by John Rousmaniere
The very first Bermuda Race was an act of rebellion. In 1906, the Establishment believed that it would be insane for amateur sailors to race offshore in boats under 80 feet. Thomas Fleming Day, the feisty editor of The Rudder magazine, vehemently disagreed, insisting, “The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant.” Certain that an ocean race would be enjoyable and safe – and also develop better sailors and better boats – Day founded one on his own. The Brooklyn Yacht Club started the race in New York Bay, and down on the island paradise, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club finished it off St. David’s Head.
Critics predicted disaster. It was rumored that funeral wreaths were delivered to the three boats (all under 40 feet) so the sailors would be prepared to make a decent burial at sea. The smallest entry then (and in Bermuda Race history) was the 28-foot sloop Gauntlet. She was notorious for her size, and also for her crew because it included a woman, 20-year-old Thora Lund Robinson.
Having outpaced Gauntlet and another boat which dropped out, and the winner was the 38-foot yawl Tamerlane, with Thomas Fleming Day himself as sailing master.
When he reached the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club quay under tow, 4,000 of the island’s 14,000 residents were there to greet her (the club’s officers apologized for the small turnout; this was, after all, a Sunday). The yacht club provided a special anchorage off White’s Island for the race boats, set aside rooms for the skippers and navigators in the clubhouse (which was then on Front Street), and laid on many parties culminating with a traditional turtle dinner at the prize banquet, where His Excellency the Governor-General and Tom Day vied for the honor of giving the most colorful speech.
There were four more races before the sailors decided it was too much to ask that the race be held annually.
After World War I Royal Bermuda Yacht Club (RBYC) Vice-Commodore Eldon Trimingham went up to New York to stir up a revival of the race and found many American sailors who were of the same mind. After 22 boats started in 1923 at New London, Conn., there was hard going in the Gulf Stream (“The next time I come to Bermuda it will be in a submarine,” one soggy sailor announced in Bermuda), but every boat finished. Three years later, the Cruising Club of America, and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club teamed up to host the race. Even today, the task of inspecting boats, arranging for trophies, the starting and finishing lines, and maintaining the race’s emphasis on safe seamanship falls on volunteer members of both clubs. In 45 races over a century, only two boats have been lost, one on Bermuda’s reef, and the other in a deadly fire in 1932 that also claimed the Bermuda Race’s only loss of life.*
The race takes some credit for the formation of the Fastnet Race and accelerating the career of famed designer Olin Stephens and the development of new rating rules.
*This article was written in 2008. In 2022, there was the first fatality in the modern era of the Race.
"The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant."
– Thomas Fleming Day in 1906
A Race of Firsts: Inaugural Bermuda Race Includes Female Crew
Nobody, including Tom Day, had believed that a woman would dare to race, but here she was. A reporter described her as “a very slender young woman, with tawny hair and level gaze.” Thora Lund Robinson posed a philosophical problem for Day who knew that barring her would undermine his guiding principle that the sea was potentially safe for everyone. So when the small fleet of small boats banged out of lower New York Harbor on the end of the ebb tide, into a fresh head wind, among the spray-soaked sailors in Gauntlet’s cockpit was Thora Lund Robinson. Today, she would not be noticed among the 200 or 300 women sailors in a typical Bermuda Race.
The Bermuda Race Roll of Honour recognizes and celebrates extraordinary achievement in or concerning the Newport Bermuda Race and its predecessor races. Inaugurated in 2006 on the 100th anniversary of the first race, 10 individuals have now been selected to join the Bermuda Race Roll of Honour. Current members of the Roll of Honour include the race’s founder, one of Bermuda’s greatest ocean sailors, multiple race record holders, one of the race’s most successful designers, and two of the greatest heroes in the history of sailing.
Gulf Stream Society
More than 50,000 men and women of all ages and 5,000 yachts have sailed in this unique race that is known and respected worldwide as “The Thrash to the Onion Patch.” But how many have sailed the race at least five times? The Gulf Stream Society invites all sailors who have completed five or more Newport Bermuda Races to apply for this membership. Special recognition will be due those who have sailed in 10 or 15 or more races.