Slow Boats to Bermuda

The 100th anniversary Newport-Bermuda Race proves to be more a test of cooking skills than seamanship

OctPassNotes

Ceramco sets sail at the start of the Newport-Bermuda Race.Marianne Groszko

The closest we got to a healthy breeze in the 2006 centennial Newport-Bermuda Race were the gales of laughter that swept up from the saloon after lunch on the third day out. As my watch tried to coax an extra tenth of a knot out of Ceramco New Zealand, an aluminum Farr 68, the B watch sat on the sails below and roared at The Wedding Crashers on DVD.

We'd started out well. The bright sunshine had warmed the land enough to generate a 12-knot sea breeze out of the southwest, allowing us to point sufficiently high to lay the buoys at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. We decided to go for a very conservative start, figuring it didn't make much sense to be over the starting line early on a 635-mile race with 264 entries. As we close-reached out to sea at nine or 10 knots in smooth water, we waited for the wind to die as forecast. We were pretty happy to be the fourth closest boat to Bermuda when it finally shut down a day and a half later.

The race went downhill from there. We were parked in a cold eddy south of the Gulf Stream and still had three to four knots of current pushing us toward our destination. The problem with cold eddies is that they're roughly circular in shape. Soon, the current that'd been helping us started pushing us east and then northeast, away from our goal, as we struggled to keep the boat moving.

The boats that stayed just a little farther west seemed to make out best in the race. They ran out of wind at about the same time as we did, but they got out of the eddy and didn't have to battle the current to start making way toward Bermuda again.

Talking to other crews after the finish, I found that most enjoyed a very pleasant sail. It was calm, sunny, and warm, and everyone ate like kings. Except the crews on the flat-out raceboats who had freeze-dried food ("It really isn't too bad. They've improved it a lot." Right). Aboard Ceramco, owner Diane Masters first went to sea as the cook on the famous maxi racer Kialoa III, so she knows how to produce truly fabulous meals for a hungry crew. And produce she did, starting with lamb chops with rice and fresh veggies, followed by homemade strawberry shortcake. (I watched her make it, and no, I looked nothing like a vulture watching dinner get run over on a lonely road. I merely hovered around the galley to see if I could help.) She fed us a cooked breakfast daily (I think she used 35 to 40 eggs each day-and is there a better smell than that of frying bacon wafting out the hatch on a cool morning at sea?), and our "rough-weather" meal of shepherd's pie made with mashed cauliflower instead of potatoes was wolfed down on a warm, calm evening.

After spending a few years sailing on the maxi circuit, Diane decided she'd rather own boats than be paid to work on them. She started her own business installing flooring in houses and now employs several dozen people. A few years ago, she embarked on a search for just the right boat. It had to be big enough to accommodate a lot of friends, tough, fast, comfortable, and fun to sail. She found all that in Ceramco New Zealand, built as the late Sir Peter Blake's entry in the 1981 Whitbread Around the World Race.

Our skipper for the Newport-Bermuda Race was Robert "Whitey" Russell, a tremendously experienced ex-yacht captain who helped Diane find the boat and then refit Ceramco over the winter, all with a view to sailing the 2006 race. Afterward, Diane planned to spend the summer daysailing with friends and perhaps doing a cruise to Maine if her work schedule permitted. This fall, she plans to sail Ceramco down to Saint-Barthelemy in the French West Indies and commute back and forth over the winter before sailing next spring across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. There, she plans to cruise the Balearic Islands and spend time in Valencia, Spain, watching the America's Cup races.

Diane wasn't the only entrant in the Newport-Bermuda Race with exciting plans. This year's race was merely the first leg for Colin Golder, who sailed Morgan of Marietta, his Wauquiez Centurion 42, in the race for the sixth time. Instead of sailing home to New Jersey, Golder, now retired, intended his next stop after Bermuda to be Horta, on the island of Faial in the Azores. He took advantage of the fact that race organizers sent nine shipping containers to Bermuda to have his Monitor windvane, dinghy, and other cruising gear meet him on the island after the race. He planned to cruise the Azores for a few weeks, then spend the balance of the summer cruising in Portugal before leaving the boat in southern Spain for the winter. The best things about the race for Morgan's crew were the nice weather, finding the eddies in the Stream, and having literally dozens of dolphins play around the boat for more than an hour-letting the sailors know they were in the right place at the right time. The crew evened out varying degrees of culinary expertise by cooking ahead and freezing several meals before leaving the dock. Every evening they popped one in the oven, and the whole crew sat down and relaxed for an hour over dinner.

Because of the light airs, this year's race was the second slowest on record. New York businessman Tom Carroll's previous race was on a Sweden 38 in 1998, the slowest race. He entered this year with Siren Song, his new J/133, and a crew of friends from western Long Island Sound. But this wasn't just any random group of guys: Watch captains Butch Ulmer and Howie McMichael have sailed the race 19 and 15 times, respectively; navigator H. L. DeVore had sailed four Bermuda races. Tom's son was aboard, sailing his first.

Though he intended to spend most of his time on the boat racing this summer, Carroll seemed a bit too proud of the job his girlfriend, actress Stephanie Powers, had done decorating the interior to convince me that he was a cutthroat racer, his racing record with the new boat notwithstanding.

When I asked him the standard interviewer question about his motivation for sailing the Newport-Bermuda Race this year, Tom's answer was especially poignant: "One of my best friends developed brain cancer last year. He was only 53 years old. We spent a lot of time discussing priorities in the three months before he died. We talked a lot about doing things, about not putting things off. The funeral was in September. I ordered the boat in October, and I ran the New York Marathon in November."

Dan Biemesderfer, a professor at Yale Medical School, sailed Shearwater, his beautiful Mason 43, in the race. Docked at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in a prime spot after the finish, her sweeping sheer, long cabin house, bronze ports, and gleaming varnish provided quite a contrast to the dedicated racing boats surrounding her. She's a lovely and elegant cruising boat, certainly no racer. When I asked why he'd enter such a boat, Dan explained that he loves Bermuda and has done the Marion-Bermuda race since 2001, competing in the celestial-navigation division last year. He enjoys sailing offshore and doing the work to prepare the boat beforehand. The rigorous requirements and inspections leading up to the race help him ensure that the boat's ready for any conditions when his family is aboard.

Dan's crew of, as he described them, "hard-core racers," kept the boat moving in the light airs that frustrated so many of the sailors in the race. Having a crew of committed sailors aboard didn't prevent them from having a bottle or two of wine with their gourmet dinner every night. But the crew, no doubt, was a factor in the boat's final placing: Shearwater crossed the finish line off St. David's Head at 2131 on Wednesday to take third place in Class 14 and seventh overall on corrected time in the Cruiser Division.

Finishing just eight minutes behind them was another boat named Shearwater-a Morris 40 sailed by Conrad Hall, CEO of Trader Publishing, the company that owns Soundings magazine. This Shearwater placed third in class and fourth overall in the Cruiser Division. Conrad sailed the boat in the last Newport-Bermuda Race with a six-man crew, but since a rule change in the Cruiser Division allowed the use of autopilots this year, he felt he could sail with one less person and have a little more elbow room.

He's no stranger to offshore sailing. Every year he sails Shearwater back and forth offshore from her winter home at the Morris yard in Bass Harbor, Maine, to her summer home in Norfolk, Virginia, a distance each way approximately the same as that of the Newport-Bermuda Race. He has a great deal of confidence in his boat. "The Morris is a wonderful ocean boat for its size," says Conrad. "The crew may fail the boat, but the boat's never going to fail the crew." He loves the adventure of sailing an offshore race: "It's such a change from normal life, and sailing with good friends makes it all the more fun."

Learning about the weather and offshore sailing were the prime motivations behind Iris and Alex Frowein's decision to enter the race with Alaeris, their Outbound 46. They used to spend summers cruising their C&C 34 around the New England coast. Every winter, they'd charter bareboats in the Caribbean, and inspired by an article in the August 2005 Cruising World, "Secrets Revealed," they chartered in Culebra and Vieques last winter.
In 2004, Iris and Alex started thinking about packing up and venturing farther afield in a boat of their own. They decided the C&C was too small to suit them as a liveaboard for an extended cruise, so they started looking at bigger boats. That summer, an Outbound 44 sailed into their marina, and they liked what they saw. They contacted Skip Pond at Outbound Yachts and ended up taking delivery of a new Outbound 46 last fall. Skip suggested that sailing in the Newport-Bermuda Race would be a good way to get themselves and the boat up to snuff right away. "The boat was 90-percent ready when I got it," Alex says. "Having the race coming up was a great motivating factor to complete getting the boat prepared. Buying storm canvas and making sure that the refrigerators' lids lock in place get put off longer than they should-this way, we got it all done at once, rather than piecemeal."

Self-described cruisers, they turned over nominal skippering duties for the race to Jim Binch, a Long Island sailor who's done several Newport-Bermuda Races in the double-handed division with watch captain Ned Brooks. Skip Pond also sailed on the boat. Alex appreciated having their talent available to tap into during the race. "Skip was a treasure trove of knowledge and experience, and the fact that he's sailed the Outbounds so many miles was very helpful, too."

Alex's position as navigator helped him ramp up his weather-forecasting skills as he learned more about weather routing and GRIB files. Iris loved the race, too. The helmsman of the pair, she also felt she'd become a better sailor, and she loved learning what the boat was capable of in light airs when you can't motor. Sailing offshore for the first time, they became an even better team, Alex says. "We've always been pretty dialed into each other on the boat, communicating well and sharing sailing duties." He notes that though they improved their skills immensely and became much more confident in, and comfortable with, the boat, they have no plans to take up racing full-time.

A few days after the finish of the race, Iris flew home to work while Alex sailed the boat back to Newport with two crew. Though they're thinking about entering the Marion-Bermuda race next year, Iris and Alex say their plans to go cruising in a year or two are now confirmed.

Because it was the centennial, this year's Newport-Bermuda Race saw more traditional boats entered than usual. Sailing under two different handicap rules used to predict theoretical boat speed, the race was won by two boats more than 25 years old: Lively Lady II, a 1970s-vintage Carter 37 owned by William Hubbard III, took handicap honors in the IRC Class, and Sinn Fein, a 1960s-vintage Cal 40 owned by Peter Rebovich, won the ORR Class.

Andrew Burton, a CW associate editor, sailed aboard Ceramco New Zealand.