Newport-Bermuda: How the Other Half Lives

Take a swing at a serious distance race, promises Herb McCormick, and you'll come away with a trick or three that makes you a better all-around sailor. "Herb's Watch" for July 8, 2008

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Peter Creeden sails the J/145 Buena Racha hard to weather in the latter stages of the 2008 Newport-Bermuda Race.Herb Mccormick

Like many sailors who cut their ocean-sailing teeth on the U.S. East Coast, my first offshore passage was the classic Newport-Bermuda run, which in many ways was a magical experience. I was sailing one of Garry Hoyt's Freedom 44 cat-ketches, a simple, strong, and efficient vessel, and every bit of the trip was an eye-opener: the dancing porpoises, the thundering squall lines, that simmering, pulsating cauldron of blue known as the Gulf Stream. And at the other end of the rainbow was beautiful, pristine Bermuda, as alluring a destination as one could ever hope for. To put it mildly, I was hooked.

In the years since, I've been back and forth to Bermuda--racing, cruising, and deliveries--on numerous occasions. And that's why, on the eve of the biennial Newport-Bermuda Race in mid-June, I was feeling a little wistful. For several reasons, I'd decided to sit this one out, but as the start day drew near I was seriously reconsidering my stance. But I knew it was too late to do anything about it.

Well, maybe not too late.

For the day before the June 20th start, I quite accidentally ran into an old sailing friend who knew another old sailing friend who was captaining the J/145 Buena Racha in the 635-mile ocean race. At just about the last minute, skipper Greg Sloat lost one of his crewmen and needed someone to round out his team. I thought about it for around 11 seconds. I was bound, once again, for Bermuda.

Now I think most sailors understand that there's a mighty big difference between voyaging offshore and racing offshore. The biggest, really, is just the pace of life onboard. When racing, no maneuver or sail change (and the constant sail changes, often at the slightest alteration of wind strength or direction, really separate the genres) ever occurs at half speed. When you're on watch you're sailing and when off, you're getting some nourishment or some rest. I've never been aboard a race boat that, after 48 hours or so, wasn't a complete disaster below. But I'd also encourage any cruising sailor, if given the opportunity, to take a swing at a race like Newport-Bermuda and catch a glimpse at how the other half lives. I absolutely guarantee that you'll come away with a trick or three that makes you a better all-around sailor.

Plus, you know, given the choice between work and sailing, wouldn't you prefer to be at sea?

I certainly was pleased with my decision on the afternoon of the 20th, when that classic summer sou'westerly sea breeze came coursing up Narragansett Bay, and the roughly 200 boats on their way to the "Onion Patch" congregated in the waters off Castle Hill, where scores of spectators took in the action from the sloping lawn. Buena Racha got a good, clean start, and all was going swimmingly...for the first 20 minutes. That's when a southerly gust puffed into the mid-teens and, due in part to operator error, we put a nice tear into the luff of our light headsail. There was the requisite fire drill--torn sail down, new sail up--before we settled in and got rolling again. Sitting on the rail and catching my breath, I took in the dozens of boats around us and realized there was absolutely nowhere I'd rather have been.

That didn't actually last very long. As always, the Newport-Bermuda Race (and for that matter, any voyage to Bermuda under any circumstance) relies heavily on the talents and insights of the navigator, and the one major feature that always plays a critical role in the trip is the transit of that famous "river in the sea," the Gulf Stream. Those who play the eddies and currents to the max, or who cross the northeasterly setting stream at its narrowest juncture, invariable reap the highest rewards. For those who tackle it randomly or capriciously, it often, as my grandmother was so fond of saying, ends in tears.

This year, the forecasters were adamant about one thing and one thing only: the best place to cross the stream was well to the west of the rhumb line, where a recently formed warm eddy was providing a sweet escalator south. Furthermore, the eddy provided a gateway to a narrow juncture where the stream measured a slim 25-miles from northern wall to southern exit. To do well, the conventional wisdom went--particularly for mid-sized boats like our 48-footer--you had to get west early. That was that.

The trouble was, a pre-race forecast that called for a nice right-hand shift never materialized, so getting west was a windward slog. As we sailed through the first night and into the second day--basically aiming at New Jersey--it was a painful journey. And more and more, it was clear, there were navigators and crews that didn't have the stomach for it (and who, really, could blame them?). As we extended right, we watched several boats bag it and turn south. Pretty soon, we learned, of the thirteen boats in our class we were, gulp, thirteenth.

But navigator Sloat had a plan, and by golly, he was determined to stick with it (even as his minions on the rail whined and grumbled). We found the eddy and got a nice 2-3 knot boost. Then we were in the Stream and, precisely 48 hours after starting the race, out the other side. From there, we began the long march back from zeroes to heroes.

It was weird being in a race and seeing no other boats, as we indeed were the furthest right in our class. But it paid dividends. Big ones. From 330 miles out, we sheeted everything home and, remarkably, incredibly, never tacked off starboard until we were right off the island, a couple of miles from the finish line.

We were second in our division to finish, which corrected out to fourth place. Once more, not only had it been a fine and rewarding experience, but also a learning one.

The toilet was clogged, the boat smelled awful, the interior looked like a bomb had gone off. But, man, that first Dark and Stormy, that lovely marriage of Goslings rum and ginger beer, sure tasted swell. Just like the last trip to Bermuda. And the one before that.