For nearly 110 years, Bermuda Races have started at several American ports. But they all finish at the friendly archipelago that nature and God located 635 miles off the U.S. coast, just enough east of south so the typical race isn’t a long slog, dead to windward.
Discovered in 1515 by Juan de Bermudez and settled a century later, Bermuda has thrived on shipping, privateering,fishing, the Royal Navy, tourism. Always there was sailing. The quickest way to get people and goods around was in boats and ships sailing under the distinctive Bermuda rig, with its three-sided mainsail long predating the Marconi rig.
This little-known quirk of naval architecture explains a comment by Dr. Edward Harris, Director of the National Museum of Bermuda: “As we Bermudians at St. David’s Lighthouse observe the Bermuda Race boats coming over the horizon to make their landfall, it may feel like we are seeing returning relatives, all decked out in fine variant liveries of the Bermuda rig.” The three-master Spirit of Bermuda, a regular Bermuda Race entry, carries this rig, as do fitted dinghies raced by islanders.
With their cloud of sail and local racing rules, fitted dinghies have nurtured some very fine sailors. One of them was Shorty Trimingham, who represented Bermuda in the Olympics and Admiral’s Cup and exclaimed, “I was very lucky to be born right here in the lap of sailboat racing, Thank God I was born in a yachting family!”
One of the oldest sailing organizations in the Western Hemisphere, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club was founded in 1844 and held its first international race just five years later, when a schooner called Brenda came down from Boston and raced a local sloop called Pearl. RBYC has finished and helped run Bermuda Races from the first one in 1906 to the upcoming 50th “Thrash to the Onion Patch” in 2016.
The club is famous for the hospitality it offers visitors. After finishing off St. David’s Head, crews make their way through Two-Rock Passage to Hamilton’s anchorage and marinas. Once the boat is put away with a proper harbor furl, everybody heads in one direction. One sailor described it this way: “We made tracks for the Yacht Club. And now, at last, with one foot on the rail of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club bar, we might truly be said to have reached our goal.” Part of the goal is to engage in lengthy seminars about how the race was won (or, more often, lost). Each race has its own lively community, meeting wherever and whenever it can.
Harsh weather adds spice to Bermuda’s welcome. Former RBYC Commodore Kirk Cooper recalled how, three nights into the 1972 race, “The race committee chairman woke me up and said there were three dismasted boats (one of them a Bermuda boat), that Windward Passage was down to storm trysail and storm jib, and that a Royal Navy cruiser was reporting they had lines over the side. I decided I should go over to the finish line, and there I found a police commissioner who was hot as a mackerel, which in Bermuda means he was extremely angry.”
As the 1972 sailors peered through the storm in hopes of spotting Gibbs Hill or St. David’s lights, at RBYC their families and friends worried whether the boats would survive. When an anxious woman insisted that she be told (right now!) the location of the boat her husband was racing, RBYC’s thoughtful manager, Tony Marsh, peered out a window in the general direction of St. David’s Head, 15 miles away, and calmed her with the assurance that he clearly saw the boat’s running lights.
There were two joys in that year of the race’s worst weather. No boat was lost (in fact, only one has sunk on the reef in the race’s history), and the overall victor was an English entry, Noryema, the only non-US yacht to win the race. Her success was celebrated across Bermuda. Recalled skipper Teddy Hicks, “We got a tremendous reception from the locals as Bermuda was then still an outpost of the British Empire, and to have a Brit boat win the trophy was feted by all and sundry, with endless invitations to parties in the following few days.”
Bermuda’s warmth continues long after the last boat is in. On Friday, many boats race in the RBYC Anniversary Regatta, the last event of the Onion Patch Series that begins back in Newport and includes the Bermuda Race.
On the Saturday following the finish, Bermuda and the sailors celebrate in the Prizegiving at Government House, with its shining trophies and a hilltop view that has been described this way: “Gorgeous aquamarine water, crystal clear, still as a mill pond. Tiny houses, glaring white against green hills. Hanging over all, the now familiar look of fat clouds, ivory colored in the setting sun. Above, a sky of limitless blue.”
Come Sunday, most boats head back home—but only after the sailors take a moment to wander back into the embrace of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club for one last taste of Bermuda hospitality.
This article and the others in the “Looking Back” series are based on the centennial history of the Bermuda Race, A Berth to Bermuda, written by John Rousmaniere. The book was published by Mystic Seaport and the Cruising Club of America (the race’s co-organizer with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club since 1926). It is available wherever books are sold.