To celebrate the 52nd running of the Newport-Bermuda Race, we present an excerpt from writer-sailor John Rousmaniere’s book, A Berth to Bermuda, the official history of the race.
It may be the world’s oldest regularly scheduled ocean yacht race, but the 635-mile biennial sprint from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda is also a tangle of fascinating paradoxes. One is that it’s had three names over the past century since the first race in 1906. Americans call it the Newport-Bermuda Race, and Bermudians call it the Ocean Race, but most everybody who’s sailed in it calls it “the thrash to the onion patch.” There’s poetic justice: after several long days of discomfort in a closed and pungent cabin, the boat finally arrives at the historic home of a famous pungent vegetable.
Then there’s the fact that though the race starts and finishes at two of the world’s great resorts, a word like “luxury” does not spring lightly to the tongues of race veterans. Here’s what a sailor in the first race wrote back in 1906: “By 6 a.m. we were clear of the Gulf Stream, which place, I am under the impression, might be improved upon. I really enjoyed it, only I thought it would be kind of nice to be dry again for a change.” Another thrashee to the onion patch was more succinct. Asked if he’d had a good time, he replied, “Yes, after I got there.”
Not that it’s always so bad. In the seven races I’ve sailed, I’ve endured a few calms, some hard blows, a couple of gales and a hurricane. When I asked the man who sailed more races than anyone else, Jim Mertz, “Is every Bermuda Race different?” he grinned and muttered a long, slow, “Yeah.” After 30 races, he should have known.
Another of the race’s paradoxical features is that people sail it even though the chances of winning are minimal. Only four skippers have won more than one race. When 72-year-old George Coumantaros, on his twenty-third try, finally won the Lighthouse Trophy that goes to the winner, he advised the crowd at the award ceremony at Government House, “Don’t despair, keep trying and if you don’t win it by the time you are 75, withdraw.” While writing my history of the race, A Berth to Bermuda, I asked a few top sailors, “How do you win a Bermuda race?” I got a lot of wise advice, including prepare the boat carefully, sign on the best possible crew and study the weather map. But the best reply came from Peter Bowker, a star navigator. “Ensure that Lady Luck is one of your crew,” he insisted. “Use witchcraft. Rubbing chicken bones together with suitable incantations might work.”
Despite the lousy odds of winning and the miseries of sailing through and sometimes under the rough Gulf Stream, thousands of sailors keep volunteering to be thrashed. Of the 4,205 boats and 42,000 men and women who have raced, a surprisingly large number keep returning. Jim Mertz missed only two races between 1936 and 2004 and was preparing to go for the thirty-first time when he died in January at 94. At least three other sailors have competed in 22 or more races, and more than 50 have raced in at least 15. I know of two families—the Gibbons Neffs and the Loomises—who among their members have sailed more than 50 races. Two boats have done 14 races, and many have done 10.
It is, in other words, a habit. Bermudian Kirk Cooper, who first raced down in 1950, looks back on his Bermuda race career philosophically: “All these races, they go like one,” he says. “You forget about it for 18 months, and then you start again.”
All those paradoxes are no surprise to old Bermuda race hands. But there is another one of which few people are aware: although the race is as closely dentified with the Establishment as any sporting event—right up there with the Masters golf tournament—it was founded in an act of scruffy rebellion against the Establishment.
The notion that amateur sailors can and even should race small boats into the ocean was considered insane in 1906, when 14 men and one woman set out for Bermuda in three boats between 28 and 40 feet in length. Consider that just the previous year 11 boats with an average length of 163 feet raced from New York to England. The winner, the 184-foot, three-masted schooner Atlantic, had a crew of 48, almost all professional and more than three times the total number of sailors in the first Bermuda race.
The Bermuda race was the brainchild of a visionary named Thomas Fleming Day, the English-born, naturalized-American editor of the magazine The Rudder. “The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant,” he said—or rather shouted. Tom Day was a man of opinions that were both strong and strongly expressed. Anybody who disagreed with him he put in the “crowd of weaklings and degenerates” and “gray-headed, rum-soaked piazza yachtsmen.”
People belonged at sea, he insisted, because seafaring is healthy and improves character. “A noble art makes noble men,” Day insisted, “and there is no nobler art than seamanship.” So the race would be character building. It would also be fun. “Sailors,” said Tom Day, “wanted to get a smell of the sea and forget for the time being that there is such a thing as God’s green earth in the universe.”
So in 1906 Tom Day arranged with the Brooklyn Yacht Club to start a race for amateur sailors in lower New York Bay, and with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club to finish it off St. David’s Lighthouse and manage the postrace festivities. (The RBYC has been involved with the race longer than any other organization, and since 1926 it has co-run it with the Cruising Club of America.)
Many furrow-browed critics predicted disaster. It was rumored that funeral wreaths were delivered to the little fleet so the sailors would be prepared to make a decent burial at sea. Day’s reply was to establish rigorous entry requirements that barred all-out racing boats. Ever since, the organizers have barred unseaworthy boats, required safety equipment and living accommodations and imposed other rules with the aim of inspiring the design and construction of good, seaworthy boats. Kaighn Smith, Cruising Club of America commodore and the winner in 1994, neatly expressed the core purpose of the race when he said that the aim is “to allow cruising boats to race to Bermuda as racing boats.”
Three boats started that first race. The smallest was the 28-foot sloop Gauntlet, whose crew included the owner’s 20-year-old wife, Thora Lund Robinson. Today she wouldn’t be noticed among the 200 or 300 women sailors in a Bermuda race, but back then her participation was considered as revolutionary as the race itself. After heaving-to for two days in a Gulf Stream gale, little Gauntlet crossed the finish line with Thora Robinson at her helm, waving an American flag. Another boat dropped out, and the winner was the 38-foot yawl Tamerlane, with Thomas Fleming Day as sailing master.
That first Bermuda race proved that amateur sailors could take a beating and that some improvements in yacht design were needed. Although a few small boats appeared the next year (including one built in Bermuda just for the race), interest faded, and to attract entries Day admitted bigger boats with professional sailors. Going down every year was too often for most people’s taste, and after the fifth race, in 1910, Day let the race slide.
In 1922, RBYC Vice-Commodore Eldon Trimingham went to New York to try to stir up a revival and found many sailors thinking the same way. After Herbert L. Stone, the editor of Yachting magazine, organized the sixth Bermuda race in 1923, 22 starters turned out. Most were the new, handsome, fast and seaworthy schooners designed by John Alden along the lines of Down East fishing boats. Over the next decade of races (now held every two years), the fleet grew to 42 and the sailors and boats improved dramatically. English sailors came to race and then went home to found the Fastnet Race, which later inspired the Sydney-Hobart in Australia. The first ocean race for amateur sailors in small boats had become the seedling for the world’s classics.
In 1932, there occurred the only loss of life in the race’s history amid a feat of astonishing heroism. After a fire broke out in the schooner Adriana, one of her competitors, the cutter Jolie Brise, turned back, and her owner, Bobby Somerset, bravely nd skillfully steered her alongside the burning schooner as Adriana’s helmsman, Clarence Kozaly, held position. Ten of Adriana’s 11 crewmembers piled onto the cutter’s deck. Kozaly finally let go the wheel and made his jump too late, only to tumble into the sea and disappear. Somerset’s heroism added luster to the event, and so did its destination. “Without Bermuda after the finish line, the race would lose much of its appeal,” wrote Herbert L. Stone, who oversaw the race’s revival.
In the 1950s, the Bermuda race gained a new hero in Carleton Mitchell, who sailed his 38-foot yawl Finisterre to a record three straight victories. In the vast firmament of sailing records, the polestar is the one set by this tubby little yawl. (In 2006, the winner of the race’s cruising class will receive a trophy donated by Mitchell.) Finisterre’s success kicked off the Bermuda race’s biggest boom as small boats appeared in droves. From 77 boats in 1954, the fleet ballooned to 131 in 1960. The race was now a big-time, high-status event. When a 37-foot fiberglass yawl called Burgoo was barred from racing in 1964, her owner, Milton Ernstof, was so distressed that he told the organizers, “Because the race is great, the compulsion is great, and I am willing to abase myself to further questions as to the possibility of being part of it.” Burgoo was allowed to sail—and she won the race.
The old classics kept coming out. One was DeCoursey Fales’s Niña, a schooner that was especially fast when sailing on a reach with one of her huge “gollywobblers” staysails set. The 1962 race had more reaching than usual, which meant that 34-year-old Niña and her 74-year-old owner won the race. As much as he loved to win, Fales adored tradition. After finishing off St. David’s Head, Niña’s brass was polished, her varnish was chamoised down, and once she was securely anchored in Hamilton Harbour, Fales called his crew below for a ritual. Any other race is merely a race, but a Bermuda race is a voyage, and any decent voyage must end with the crew communing over drinks (in Niña’s case, martinis). Many boats dropped this charming custom when the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club installed its marina in 1968, but here and there in the fleet you will still see a few crews staying aboard for an hour or two before they make the rush ashore.
A quiet, orderly ending does not mean that the race itself has been without incident. There is almost always rough stuff in the Gulf Stream, where the hot water stirs up vicious squalls and the swift current kicks up violent seas. In 1960, after three days of light air, the 135-boat fleet was smashed by an unpredicted tropical storm with violent microbursts and a wildly shifting 70-knot wind. Henry Morgan’s Djinn was knocked over so far her upper rigging snagged seaweed, and everyone on deck was tossed over the lifelines. Fortunately, they were attached to the boat with safety harnesses. The owner’s son, Henry, recalls the sight: “I could see that there wasn’t a soul left on deck, whereas I knew there had been seven others when we tacked. That was a bit of a thrill, but very shortly people started appearing over the rail, swarming up their safety harness tethers.”
In 1972, the tail of a hurricane whipped up the worst weather in the race’s history. “It was like driving a truck into a stone wall three times a minute for two days,” one sailor said afterward. One successful boat’s log included this cryptic entry: English entry Noreyma became the first (and to this day the only) non-U.S. boat to win the Bermuda race, her crew credited the victory to a pair of goggles worn by helmsmen to keep the stinging spray out of their eyes.
It’s hard enough to find tiny Bermuda even in clear visibility. Then there’s the problem of the coral reef that guards the finish line. A friend of mine who has navigated in many Bermuda races, Larry Glenn, reports the following dialogue:
Anxious sailor: “Where are we?”
Navigator: “I don’t know.”
Anxious sailor: “Well, I’m going to sleep with my feet forward in case we run into the reef.”
In the 55-foot yawl Dyna in the 1972 storm, we carefully felt our way around the reef to the finish, gauging the water depth by its color, but many boats hove-to and stopped. It is a compliment to the race’s high level of seamanship that in 44 races only one boat has been lost to the reef, and that was on a night of near-perfect visibility in 1958.
In bad weather, at least the sailors have something to do. The most helpless people are family members ashore and in desperate need of assurance. The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club’s manager, Tony Marsh, was once confronted by an anxious woman who demanded to be told “right now” the location of the yet-to-finish boat in which her husband was racing. Of course, Marsh had no idea where the boat was, but still he peered out one of the clubhouse’s windows in the general direction of St. David’s Head, 15 miles away, and assured her that he spotted the boat’s running lights.
The nasty finish to the 1972 race helped fuel a controversy about one of the race’s oldest traditions, which was that navigators must rely on sextants, not up-to-date electronic instruments. In 1974, up-to-date electronic navigation instruments were permitted near the start and finish, and in 1980, electronics were allowed throughout. This decision transformed the Bermuda race, and not just because the boats found the finish more easily. With pinpoint navigation at their fingertips, sailors could take full advantage of new understandings of the Gulf Stream, whose swift currents and even location has long been a mystery.
To put it simply, the navigator’s challenge was transformed from a target shoot to a chess match. Over the past quarter century, the race’s most influential figure has been someone who never sailed the race. Jenifer Wurtha Clark is an oceanographer with a gift for understanding and predicting the Gulf Stream’s behavior and another gift for explaining it to sailors. She told everybody not to be afraid of taking chances. “Taking a risk is what wins the race most of the time.”
Her advice explained the success of the most consistently successful team in the race’s history, Dick Nye and his son Richard, who raced 18 times in boats called Carina. They won in 1952, won again in 1970, and in 1982 came within a few minutes of matching John Alden’s and Carleton Mitchell’s record of three wins. The Nyes did it by sailing with abandon, looking for favorable wind and current.
“We used to swing for the fences quite a bit,” Richard admitted. Over their 18 races, the Nyes won trophies seven times. A .388 batting average for taking home silver is an astonishing record in an event in which most sailors dream of winning even one cup.
I’ll end this fast walk through Bermuda race history by stating again that as fascinating as winning trophies can be, most people keep coming back for very different reasons. Take, for example, one of the novice crewmembers in 2004, who is racing again this year. He is Sir John Vereker, the governor and commander in chief of Bermuda, on appointment by the Queen to a position that dates back to 1609. In Bermuda, he is known as His Excellency—or “H. E.” When he arrived in 2002 he expressed interest in sailing the race. Such proposals are usually answered by a friendly suggestion to “sail a delivery first.” But H. E. wanted to race. The only other time a governor of Bermuda had raced down, the boat he sailed in was dismasted. The possibility that H. E. was a Jonah did not occur to Colin Couper, a Bermudian medical doctor and the owner of the Swan 46 Babe.
The junior member of Babe’s crew happily discovered he was not claustrophobic, or agoraphobic, or seasick (once he took his pills) or overly concerned with a top finish. Alongside those valued aptitudes ran something that can be seen on just about every boat that races to Bermuda. That is a deep and abiding love of the sea and adventure that has carried five generations of sailors through gales and calms to St. David’s Head.
Thomas Fleming Day was thinking of such an individual when he commented, on the eve of the first Bermuda race, that sailors needed to forget land and civilization by going to sea.
Sir John Vereker said it in his own way. “It’s hard not to understand the bond with the sea when you go out on it in a small boat,” he told me in an interview last year at Government House. “I loved the vastness. It made me feel very English. It was just wonderful to be out there for so long under the stars in the Milky Way.”
He paused for a moment, savoring the memory.
“When we neared the finish, and the other masthead lights appeared, I actually felt it was a bit of an intrusion.”
This is why there has been 100 years of thrashing to Bermuda.
Writer-sailor John Rousmaniere’s new book, A Berth to Bermuda: One Hundred Years of the World’s Classic Ocean Race, is the official history of the race. His other books about sailing include After the Storm, Fastnet Force 10, Sleek and The Best of Her Class.