Looking Back: The Bermuda Race’s freshwater connection

November 24, 2015

By John Rousmaniere

“It is not the salt in the water that makes sailors.” What was said of a talented crew of Great Lakes sailors who raced to Bermuda many years ago can be repeated about the many other Midwest sailors who have been sailing the race since its early days.

A long way from her home waters on the Great Lakes, Chris Van Tol's Eliminator leaves North America in her wake after the start of the 2014 Newport Bermuda Race. She won the new Regional Prize for Great Lakes entries. (PPL)
A long way from her fresh home waters, Eliminator leaves Newport in her wake in the 2014 Newport Bermuda Race. (PPL)

When Chris Van Tol, captain of the Bayview Yacht Club yacht Eliminator, won the inaugural Newport Bermuda Race Regional Prize for best performance by a Great Lakes boat in 2014, he was only the most recent Midwest sailor to undertake the Thrash to the Onion Patch. The pioneers sailed in the 1907 race. Sixteen Lakes boats competed in the three most recent, in 2010-14. (Other Regional Prizes are awarded the top boats from Chesapeake Bay, the West Coast, the Deep South, and Canada.)

The freshwater connection was made in the second Bermuda Race when a crew from Rochester (N.Y.) Yacht Club commanded by Philip Manson chartered a Gloucester schooner. (That also was the debut year of Bermudian sailors in the race.) In 1910 Demarest Lloyd, who had Chicago newspaper roots, raced the schooner Shiyessa with Mrs. Lloyd, the race's second woman sailor, in the afterguard.

Midwest sailors came east again in 1924, seven of them from Detroit’s Bayview Yacht Club, with Dr. William Wilson as captain. They chartered the schooner Lloyd W. Berry, and with race chairman Herbert L. Stone (editor of Yachting magazine and past Commodore of the Cruising Club of America) as navigator, proceeded to win the division for fishing schooners and ketches.  The trophy, awarded by an American newspaper, came back with them to Detroit. The enthusiastic converts to long-distance racing quickly founded the Bayview-Mackinac Race, the second of the Great Lakes’ demanding, lake-length events. Here's another Lakes-Bermuda Race connection: a key figure in the development of the Cruising Club of America Racing Rule, which was used in those and most other American handicap races until 1970, was a Chicago man, Wells Lippincott.

BYC CUP USEFor many years the Lloyd W. Berry trophy (right) was awarded in the Bayview-Mac. Today the trophy is displayed in the BYC clubhouse in Detroit under the care of club historian Brian Shenstone. He also curates the 1924 Berry crew’s log, which includes a long poem about the often rough race and a happy landfall. At the end came a report of a celebratory visit to some hospitable Front Street establishments (below).

The log of the Berry includes this report familiar to most Bermuda Race sailors.
The log of the Berry includes a report of a "tight" crew party that should not shock modern-day sailors.

Sailing’s “Unknown Factor”

Bonded by history, the Bermuda and Mackinac races have long attracted sailors looking for a double-header. After the Lakes sloop Baccarat won silver in the 1934 Bermuda Race, owner Russell A. Alger, Jr. went home and won the same year's Port Huron-Mac.  Great Lakes sailors continued to race across salt water. Clayton Ewing, from Green Bay, Wisc., had a series of yawls named Dyna. In a famous feat of seamanship during the 1963 transatlantic race, he and his crew sailed that Dyna half-way across the Atlantic Ocean after her rudder broke off, and they won a prize.

Clayton Ewing in Dyna as she sails rudderless in giant seas in the 1963 transatlantic race. (Stephen Van Dyke)
Clayton Ewing in Dyna as she sails rudderless in giant seas in the 1963 transatlantic race. (Stephen Van Dyke)

The winning navigator in four Bermuda Races (a record) lived far from salt water, in Buffalo, N.Y. “These are days of specialists,” Chick Larkin advised ambitious sailors in his memoir, Between Cut Water and Wake. “Don’t be the fair-haired boy with the eight-blade jackknife in his pocket.”  And, he added, don’t be too quick to believe that navigators deal only with numbers and certainties. “They are supposed to be scientists whose two-times-two is four. In navigation two-times-two is seldom four. Sailing produces an unknown plus or minus factor especially for 8-knoters 8 feet above the sea. Ask any man who has been there.”

Originally from Chicago and named Dora IV, Tenacious won the 1979 Fastnet race under Ted Turner. As War Baby. under Warren Brown, she voyaged to the corners of the globe. She raced often to Bermuda. (PPL)
Originally from Chicago and named Dora IV, Tenacious won the 1979 Fastnet Race under Ted Turner. Later, as War Baby under the Bermudian sailor Warren Brown, this great and famous Sparkman & Stephens 61-footer voyaged the globe. (PPL)

In the 1974 Bermuda Race, with 166 entries and hard breezes, Midwesterners cleaned up. Chicagoan Lynn Williams, who first raced to Bermuda in 1928 in an old Alden schooner, won Class A in his Dora IV over Frank Zurn’s Kahili II, from Erie, Penn. Williams, a leading figure in Midwest yachting and the Cruising Club of America, sold Dora to Ted Turner, who renamed her Tenacious. She was later Warren Brown’s War Baby. Class B was also led by Lakes boats: Jesse Philips’s Charisma from Ohio, Joseph Wright’s Chicago-based Siren Song, and (the overall race winner) Chuck Kirsch’s Scaramouche, from Michigan.

Eliminator and the Whales

Making his preparations for the 2014 Newport Bermuda Race, BYC member Chris Van Tol had a warm welcome from the Bermuda Race Organizing Committee when he applied to enter Eliminator (a restored C&C 35 Mk II). “We were fortunate enough to have the Newport safety inspector fly to BYC for the pre-race inspection,” watch captain Paul Van Tol reported. “While Bayview's Mackinac safety requirements are rigorous, the Newport Bermuda requirements are certainly more so, and we were pleased that the inspection and approval proceeded smoothly. Three weeks after we had launched at BYC, the boat was on a truck and headed to Newport."

The race finished, the boat and sailors cleaned up, Eliminator's crew reviews the past few days on the lovely sail from St. David's Light to Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.
The race finished, the boat and sailors cleaned up, Eliminator's crew reviews the past few days during the sail in from St. David's Light.

Paul van Tol continued: “Our Newport Bermuda Race featured, for the most part, beautiful weather and good sailing conditions.  The winds approached 20-plus knots for only one 12-hour period, with large swells of up to 12 feet, but we otherwise enjoyed clear skies and decent winds. Pilot whales that swam under the boat, breaching whales and dolphins that left grey phosphorescent trails along our bow, were an added bonus to our journey. It is said that the Newport race sails from a beautiful place to an even more beautiful place, and that was certainly true for Bermuda.

"We appreciated the post-race camaraderie of the sailors as well as our RBYC hosts upon arrival.”

Of course, it did not hurt that these freshwater yachtsmen (like their predecessors) were real sailors.

For more about the Newport Bermuda Race, click on this brief description, the race website,, or the guide to entry



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