In the summer of 2016, when I just turned 18, I fulfilled my dream of not only competing in the biennial Newport to Bermuda Race, but also crossing the finish line first with one of the youngest crews to ever compete in the race. I was a watch captain aboard High Noon, for the 635-mile sailing competition across the Gulf Stream and down the Atlantic coast. Our team consisted of seven youth sailors, 18 and under, and three adults. Traditionally, the race is only for the most experienced sailors and professional teams. In the 100-year history of the race, few crews as young as ours have coordinated and captained their own boat. In 2013, my sailing mentor, Peter Becker, of Rye, NY, took the reins of the American Yacht Club Junior Racing Team. From the outset, Peter’s goal was to create a team of highly-skilled junior sailors, capable of competing against the most experienced adult teams. We became more than just a junior club sailing team, racing only other junior club teams. We wanted to compete in all the top races. We entered as many day races and distance races as possible, against sailors of every age. Peter always joked that all our races were practice for The Big One: the Newport to Bermuda Race. I knew he was serious.
In the summer of 2013, our team of 14–18 year olds won the Vineyard Race, a 238-mile race from Stamford, Connecticut, around the Buzzards Bay Tower at the southern tip of Cape Cod, and back, a victory that had never before been accomplished by a youth team. I love to sail, and our successes summer after summer only deepened my commitment to our youth team. Peter knew what our young team was capable of and had us all dreaming of racing to Bermuda. In 2016, we made it happen.
Our first challenge was to find a fast, available boat. We were not looking for a boat whose owner wanted a couple of token kids to be part of his adult crew. We wanted to charter our own boat, with the kids as the crew and a few token adults. Our team got lucky with High Noon, a lively 41-foot racing sloop that needed everything either repaired or replaced. The boat’s owners Steve and Heidi Benjamin of Stamford, CT, were planning to donate the boat to the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point. However, for the five months before that, she was all ours.
We were given High Noon with all the gear in huge boxes. Every fitting had been removed when she was painted that winter. The deal was that we had to reassemble the entire boat, and restore her to peak racing condition. It took us more than three months of work to move her from the winter storage shed to being race-ready. Putting her back together was like doing an enormous jigsaw puzzle. We repaired and updated deck gear, waterproofed, and bolted every fitting. We got to know every inch of that boat while putting her back together. All non-essential gear was stripped, in order to make High Noon as light, fast and competitive as possible. We engaged sponsors, and secured in-kind donations: lightweight cookers from Jet-Boil, freeze-dried food from Mountain House, deck gear from Harken, and one thousand Cliff Bars (How could ten people possibly consume one thousand Cliff Bars in four days?). When we stuck the logos across our 20-foot boom, we knew we were legit.
High Noon hit the chilly waters of the Long Island Sound just in time for the annual Block Island Race on Memorial Day weekend. Teams preparing for the Bermuda Race use this 200-mile competition to test their boats, equipment and crews. We had to learn how to sail an entirelynew boat. This would be one of the few times we would sail as a team before going to Newport for the start.
By mid-June, the Newport sailing season was in full swing. There were hundreds of sailing teams in town; the most competitive were preparing for the main event of the summer, the Newport to Bermuda Race. Our team of teenagers and parents dedicated ourselves to preparing the boat and the crew for the big race. For a few of our sailors, it would be their first venture on ocean waters.
Our team had sailed together for four years; we trusted each other with our lives. Sailing in the ocean, hundreds of miles from shore, is a dangerous game. One mistake can end in a life raft waiting for rescue, or worse. Our team chose the race crew based on merit and sea miles, and each crew member took Safety at Sea classes. Even with years of training and careful preparation, any situation can go awry.
Before leaving Newport, we competed in the Around Jamestown Island Race, the first of three races in the Onion Patch Series. The Onion Patch Series, co-sponsored by the New York Yacht Club and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, consists of day races in Newport, the Newport to Bermuda Race and then day races in Bermuda. We were pitted against classic 12-metre yachts, high-tech racing boats and many professional race teams.
On the Friday, the Newport to Bermuda Race started; spectators lined the rocky shore, and hundred of boats crowded the waters near the start line off Newport’s Castle Hill. After three years of joking, dreaming and racing hundreds of miles up and down the Long Island Sound, our team sailed off from Newport, a bunch of kids taking on some of the best sailors on the east coast, some of them professionals. Despite all their beautiful, fast yachts, we felt proud to be racing a boat that we rebuilt ourselves.
High Noon berthed at RBYC after the race.
My great friend Collin Alexander helmed the start while I trimmed the jib. Brooks Daley and Karina Becker ran the bow. Our pit girl, Maddy Ploch, made sure every sail came up and down flawlessly, while Hector McKemmy, Richard O’Leary and I trimmed the mainsail, jib and spinnakers. Each of us had our job and we were on it, determined not to lose a second or give any boat an opportunity to pass. The kids sailed the boat, while the adults were there for insurance purposes and to help navigate. It must be admitted that being coached by Guillermo Altadill, the world’s most intense ocean racer, raised our game, if only out of fear. His particular style of positive reinforcement involved barking “You are pathetic” and “This is shit.” We pushed High Noon to her limit.
After a grueling 100 nautical miles, we gained the lead on Saturday afternoon. After our first full day at sea, we had 121 boats behind us. After another 50 nautical miles of light air downwind sailing, we entered the Gulf Stream with a significant lead. The Gulf Stream is a strong ocean current of warm, fast moving water that zigzags its way up the eastern coast of the United States. Gulf Stream waves are noticeably unusual in shape; they are steep and powerful. The winds began increasing Saturday night to 25 miles an hour. Massive 10-foot waves propelled us forward at speeds over 10 knots. In the fast winds and big waves, the longer, heavier boats had the advantage and stole our lead.
The crew was divided into three shifts for the night watch. While one group slept, the others were on deck, one on watch and the other resting but ready. Sleep is a precious commodity on the ocean, but when things get hairy, it’s all hands on deck. Crossing those big waves of the Gulf Stream under a brilliant full moon was breathtaking and unforgettable. I have always felt a profound respect and spiritual connection to the sea. Those nights, miles from civilization, sailing across the vast ocean, I felt like Poseidon’s lieutenant crossing his ocean kingdom.
Two days and 200 nautical miles into the race, a pack of seven boats battled for the lead. None of us had any chance of being crowned the overall champion, as the massive, Mother Of Al
l Boats Comanche had already smashed the race record after finishing the 635-nautical-mile course in 34 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds. The rest of the fleet had at least two more days to go, and traditional line honours were still up for grabs. Sail racing has its own peculiar scoring system that involves handicapping fast boats and compensating for slower boats to allow different types of boats to compete on an even playing field. There are two awards for crossing the finish line first, known as line honours, one for the open class and one for boats with standard features and dimensions.
From Saturday night through Monday afternoon, we maxed our speedometre, surfing huge swells on a blast reach. The five front-runners tangoed for the lead. We were behind two much bigger boats: Maximizer and Siren. Being the first to hit Bermuda didn’t seem possible until Monday night, when the wind died. As the wind began to lighten, our boat speed slowly dropped. We had to work harder and harder to keep the pace. With her large, powerful sail, and super-light hull, High Noon was built to fly in the light air. The larger, heavier boats could not keep up. This was our time to pounce. Collin and I worked the boat non-stop till sunrise. He steered, and I trimmed the sails. We pounded Red Bulls and danced High Noon through the spotty patches of light air. As the night passed, we watched Maximizer’s mast light slowly move from in front of us, to abeam of us,to behind us. We had regained the lead.
The last 30 nautical miles were agonisingly slow. We expected to finish early Tuesday morning, but the wind did not cooperate. Our only thoughts were on keeping that boat moving as fast as possible across the pale blue water toward Bermuda. Nobody said a word all morning. The island slowly came into view with the sunrise, the first land we had seen since Friday. We saw no boats between us and the finish line, but the light air was slowing us down. We needed to finish before anyone could catch us. We finessed the boat slowly downwind until, 88 hours, 27 minutes and 5 seconds after we started in Newport, we were the first to cross the finish line off St. George’s, Bermuda.
The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club had cleared their docks in anticipation of the fleet’s arrival. With 121 boats behind us, we were the only boat there for several hours.
The next day we competed in, and won, the third part of the Onion Patch Series on Bermuda’s Great Sound, the site of the next America’s Cup. As we raised our sails, we watched the space-age-design America’s Cup boats practice.
The awards ceremonies were held at Government House a few days later, after all the racers made their way safely to Bermuda. Our whole crew was properly attired according to local custom in knee socks, Vineyard Vines Bermuda shorts, blue blazers and Bermuda Race ties. We were given books and a boatload of silver trophies by the governor of Bermuda and bottles of old rum from Mr. Gosling himself. The Race Organising Committee had just created the Stephens Brothers Youth Division and Trophy, honouring Rod and Olin Stephens, who won the Bermuda Race with a young crew in 1932 on the Dorade. We were particularly thrilled to be the first team to receive this trophy. The next day, as the crew celebrated on the beach, my classmates were graduating from Mamaroneck High School. I had decided to skip my prom and graduation ceremony in order to do the race. It was the right decision.
We did it. After four summers of racing and dreaming, not only did we sail in the Bermuda Race, we captured Traditional Line Honors. Not even in our wildest dreams could we have imagined that a crew of teenagers would finish first in one of the most prestigious distance races in the world. But then again, why not?