The Return of the Newport Bermuda Race

September 10, 2021


Somers Kempe, the race chairman, knows this 635-mile race inside and out. Not only has he raced from Newport to Bermuda nine times, but while serving as a volunteer, he has run the entry system, served as bermudarace.com webmaster, and even met the first finishers the year he served as Royal Bermuda Yacht Club commodore.

Somers Kempe Bermuda Race Chairman
Somers Kempe, Bermuda Race Organizing Committee Chair, arriving off St. David’s Lighthouse after a delivery from the Caribbean.

With 200 entries and counting in March 2020, the Newport Bermuda Race was one of the first events last year to fall victim to the wave of Covid-19 pandemic cancellations. On the Bermuda Race Organizing Committee, Somers Kempe was serving as vice-chair under the chairman, Jay Gowell, and saw the race through a difficult set of decisions. A few months later, Kempe assumed the next race’s chairmanship for 2022 and began organizing the 114-year-old event at a time when offshore sailing had been thoroughly disrupted, particularly for races crossing international borders. The race’s media co-chair, John Burnham, spoke recently with Kempe about the year that’s now passed and the months ahead before the next race starts on June 17th.

With the last race cancelled and offshore sailing all out of rhythm, what are you emphasizing to bring people back? 

The draw of the race is still there just as it’s always been. As the world slowly gets back on its feet and people are able to do normal things, this event remains on the radar; people want to experience the challenge of competing in a timeless event, 635-miles across the Gulf Stream It’s a logistical challenge, both physical and mental, and you could compare ocean racing to climbing a mountain. It requires deep preparation, and when you’re doing the event, you realize the better prepared you are, the better you can do. 

Entry fees are discounted for early registrants. Why should sailors sign up early?

Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and docks
Royal Bermuda Yacht Club on Hamilton Harbour, Bermuda. Barry Pickthall/PPL photo

For planning reasons, early entry gives you a headstart. It also draws a line in the sand and shows your crew that you’re serious and that 2022 is coming around the corner fast. We encourage people to get started early by laying out the fee structure on a gradual slope. The price goes up Sept. 17th and again an extra $5 per foot in December and again, in February.  

What barriers to preparation has Covid-19 presented organizers and sailors?

Safety at sea training! We haven’t had a couple years of training so there is a backlog. With the fleet size we expect and our historical data, we know that many sailors’ certifications will be expiring. At the same time, Covid is still providing challenges for running courses. It’s not the race’s job per se to run the courses, and our friends who run courses at Cruising Club of America, New York Yacht Club, Storm Trysail Club., etc., are working hard to provide enough training capacity. But I can’t emphasize enough the need for sailors to get signed up early. [Visit the race website for details.]

What changes can we expect for 2022?

Organizationally we’re looking at having registration downtown in Newport. That was already planned for 2020. Beyond that, we’ve done our best to limit costs, right-sizing expenditures. We provided a credit to racers from 2020 who had paid their deposits because it was the right thing to do, but this has made budgeting difficult. Like other race organizers, we’ve had to cut some things that are “nice to haves”. We’re also uncertain what the world will look like by next spring and how people are going to feel about sailing the race. I’m hopeful that we’re continuing to make progress against the pandemic in the broader scale, but I don’t have a crystal ball. 

Everyone knows the CCA as the Bermuda Race’s organizer; talk about the partnership with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, where you were commodore a few years back.

Our club’s staff and flag officers enjoy having the race come to Bermuda and enjoy being a co-organizer of the race. The club is a fantastic place to end up. It helps that the club is on a beautiful island with good weather and a few dark and stormies. It’s a membership club of about 800, and everybody is proud of the club’s long history with the race since the early 1920s. 

How do the members get involved?

The club membership is filled with many regulars who answer the call, including manning the finish line for five days at the extreme end of the island. The committee line chairwoman, in fact, lives at the opposite end of the island! People look forward to doing the duty every year, for both this race and the Marion to Bermuda Race. All told, I estimate there are more than 100 members working at the finish line, duty-desk, marina, helping with check-in, driving people around, and inspecting boats.  

Speaking of volunteers, being the chair is a big two-year job—why take it on?

[Laughs] I guess you find that out after you’ve finished your term and you’ve had a successful race! It’s a good challenge, it’s a chance to meet a lot of good people, and to learn a lot as well. It is well within my interest zone—I love sailing and ocean racing—and through my work at Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, I’ve already made many, many friends. It’s a job worth doing well and you don’t turn it down when you get tapped on the shoulder.

You are a member of the CCA too?

Yes! One of the requirements in being a CCA member is that others would trust you to take their boat on an offshore passage. My Dad [Stephen Kempe] has been a member of the Bermuda station of the CCA, and in 1994 when I was 21 I did my first race with his friend Dr. Colin Cooper on a 38-footer named Vivace. After I’d done a few more races, I made my way back from the foredeck for the last few races and sailed as a watch captain, which helped qualify me to join the CCA.  

What other kinds of sailing do you enjoy?  

Anything really. I enjoy lots of different types of boats and have competed internationally in Vipers 640s, J/105s, IODs, and Lasers. For the last six years, I’ve been sailing less and supporting my son, Sebastian, now 16, with his sailing through Optimists and now in the ILCA 6 (Radial) class. 

With nine months to go, what’s the focus for you and your committee? 

Beyond encouraging people to start their preparation early, we’re moving forward with our planning on all fronts. On our committee, I’m just the figurehead. The real work is on sub-committees like Entries, Sponsorship, Finance, Technical, Participation, Inspections, Safety, Medical, Newport Operations and Media. We’re seeing good response to our sponsorship efforts, which is exciting. And people still want to do this kind of event. We have 67 entries to date. I don’t know if we’ll end up with 125 boats or more than 200 on the starting line, but we’ll be ready to support everyone who turns out. 

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