“Tent Party” Stories Prove Universal Lesson of Offshore Sailing

March 17, 2021


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There was a storm brewing before the start in 2016, and the captain of Oakcliff’s Farr 40 Black had both skilled and inexperienced crew aboard. The professionally manned boats had chosen to sit out the race, but Liz Shaw O’Toole decided to get underway and sail for 24 hours, then decide whether it was safe to continue or time to turn back. 

So began O’Toole’s tale of an epic race complete with boat chicken, peanut butter and bagels, incredible surfing conditions, and an A2 spinnaker that hurtled them down the rhumbline and only blew up when the crew tried to take it down in 27 knots true. The storm conditions never materialized, and the team crossed the finish line in the top 10 “with a huge sense of pride and an amazing sense of adventure.”

Dozens of veterans and aspiring Newport Bermuda Races joined the second session of the Race-Prep Webinar Series on Tuesday night in a session that focused on the human side of the race. Sponsored by Goslings Rum, as well as Bermuda Tourism and GMT Composites, the evening proved again the universal lesson of offshore sailing—after a little time has passed, the results don’t matter any more and it’s the shared stories and sense of camaraderie that last. You can watch the full replay here:

Stories ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. Race chair Somers Kempe told of a pod of 60 dolphins streaking towards his boat on a glass smooth night, their breathing audible and leaving trails of phosphorescence as they launched themselves out of the water, played around the boat for a few minutes, and then charged off again.

Race veteran Scott Murray described crewing on the record-setting maxi Nirvana in the early ‘80s and the unlikely events ashore that led to the mock arrest of the entire crew for bad party behavior. “It’s a good thing that social media hadn’t been invented yet,” Murray said.

First-time Bermuda racer Lindsay Gimple described learning to sail a Swan 48 as part of the youthful MudRatz team, learning about peeling jibs and dip-pole jibes and unlearning “tiller towards trouble” on a boat with a wheel. Her boat came home with silverware from the light-air 2018 race, but Gimple remembers the focused preparation, cleaning up the endless litter of teenage snacks off the cabin sole, and then, on a hot and windless night, the great frozen Snickers heist that she and a fellow watchmate pulled off without being detected. 

Veteran sailor Ron Weiss offered some of the valuable lessons learned aboard both poorly prepared and well-prepared boats, particularly a nameless C&C 52 he had his first ride to Bermuda on. “The primaries weren’t working.” he said. “The two heads weren’t working. And the stove wasn’t working. At least we had a brand new main, but on the way to the start we discovered the battens were too long and we had to saw them down to size.” Despite all that, he said, they pulled off a beautiful windward-end start. The windy race race that followed was a great example, he said, of how you can go from “a living hell one minute to a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” describing how dolphins were looking down at him from 25-foot waves, literally higher up than the boat’s spreaders. “The Bermuda Race is life changing,” Weiss concluded. “It changes your character and your confidence.”

Participants jumped in with stories as well. Brian O’Farrell, a 12-time racer, had his own story of a wildlife sighting. “It’s 4am,” he said, “and we’re ghosting along, in the Gulf Stream, and I hear what sounds like waves near us. But the sea is flat, and I hear this upwelling of water, and I’m driving and I look to starboard and there’s the eye of a whale looking at us. He had just come up alongside, and his eye must have been about a foot wide. He follows us for 15-20 minutes, and nothing has a worse case of bad breath on the planet but a whale that has come up and blown spray across your deck.” That was 1998, O’Farrell said, and that whale is still “in my dreams. It was one of those magical moments. Milky Way above us and stars so bright you could reach out and grab a handful of them.”

Watch the video for more!

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