races—stay stuck on this 635-mile feat, an event many consider the greatest ocean race of all.  

But “stuck” doesn’t do justice to these most fulfilled of repeat offenders.

“I just love this race,” says 77- year-old John Browning. “I love doing it, I love the whole idea of sailing offshore to Bermuda, I love the Gulf Stream. It’s the best ocean race there is.”

With this year’s running, Browning’s streak will reach 28, making him the top finisher aside from the late Jim Mertz, whose record of 30 races—he was 92 years old for his last one in 2004—span the years from 1936 to 2004, hurtling past the event’s hiatus during World War II.  Browning’s ride in 2024 is aboard the 54-foot Baltic Masquerade, owned by offshore skipper Andrew Burton, himself a fellow Gulf Stream Society veteran, with the required five in his wake. 

Playing pickleball, exercising with the rowing machine, skiing, competing in beer can racing and other shorter events keeps Browning in shape; more challenging and less clear is to cull through the years and decide which race was the most memorable. 

“There’ve been so many and they're all different—that's one of the beauties of this race,” he says. “The nicest race might just have been the last one, the 2022 race. It was a run the whole way, which is most unusual; the ‘74 race was nice because we had a nice southwest the whole way and never tacked. It was the ‘78 race where we had a wonderful run, full moon, full spinnaker. There are also ugly races, like the ‘76 race that took us until Friday—a week on a 39-foot boat, and I was the cook.”

One thing’s certain. “I don't do this race just to beat Jim Mertz’s record,” he says. “If I do, great; if I don't, so be it. I knew Jim, we used to stay at his house during Larchmont Race Week many years ago. I’m flattered to have one of the two 25-year pins the Society gives out.  They should strike the 30-year pin and give it to Allegra Mertz, in memory of her dad. His 30 races are quite an accomplishment.”

Not far behind Browning and his friend Richard du Moulin (at 26, going for 27) is John Winder Jr., who’s done 23. Newport Bermuda remains significant for personal reasons. His parents, Frank and Mary Winder, did 10 races together, three of them in the 1960s aboard Arabella, their Phil Rhodes-designed 46-foot ketch. John and siblings joined them for seven races starting in 1970 aboard the 48-foot Katrinka, a Bill Tripp-designed cruiser/racer.

“That was a family affair, with all the kids aboard as well as several other good friends,” he says. “I was the youngest member of the crew at 18.”

Onboard family experiences ranged from serious to hilarious. “In one of the races, my oldest brother had a tray of Sara Lee brownies on deck after dinner and the spinnaker and brownies were bagged down the hatch,” he says. “The next time the spinnaker was set, the brownies showed up on the sail, all over the place.”

After the Katrinka era ended, Winder continued racing, shifting his focus to training the next generation. Among his roles was 1996 watch captain aboard the David Pedrick-designed Nirvana with six American and six Bermudian youth. In 2014, he coached aboard Temptress, a Taylor 41 with cadets from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. In 2018, Winder was senior coach aboard the Swan 48 Dreamcatcher for the MudRatz youth sailing program in Stonington, Connecticut. 

Winder is a member of the Cruising Club of America, as are many of the highest ranking in the Gulf Stream Society. “I just do it because I love it and the preparation is a rite of passage every two years,” he says. “It's a way of life.”

John III, John Jr, Colette, Erik, and Ian Storck

Another contender whose entire family is deeply entrenched in the race and the sport overall is John Storck Jr., who will sail his 21st race in 2024 aboard Blitzen, a J/130 he bought in 2021 after 50 years of owning and competing aboard Jonrob, an Ericson 39. Named “sailing family of the year” in 2010 by Sailing Scuttlebutt, the winning credentials of Storck and wife Colette’s four children—aside from Storck and Colette’s own multiple racing accomplishments—are lengthy, ranging from collegiate All America team and Melges 15 Nationals to the U.S. Olympic and Youth America’s Cup teams.

Doing the race “is a nice family adventure,” he says. “Winning often results from careful preparation, attention to details, and situational awareness, good skills for life in general. I am blessed with a family who shares in these values. When I’m aboard, I always navigate and enjoy the challenge. I have seen the race go from sextant and RDF to where we are now with Expedition navigation software.”

Like any other event steeped in tradition, Newport Bermuda is also about breaking new ground. 

Sheila McCurdy’s first of 18 races took place aboard a 47-foot McCurdy & Rhodes ketch owned by Bill Rothschild, a friend of her father, James McCurdy, who completed 20 races. “It was 1976 and I had sailed transatlantic three times and raced a Fastnet Race, but 22-year-old women were not supposed to be interested in offshore sailing or qualified to be deck crew, so getting on boats was hard,” she recalls. “It was an exceptionally slow race. We finished Friday afternoon, and the meals were getting interesting as supplies dwindled.”

Sheila and Morgan

Sheila and her father raced on different boats to Bermuda until he built the 38-foot Selkie in 1986; she navigated for him with her two brothers as crew until 1992, when her father retired from racing and asked her to skipper the boat.

That set the stage for what Sheila says is her most memorable race, in 1994.

“I was skippering my second race (eighth since 1976) with my brothers and my fiancé on the crew of seven—that was memorable enough,” she says. “The Cruising Club of America had admitted women members for the first time a few weeks before the race; I was among the first three. The course conditions favored the smaller boats, which carried breeze most of the way to Bermuda, while big boats got out ahead and suffered in light air.

“It was before boat tracking so we did not know where anyone was. There was a big calm about 60 miles from the finish that we wiggled out of and then found ourselves finishing with much bigger boats. We corrected to second in class and second overall. The boat that beat us was skippered by the commodore of the CCA, and I was credited with being a proper new member. Our finish left my father speechless, having finished better than he ever had. The bittersweet coda is that Dad died suddenly about six weeks later.”

Despite the personal tragedy, the enduring qualities that keep Sheila returning to the starting line, as she will in 2024 aboard Selkie, include many factors, natural and man-made.

“Each race is different: weather, sea conditions, wind, current, competition, and crew interactions,” she says. “It’s like using the same musical notes with different instruments to create very different riffs each time out. Sometimes it works better than others. Bermuda is an all-time great destination, and after many years, the gathering of sailors at the RBYC feels like a reunion of friends. Then I get to sail home with cruising friends and introduce some new young sailors to the offshore world. What is not to like?”

Jim Mertz, 30 Races in His Wake

A lifetime devotion to the sea is what secured Jim in Bermuda Race history, but there were
other reasons the former U.S. Navy officer and longtime American Yacht Club member to rack
up his prodigious record of 30 races.

Asked about her father last winter, Allegra Mertz Torrey, said, “He loved to race, also did
transatlantics, and he was on the winning boat in 1950—Argyll, a 47-foot S&S yawl owned by
William T. Moore, owner of Moore-McCormack shipping lines. That was the most
memorable—it was the overall winner. In those days they didn’t have divisions. He was the
watch captain.”

At age 25, Mertz sailed his first Bermuda Race aboard Jane Dore, an 81-foot William Hand
schooner owned by Hobart Ford. His last race, at 92, was in 2004 aboard Allegra, his 42-foot
Beneteau aboard which he completed six races. Along the way, he also sailed seven Marion
Bermuda Races. Mertz died in January 2006.

“My father was quiet and understated,” Allegra said. “He was a mild-mannered man of
character and kindness. He would never draw attention to himself.”

She added, “My father made it possible for a lot of people to go on the ocean and to race to
Bermuda for their first time. He was a fabulous seaman and captain and shipmate. That was a
very good thing, because those opportunities are few and far between.”

Records are meant to be broken, and a close heat exists between racing sailors and Mertz
family friends John Browning and Richard du Moulin. This year’s race is Browning’s 28 th and du
Moulin’s 27 th .

None of this came as a surprise to Allegra, who passed away in April before this year’s race.
She, Browning, and du Moulin hailed from the same neck of the woods, Cow Neck Peninsula on
Long Island. “We’d known all along it would be one of those two,” Allegra said. “For a while
they were tied. We’ve all talked about the record over the years—even Jim talked about. We’re
happy that they’re doing it. It’s a very happy, positive thing.”

Jim Mertz

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