Looking Back: Navigating the wildest thrash

September 30, 2015

By John Rousmaniere

Clip on your safety harness and check out this on-deck account (by Andy Macdonald) of a West Coast crew in the roughest-ever Newport Bermuda Race, in 1972. A response to our post Looking Back: A navigator's race, Andy's story first ran in Scuttlebutt.   

Kudos to John Rousmaniere for highlighting the navigators’ previously problematic non-electronic search for the Onion Patch.  And, by extension, his saluting the many good and dedicated Navigators who have (mostly) blessed and protected the sailing community with their sextants over the five Oceans and the many Seas.  John spotlights that pre-SatNav special breed of scientists, “docteurs,” philosophers, and alchemists who always hoped they were delivering “gold” latitude and longitude, when sometimes all they had to work with was lead.

Before the current era of Stan Honey’s reign of navigational preeminence began, E. Ben Mitchell was the go-to, best-of-class navigator in all things offshore for 15 or 20 years of our sport. “Big Ben” (a distinction from his son “Benny,” who continues to be a world-class sailor) had been there with notable successes in TransPacs, the SORC, races to Mexico, European/British races, etc., etc.

the 55-footer Dyna in the 1972 race. (John Rousmaniere photos)
Snapshots of the 1972 race storm in the 55-foot Dyna. (Rousmaniere photos)

E. Ben navigated the C&C 61 Robon III (Newport Beach, Cal.) in the breeze-on 1972 Newport Bermuda Race--the race that changed everything for the navigator, the last “pure” race, and (with 178 starters) the largest Bermuda Race up to then.  Robon had been commissioned on Lake Ontario by C&C just 17 days before the race start. This was the shakedown for the 61-footer.

Ben got his last clean sight 24 hours after the start before the storm blew in. There followed two blind days of reading Braille.

He insistently and maniacally updated the DR every half hour (between 20-minute catnaps at “his” table), and he took faux shots with his bubble sextant of blurred shimmers of partial lumens through clouds or darkness without a horizon--all that auspiciously guided Robon toward a suggested approximation of where the sharp-edged bricks of Bermuda might be sleeping.

Dyna - CopyIn the last few hours, Robon squeezed upwind of her larger competitor Blackfin’s track just as the final immense darkness set in and Windward Passage, another bigger boat, sagged well to leeward under hanks-challenging conditions.

Robon’s skipper, Bob Grant, religiously stuck his head up through the main hatch in 50++ knots on the nose, and admonished the haggard helmsman, “lay her off” at the tops of 20- to 30-foot boomers in the drenched darkness--his owner’s prayer being to maintain the new mast in its pro forma upright mode.  The hatch would then slide/slam shut sometimes before (or sometimes just after) the next big blue phosphorescent monster rumbled down the deck.

On the other side of this patient colloquy, E. Ben would then stick his head up through the same constantly threatened hatch and shout against the torrent:  “If you lay it off, we won’t lay the island.”  (How did he know that?)

DynaBow 72In total dark-out and, now, 70+ knots of breeze (84 knots was reported by Cy Gillette on the big Ondine, an hour to the northeast) and horizontal rain (same speed, ouch!), Ben’s final heroics were to guide Robon (with no electronics except a depth sounder) to find the NE Buoy light in otherwise absolute darkness, then the SE Buoy light (same), and then the finish off St. David’s Head (same darkness, more breeze).

First to finish!  All hail, Ben!


The photo below shows us after the finish, waving the California banner as we near St. George's wharf. Bob Grant is at the wheel. E. Ben, on his left, is still calling the shots.

A weary Robon pulls into St. George's. Navigator Ben Mitchell is second from right. (Bermuda News Bureau)




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