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Old timer

The Newport Bermuda Race debuted 20 years before the first Fastnet. John Rousmaniere recalls some of the stories and developments during the intervening 110 years

This year, on 17 June, the 50th Newport Bermuda Race starts – the world’s oldest regularly scheduled international ocean race. The historic course remains unchanged: out to the Gulf Stream, across the Stream and a final haul to the finish. Following the afternoon start in Narra- gansett Bay, the fleet presses out into a chilly Atlantic while navigators prepare for the big challenge… where to enter the Gulf Stream, which flows fast across the rhumb line course. ‘The point at which the Gulf Stream is encountered is a juncture as important as the start or finish of the race itself,’ says oceanographer Frank Bohlen, who has done 18 Bermuda Races. ‘Mod- ern electronics have made the job easier by providing more data, but at the same time we now have more factors to account for!’ But there is still room to improvise, tracking the rise in air and water tempera- ture as the current strengthens. One year ahead of the digital revolution, the success- ful 48ft McCurdy&Rhodes sloop Carina was in the Stream, sailing closehauled towards Bermuda, when owner Richard Nye saw a lightning bolt several miles to windward. ‘Tack,’ Nye ordered. The crew was incredulous. The boat was 10° off the layline to the finish. ‘Tack! There’s light- ning to windward. The Stream’s stronger up there.’ Carina tacked, sailed away from Bermuda for a couple of hours, found hot water and a favourable 3kt current, tacked back and proceeded to trounce her divi- sion and very nearly win the race overall. In the Stream the wind and sea will usu- ally build rapidly until the fleet is engaged in a true ‘Thrash to the Onion Patch’, a nick- name inspired by Bermuda’s agricultural heritage. In the tough 1972 thrash, recalled Paul Antrobus (on the winning Swan 48 Noryema), the boat’s ‘race-winning weapon’ was a diving mask the helmsman wore to keep stinging saltwater out of his eyes. When comparisons between the 1972 Bermuda Race and the 1979 Fastnet come up, veterans of both (like myself) tend to say that the Gulf Stream was at least as

Even 40 years on, the heavy upwind conditions that are common on the Bermuda Race often favour heavier-displacement designs like the British Swan 48 Noryema which won the very rough 1972 race. The race traditionally anchored the Onion Patch series, which once ranked alongside other premier international team events like the Southern Cross

demanding as the Western Approaches, but of course a lot less cold.

On the far side of the Stream lies Happy Valley, the ironic name for the tricky patch of ocean before Bermuda where most races are won and lost as shifts and current changes arrive more rapidly. Finally, the sprint to the finish begins when the loom of Gibbs Hill Lighthouse at last appears.

Tom Day’s revolution

Founded in 1844, the Royal Bermuda YC has helped run the race for all of its 110 years. The race was founded in 1906 by a strongly opinionated English-born sailor, Thomas Fleming Day, editor of the promi- nent American sailing magazine The Rudder. When he announced in 1906, ‘The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant,’ Day essen- tially invented ocean racing in normal boats for American amateur sailors. ‘Some thought him foolish, others downright crazy,’ another sailor said of Tom Day. ‘But, despite the doleful howls and lugubrious prophecies, skipper Day persisted. He knew that small craft, if properly designed, built and handled, were just as safe at sea as larger ones. So he preached, prayed and cajoled and cussed a lot; organised his race, and ran it to a successful conclusion, without damage or

loss of a boat, or harm to an individual.’ In 1905 11 huge schooners with an average length of more than 160ft had raced from New York to England. A year later three boats between 28 and 38ft crossed a startline off Brooklyn, New York, and commenced to race to Bermuda. Day won that race in the 38ft yawl Tamer- lane with a crew of five. The boat’s experi- ence inspired one of his crew to comment, ‘By 6am 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…’ The race was revived after World War I by members of the new Cruising Club of America, many of whose founders were veterans of World War I submarine chasers and coastal patrol boats. When asked to justify a cruising club’s support of a race, the club’s Commodore, Herbert L Stone (like Day the editor of a boating magazine), drafted a mission statement stating that the race aimed ‘to encourage the designing, building and sailing of small seaworthy yachts, to make popular cruis- ing upon deep water, to develop in the amateur sailor a love of true seamanship and to give opportunity to become profi- cient in the art of navigation.’

The idea caught on quickly on two  SEAHORSE 37


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