Initiate in the Stream

A lifelong inshore sailor goes offshore to test his mettle in a biennial dash to Bermuda

Lugging a warm case of Ballantine Ale, Gavin Schwartz-Leeper lumbered forward, tunneled through a mountain of sea bags in the V-berth, and stashed the beer. Aboard Allegra, the Beneteau 42 I’d signed on to sail in last summer’s Marion-Bermuda Race, it was the first step in the latest installment of a long tradition. Jim Mertz, Allegra’s 89-year-old co-owner and navigator, always brings Ballantine to Bermuda, where they’re iced down shortly before crossing the finish line and drained directly thereafter. Watching Gavin stow the brews, I wondered precisely when, and under what conditions, we’d be cracking the first one. Perhaps more pertinently, I wondered what shape I’d be in when we did.

For many of the crews in the fleet of 80 boats, which ranged in size from 32 to 60 feet, the biennial race from Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay to the Atlantic island outpost is old hat. For me, it was a voyage of firsts: first time offshore in a sailboat, first ocean race, and first time across the Gulf Stream. I wasn’t sure what to expect. After meeting the remainder of the crew--David Schwartz-Leeper (Gavin’s dad and co-owner of the boat), Ian Dunn, Ralph Cavalleri, and Chris Punter--and helping them find homes for the rest of the gear, I was pretty sure I was aboard a good boat with a good bunch of guys. The answers to my other questions? They were 645 miles distant, at the finish line.

Heading Out
One of the great things about the Marion-Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race, which is co-sponsored by the Beverly Yacht Club in Marion, Massachusetts, the Blue Water Sailing Club, and the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club in Hamilton, Bermuda, is that the event has always been a family affair: There are loads of spouses, sons, and daughters and not a professional sailor in sight. The rules, which forbid the use of spinnakers, force participants to rely purely on sailing skills rather than hi-tech equipment and hotshot personnel. Until four years ago, only celestial navigation was allowed. Today, of the six classes in the race, only two are celestial.
The race presents two main challenges: leaving Buzzards Bay, which is normally a beat to windward in a strong summer sou'wester (sometimes against the tide), and crossing the tropically heated waters of the Gulf Stream, where the weather is often unpredictable and where warm- and cold-water eddies can help or hinder progress. Playing these eddies can decide the outcome of the race. As a result of the Gulf Stream's strong northeasterly flow, traditional race strategy has been to sail 30 miles or more west of the rhumb line, which is 163 degrees magnetic. In recent years, however, as weather and Gulf Stream forecasts have improved and become more accessible and as navigation using the Global Positioning System (GPS) has been allowed in the race, more sailors are rolling the dice and heading east of the rhumb line to catch favorable eddies that will slingshot them toward the finish line.

After the skippers’ meeting, which includes a weather briefing and the latest Gulf Stream analysis, I asked David about our race strategy. “Well,” he said, “I asked Jim the same thing, and he kind of made a funny face. He’s raced west of the rhumb line for over 60 years”--his first Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda Race was in 1936--“and he’s not gonna change now.”

In fact, despite the forecast presence of a favorable south-southeast meander in the Gulf Stream to the east, most skippers decided to go west of the rhumb line. Going east was just too risky.

At 1200 on Friday, June 22, we left the Beverly Yacht Club and motored to the start deep in Buzzards Bay. By then the morning’s fog had burned off, and in its place was a brisk, 12- to 18-knot breeze from the southeast. Without the traditional sou’wester, the Buzzards Bay leg this year would thankfully be a close reach on port tack, not a beat.

Our gun went off at 1400. By then, we'd already solved one crisis--a missing batten in the mainsail--and were working to reconfigure the mainsheet traveler, which couldn't be trimmed high enough to windward. I shrugged and enjoyed a great afternoon sail, which was followed that evening by shepherd's pie. By the time I hit my bunk, at 2100, I'd already reached a milestone when land, never more than a few miles off during a lifetime of sailing, finally slipped below the horizon.
Shortly before midnight, I awoke for my first watch and realized that an inexorable change had taken place during my slumber--I wasn't feeling so hot. Though green around the gills, I pulled on my foulies and harness and went topside. Ralph was driving and talking with Chris; Gavin was slumped on the leeward side of the cockpit. He and I exchanged knowing glances. In the darkness, the boat pitched in the ocean swell, and intermittent spray sparkled like gems in the red and green running lights. The wind was blowing 18 to 20 knots and had shifted from southeast to south-southeast. Sometime during the watch, Chris, Ralph, and Gavin had tacked onto starboard. I glanced at the speedo, expecting to see at least 6 or 7 knots. I was in for a surprise: It read 3.5 knots. We'd had problems with the gauge earlier in the day, but something felt wrong. I switched on my headlamp and looked to leeward to see our No. 2 genoa clinging grimly to the side of the boat like a bedraggled remora. The sail had wriggled partway out of the bag, which had been tied to the toerail. I yelled, and several of the crew joined me in a frantic effort to save it. Once it was aboard and properly lashed on the starboard rail, we all sat panting, looking at each other, and the speedo jumped to 7. I felt the shepherd's pie shift, as though deciding where it was most comfortable--up or down--and then the nausea passed. I was now truly part of the crew.

Settling In
Before heading offshore, my days were neatly divided: I slept when it was dark, and I worked or played when it was light. Aboard Allegra, the position of the sun was less relevant. Instead, Jim's watch system--where responsibility for the boat was doled out in three- or four-hour increments for days on end--reigned supreme. Onshore, time is so precious that I rarely lose track of it; offshore, days melted into each other. I liked being offshore.

We spent Saturday and most of Sunday on starboard tack in a southerly breeze that sometimes exceeded 20 knots. We beat to windward for two days, taking a southwesterly swell on the starboard bow while we were relentlessly pushed to the east. At night, in my port-side pipe berth, I’d lay pressed against the skin of the hull, listening to the water rushing past. Amid the gurgling noises and the occasional crash of a wave, there was an undeniable humming, like that of high-tension power lines, coursing through the rig. Before passing out, usually within minutes of lying down, I couldn’t shake the thought that we’d stumbled upon an ancient coal car in a mineshaft, and that after freeing the rusty wheels, we’d climbed inside and were plummeting down a steep and winding track. I’d wake to find a headlamp shining in my face.

It was my watch.

The Gulf Stream
Sunday afternoon, Jim took his noon sight and we panicked: The Gulf Stream was half a day away, and we were still 30 miles east of the rhumb line. Curiously absent, too, were boats. Were we out in left field all by ourselves? After joking about sailing to Halifax, we put in a hitch to the west.

When I awoke Sunday night at midnight, we were back on starboard tack and finally in the Gulf Stream. The wind was a benign 12 knots, and the seas were relatively flat. Aside from the occasional rain and wind squalls, it was beautiful sailing. While I was at the helm Monday morning, we recorded our highest windspeed of the trip--26 knots--during a heavy rain squall. Later that morning, when the Stream was behind us, I couldn’t help thinking that we’d already ascended the mountain and that now we were on our way down. Jim took his noon sight, worked the numbers, then climbed the companionway ladder. “Where are we?” one of us asked. Jim smiled, shook his head, and said, “You don’t want to know.” We were 60 miles east of the rhumb line, twice as far as we’d been the previous day. More and more, it was looking like a beat all the way to Bermuda.

The Back Stretch
By Tuesday morning, the breeze had dropped to roughly 10 knots, and it was clocking to the west-northwest. We cracked the sheets for the first time in five days and pointed the bow directly at Bermuda. Gavin, who'd been battling seasickness for much of the trip, came topside, and we enjoyed a serene sail that was highlighted by visits from schools of dolphins. On this particular day they seemed like a good omen, as though they had come by to break the good news: "You'll reach all the way to Bermuda from here. Sorry about the last five days. Cheerio." By 1700, however, with the wind 5 knots or less, the discussion turned to Jim's 1998 Newport-Bermuda Race, in which light air forced him for the first time in over 60 years of racing to Bermuda to do the unthinkable--retire. Could it happen again?

That night, the sails slatted between gentle zephyrs that pushed us along at 4 knots or less. An updated forecast promised 3- to 5-knot breezes for the remainder of the week. When the crew gathered for a team meeting at 0600, we talked of abandoning the race. In the end, only David resisted. For the crew of Allegra, the 2001 Marion-Bermuda Race ended 90 miles from the finish, where, with mixed feelings, we put the engine in gear.

At 1900, as we approached Bermuda’s St. George, I was handed a cold Ballantine Ale. We weren’t crossing the line under sail, but no one aboard felt undeserving; we’d paid our dues battling stiff breezes that had been on the nose for the greater part of 500 miles. Ultimately, 26 of 80 boats dropped out, most due to light air, and it was the slowest Marion-Bermuda ever. The first boat across, Veritas, finished at 0232 on Thursday in an elapsed time of 5d:13h: 17m:10s; in 1993, Alphida, skippered by Kirk Cooper, finished in just over three days. If crews were disappointed with this year’s race, they were quickly consoled by a few rum drinks at the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club.

Was I disappointed? Heck, no; I’d just made my first offshore passage.

Bob Muggleston is a Cruising World associate editor.