With the 50th Bermuda Race coming up in 2016, we’re gathering stories of past “Thrashes to the Onion Patch.” Here we go back to the first race, when the idea of amateur sailors going to sea in normal boats was widely considered insane.
“Deep sea racing was inevitable. It simply had to come.” So announced Bermuda Race founder Thomas Fleming Day soon before the first start, on May 26, 1906, off Brooklyn, N.Y.
Three boats with 15 sailors beat into a stiff south wind, headed to Bermuda. One boat withdrew due to damage, but the other two crossed the finish line, the 38-foot yawl Tamerlane and the 28-foot sloop Gauntlet. In their wake lay 700 miles of rough water and an even rougher controversy about the race itself. At that time in America, ocean racing was a sport for huge boats and professional sailors. A year earlier, 11 big schooners (their average length was more than 160 feet) had raced from New York to England. Tom Day said it didn’t always have to be this way. He made the first Bermuda Race a test of the revolutionary notion that the ocean is a playground for amateurs in normal boats.
Here are some of the blasts fired by this radical visionary from his editor’s chair at The Rudder magazine: “The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant.” “A noble art makes noble men, and there is no nobler art than seamanship.” “Small vessels are safer than large, providing they are properly designed, strongly built, thoroughly equipped, and skillfully manned.” Day had harsh words for his critics: “carpet admirals,” “shore-skulkers, Central Park sailors, weaklings, and degenerates,” “gray-headed, rum-soaked piazza yachtsmen,” and “miserable old hulks who spend their days swigging booze on the front steps of a clubhouse.”
A sailor who knew Day well described him this way: “Some thought him foolish, others downright crazy. But, despite the doleful howls and lugubrious prophecies, Skipper Day persisted. He knew that small craft, if properly designed, built, and handled, were just as safe at sea as large ones. So he preached, prayed, and cajoled and cussed a lot; organized his race, and ran it to a successful conclusion, without damage or loss of a boat, or harm to an individual.”
Day once said that “sailors wanted to get a smell of the sea and forget for the time-being that there is such a thing as God’s green earth in the universe.” Himself one of those escaping landsmen, he sailed in that first race as skipper of Tamerlane, whose crew, he said, consisted of “a telegrapher, an artist, an artisan, a gentleman-of-leisure, a school boy, and an editor.”
Sailing in the other finisher, Gauntlet, was Thora Lund Robinson. Before the race she had been patronized as a lady “of the petite, frail type.” That description was not at all accurate. She stood watches and was at the helm at the finish.
After reaching Bermuda, she and the other sailors were wined, dined, and presented with trophies at the first of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club’s many Bermuda Race prize ceremonies.
Then it came time to sail home, and (as often happens) the return passage was more demanding than the race itself. One of the Tamerlane crew recalled, “By 6 a.m. we were clear of the Gulf Stream, which place, I am under the impression, might be improved upon.” He added, “I really enjoyed it, only I thought it would be kind of nice to be dry again for a change.”
Tom Day noted the discomforts, but what he remembered best was the romance that comes when a sailor smells the sea. Here is his vivid description of a magical night of phosphorescence:
“The bow waves broke away on either side a mass of fire just as if her stem was a plough being driven through a field of glowing sparks. The red and green side lights showed like the eyes of a dragon, the spray, like the breath from the monster’s nostrils, coloring as it drifted across the path of the beams. Except for the sound of the bow treading down the overtaken wave, nothing was audible save a faint rustle of the canvas—the song of the wind-satisfied sail.”
Day went on: “Boys, I wish you had been with me that night. Such a night as puts into your being that life-love, that affection, nay, passion, for existence, that gives to earth an enchantment so that all things assume an aspect of immutability, when the soul in its longing to share cries out in ecstasy, ‘Let me live forever!’”
Below: Tamerlane in the Gulf Stream, by crewmember Warren Sheppard.
The history of the race through 2004 is told in the book A Berth to Bermuda, published by the Cruising Club of America and Mystic Seaport, written by John Rousmaniere, and available online and from the Seaport’s Maritime Bookstore.
Submit your Bermuda Race memories: Media@BermudaRace.com.