US Naval Academy participation in the Bermuda Race extends back 84 years
By Les Spanheimer, Executive Director, Naval Academy Sailing Foundation
When the R/P 66 Kodiak and the J/133 Wasp cross the starting line and aim southeast today, it will continue a tradition of the US Naval Academy‘s midshipmen participating in the Bermuda Race that began in 1938. That year, the newly commissioned ensigns arrived at the starting line off Newport on June 21 onboard the ketch Vamarie, donated to the Secretary of the Navy by Vadim S. Makaroff.
Legend has it that the Academy’s entry was the result of a hard-fought campaign to convince the Commandant of Midshipmen that it was a suitable endeavor for the young men under his charge. That campaign would ultimately enlist several Admirals, the Annapolis Yacht Club, the Cruising Club of America, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, the Secretary of the Navy and James Roosevelt, son of the 32nd President of the United States. The campaign culminated in an article in Yachting magazine entitled “Vamarie—Will She—Won’t She?” Luckily, the high-pressure campaign was successful, and the midshipmen have been on the starting line ever since. Many of the crew of Vamarie would soon be at war and the experience of racing to Bermuda in 1938 was certainly their capstone course in seamanship, navigation, and shiphandling.
That early entry would not have been possible without the generous donation of Vamarie. The US Navy continued to accept yacht donations until 1973, when the Naval Academy Sailing Foundation was established to accept all future donations to the Academy on behalf of the US Navy. Since that date nearly 200 vessels have been donated to the Sailing Foundation for Naval Academy Midshipmen use.
It wasn’t until 1992 that Ensign Kyle Weaver would claim the ultimate prize and win the St David’s Lighthouse Trophy in what still stands as the youngest skipper (age 22) to do so. Like the crew of Vamarie before him, Kyle Weaver would also see combat, in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Southern Watch, flying an F/A Hornet fighter aircraft. His race on the Swan 48 Constellation, donated 20 years prior by Naval Academy graduate Captain Tad Stanwick, was noted for its meticulous preparation of the boat, training of the crew, management of the watch team, navigation, and race strategy. The best preparation possible for a Naval Officer. A former Commandant of Midshipmen would describe this as his “best leadership laboratory.”
Today, midshipman participation in the Bermuda Race is a central experience for the crews of the Offshore Sailing Team, and it remains the best experiential leadership training at the US Naval Academy, an institution dedicated to training our nation’s finest leaders.
Midshipmen begin a new era this year onboard a boat with a great Bermuda Race pedigree. In 2020, in the wake of the COVID-impacted cancellation of the race, E. Llwyd Ecclestone, Jr. donated his Reichel/Pugh 66 Kodiak to the Naval Academy Sailing Foundation. A true legend in the Bermuda Race, and a member of the Bermuda Race Roll of Honour, Ecclestone is also known for his meticulous preparation. And it showed; his generous donation came to the Naval Academy as a turn-key race machine.
Nineteen crew including coaches are racing aboard Kodiak, skippered by Midshipman Jonathan Middlebrooks. Most of the the crew have been training throughout the spring and are excited to get out on the Atlantic on such an exciting boat. Ten more are racing aboard Wasp, skippered by Midshipman John Neubauer.
With the cancellation of the 2020 event, it’s been four years since offshore team members have done the race, so this will be the first Bermuda Race for any of the midshipmen crew on either boat—the US Naval Academy’s 188th and 189th entries into the Bermuda Race since 1938.
About the Naval Academy Sailing Foundation
The Naval Academy Sailing Foundation, in its 49th year, is proud to accept high quality, race-ready vessels like Kodiak. And our support extends beyond the donated fleet to the funding of several full-time coaching positions and other “Margin of Excellence” initiatives. We believe the best preparation for a Naval career is the crucible of competition, adversity and small unit leadership that is the Bermuda Race. With the generosity of donors like Mr. Ecclestone and events like ocean racing, we are confident that the midshipmen of the Offshore Sailing Team are receiving the best preparation possible for a career of service to our nation in a very dynamic world.