To say that this past summer’s 2016 Newport Bermuda Race was an unusual, historic event would be to traffic in understatement. Several days before the June 17 start, a forecast of extreme gales in the Gulf Stream persuaded the crews of more than 50 boats, out of an original entry list of 185 yachts, to sit this one out. Surprisingly, many of them were the largest vessels in the fleet, crewed by all-star professional sailors. Once a few of those pros made their intention to bail clear, there was a mad rush to the exits. It was a bit of a head-scratcher. After all, the event is an ocean race. What did everyone think they’d signed up for?
The biggest entry, the 100-foot Comanche, skippered by the renowned offshore campaigner Ken Read, did set sail, and the team’s efforts were rewarded with a new race record on elapsed time after a smoking-fast passage of 34 hours, 42 minutes, 33 seconds — an 18-knot average speed over the 635-mile course, breaking the old elapsed-time record by a solid five hours.
Even though it took the next boat, High Noon, another two days to reach the island, when it did, the accomplishments of its crew were so startling that they overshadowed Comanche’s splendid achievement and became the story of the 2016 race. After all, High Noon was a mere 41 feet, monumentally smaller (and older) than many of the yachts it dispatched on a boat-to-boat basis. But here was the real kicker: Of the 10-person crew, seven were between the ages of 15 and 18. As the pro sailors who’d dropped out took to social media to congratulate themselves on their prudence, a boatload of teenagers tested themselves in the North Atlantic with stunning results.
Ironic? Yup. Cool and incredible? Oh yes.
There were three adults in the crew, who all deserve recognition: Peter Becker and Rob Alexander of the American Yacht Club in Rye, New York, and world-class Spanish competitor Guillermo Altadill, a sailing pal of Becker’s, who called Altadill “easily the best sailor I’ve ever sailed with” and “the secret sauce in this equation.”
Then there were the junior sailors, the heroes of this fabulous chapter in Bermuda Race lore: Colin Alexander, Carina Becker, Brooks Daley, Hector McKemy, Richard O’Leary, Will McKeige and Madelyn Ploch. Let’s tip the hat to them.
It was Peter Becker, however, who really got the party started. A veteran of 16 Bermuda Races, he did his first one in 1974, at the age of 15. It was an experience that left a lifelong impression. The AYC has a long-established big-boat program for junior sailors, which Becker took over about five years ago. “I was driven by a desire to give back,” he said, “though it didn’t hurt that my kids were old enough to participate.”
For the last several years, the youngsters raced a J/105, but for the Bermuda Race, Becker negotiated a sweet charter deal for the Tripp 41 High Noon, from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Sailing Foundation.
Regarding the forecast, Becker said: “It was easy for us to make the go/no-go decision. We knew the boat, the quality of the adult supervision — with Guillermo being supersize there — and we knew the quality and mettle of each of the junior sailors.”
Plus, they kept a clear eye on the weather forecasts, and as it turned out, the fierce predictions never materialized. “We didn’t see anything outrageous,” said Becker. “Maybe 30 knots with gusts to 35. We were on port tack 90 percent of the time, but there were no slamming conditions.”
In fact, it was light air near the finish that doomed High Noon‘s chances of winning the whole shooting match on corrected time; those honors went to an Xp 44 called Warrior Won.
But don’t shed a tear for the Noon-timers; at the race’s awards ceremony, they took home a truckload of trophies (eight in all), perhaps the most prestigious one being the new Stephens Brothers Trophy (named for yachting legends Olin and Rod), awarded to the top boat with a youth crew.
For Becker, however, the best souvenir of the race came just after arriving (High Noon passed Comanche, already being delivered home), on the way to the empty docks. Once there, they were shown to the cherished slip next to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club reserved for the top boat in.
“It’s only the maxi sailors, and only a few of them, who’ve ever arrived and seen nobody there,” he said. “And here we are in this little boat. It’s not a view a 41-footer is supposed to see. That was daunting. And it was really cool.”
Herb McCormick is Cruising World’s executive editor.