Two Ships Passing in the Stream

Setting sail on the same June day, one sailor was northbound in the doublehanded Bermuda One/Two Race, the other southbound in the fully crewed Marion-Bermuda Race. And in more ways than one, ne'er the twain did meet

March 4, 2004

It was a matter of parallel universes, comparable in some aspects, yet completely alien in many others. Yes, the body of water, complete with the mighty Gulf Stream-that fabled stretch of North Atlantic Ocean separating coastal New England and Bermuda-was most certainly the same. So, too, was the purpose for heading to sea: to race offshore with and against a group of like-minded sailors.

But, considering the very different boats, crew sizes, and even course headings, that’s where the similarities ceased.

For on June 20 of last year, CW editor Herb McCormick joined accomplished solo sailor Steve Pettengill in Bermuda aboard the Hunter HC 50 Hunter’s Child for the doublehanded leg of the Bermuda One/Two race to Newport, Rhode Island. At the same time, CW executive editor Tim Murphy was boarding the Bowman 57 Rose with five other crewmates in Buzzards Bay off the coast of Massachusetts for the start of the biennial Marion to Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race.
Here are their stories.


Aboard Rose: Day One
Herb Hilgenberg had spoken: The slower boats in the 2003 Marion-Bermuda race fleet could expect a royal thrashing. The man whom so many sailors know through their single-sideband receivers as a voice of weather-borne deliverance or doom stood before us in Marion’s Tabor Academy auditorium on the eve of our departure.

“We have a rather complicated weather pattern,” he told the fourscore amateur skippers and their crews. Herb’s isobar diagrams, projected on a giant screen behind him, coldly hinted at what was in store when, two days later in the Gulf Stream, the fleet’s rear guard would likely be overrun by the weather front that linked a 999-millibar low to the north with a 1008-millibar low to the south, while the squash zone was completed by the 1029-millibar Bermuda High to our east. NOAA’s Ocean Prediction Center concurred, issuing gale warnings of its own. With 645 miles to sail, it was only a matter of time before somebody got pasted.

Aboard Rose, the early hours of June 20 were all about showing us that we could end up being one of those slower boats. The 28-year-old Bowman 57 ketch was on a shakedown cruise to Bermuda, halfway through a four-year refit. Her owner, George Rickley, had sailed her only once before, on a coastal delivery, and still held lots of questions about the boat. He was quick to dismiss her design as “obsolete,” like a gambler who hadn’t yet decided whether he trusted his hand.


A mere 10 minutes off the dock in New Bedford, as we reached across a moderate breeze on our way to the starting line, our secret weapon-a brand-new 1,877-square-foot asymmetric spinnaker-exploded. As if that weren’t enough, its halyard had jumped a sheave and was stuck at the masthead. By the time we had the tattered sail back aboard, George realized the B&G autopilot wouldn’t steer. “We haven’t even started yet, and we’re in pretty serious damage-control mode,” he said.

We rounded West Island, pitching into a building chop whose fetch was as long as Buzzards Bay, our eyes glued to the GPS time-to-go function. With the minutes we’d lost, George now began to wonder whether we’d even make the start in time. “Whenever our distance to the mark decreases by a tenth of a knot, so does our boat speed,” he said. “We’re locked at an hour out for infinity.”

It was hard to avoid reading omens into the morning’s events.


Aboard Hunter’s Child: Day One
On the way to the starting line in St. George’s Harbour, the VHF radio hailed skipper Steve Pettengill and me aboard Steve’s Hunter HC 50, Hunter’s Child. It was the secretary at the St. George’s Dinghy and Sports Club. The seabag full of my favorite, time-tested offshore gear as well as a nice, big gennaker-having spent the previous 48 hours since I’d checked it as luggage in a US Airways black hole-had just landed at the airport. The start was a short half hour away, and while there was simply no other realistic option, for the next four days I’d still lament my three-word reply: “Send it home.”

The day before, I’d missed the weather briefing whilst on an aggravating $400 shopping spree in Hamilton buying fleece, undergarments, shorts, and other assorted crap I already owned in abundance. (Thanks again, US Air!) When I returned, Steve spread out the chart and the latest Gulf Stream data and explained the tactical situation.

Whether racing or cruising, when sailing to or from Bermuda on passage north of the island, it’s all about the Stream. And Steve, on his way toward winning his class on the solo leg down, had played an eddy or two to absolute perfection. For the doublehanded return leg, it appeared there were two clear-cut choices in negotiating the Stream, either of which might be greatly affected by the long-term forecast, which called for a northwesterly breeze to fill in on the approach to the Eastern Seaboard.


The first option, which we’d soon learn was favored by the majority of the fleet, was to steer west of the rhumb line after the start to cross the Stream at its narrowest local juncture. While this strategy would add some 80 miles to the voyage, it was doubly alluring in that the early westing could provide excellent reaching conditions in the latter stage of the trip if the nor’wester filled in as predicted.

Steve’s choice, however, was to hold a more easterly line to take advantage of the two- to four-knot conveyor-belt effects of a well-established cold eddy and warm eddy, respectively, to either side of the Gulf Stream. But there were two downsides to this thinking, one certain, one potential. The former was that it would necessitate a broader transit of the Stream. The latter was that if the forecast held true, we might be in for an upwind slog to the finish, which wasn’t the HC 50’s favorite point of sail.

Things began well as we nailed the harbor start, unrolled the big screecher set off the bowsprit on its own dedicated furling drum, and led our class through the cut out of St. George’s to the cheers of shoreside spectators and a big tourist boat.

It was all going great until suddenly it wasn’t. As we cleared Kitchen Shoal and came up on the 15- to 20-knot west-southwesterly breeze, the apparent wind went forward, and we were clearly overpowered under the light screecher. We set the Number Two and bore away but, to put it mildly, had an issue or two refurling the screecher. Almost instantly, it was in the water, we were basically parked, and it took a mighty, sweaty effort to recapture the sail, the foot of which sported a nice, long tear.

Steve had several observations on the incident, none of which are appropriate for a wholesome family sailing magazine. We doused the sail below and got back on course.

Aboard Rose: Day Two

What a difference a day makes. The lows to our north and west sent us unseasonable easterlies of 15 to 20 knots. By midafternoon Saturday, we’d banked a solid 150 miles, nearly every one of them gained in pleasant reaching conditions, and we all settled in with the boat and with our shipmates.

Four of Rose’s six-man complement were airline pilots for Delta. George Rickley flies 767s to Europe, as do Jeff Hall and George Suttler. The fourth pilot, Ron Kauppila, now retired, had long been a mentor to Rickley, both in the air and on the water.

That left me and Bill Seifert. If at first I thought our secret weapon was going to be that cruising chute, I was wrong. Bill Seifert was sailing aboard Rose as cook-a fact which, it soon became clear, was like having Joe Torre coaching first base on your kid’s Little League team. “Chef Guillaume,” “Pound-a-day Bill,” “Seef”: Call him what you will, this man’s on the short list of humans who’ve sailed to Bermuda or back 47 times. Among the sailors of the Marion-Bermuda fleet, he was something of a celebrity, owing in part to his roles as pre-race inspector and presenter of a slide-show on preparing boats for sailing offshore at the Marion-Bermuda race seminar in March at MIT, and in part to his authorship of the book Offshore Sailing: 200 Essential Passagemaking Tips (International Marine). In many ways, Bill’s presence aboard the boat would make the trip.

The rest of us brought to the passage what talents we had. Immediately after George Rickley realized the autopilot wasn’t working, he set Jeff the task of repairing it. “It’s all on your shoulders, unless we’re going to steer for 600 miles,” George told him. And as we pitched through the Buzzards Bay chop, Jeff doggedly combed through the manual till he found that the unit wanted to be initialized. Within the hour, he had us back in business.

Meanwhile, George outlined the four stages of the race to Bermuda: first, out Buzzards Bay; second, to the north wall of the Gulf Stream’s southeast meander; third, across the Gulf Stream; and finally, a beeline to Kitchen Shoal. Hitting the southeast meander just west of the rhumb line promised a boost of as much as three knots.

In the end, we did make the starting box in time. As it happened, the leg out Buzzards Bay was dead downwind, an anomaly in the race’s 26-year history. And an important one, too, as this was the first time the Marion-Bermuda committee-the cruisingest bunch of race organizers you’ll ever find-consented to allow spinnakers (asymmetric cruising chutes only, please).

This left us in a pickle. We’d already taken the handicap hit for a chute that now lay decapitated on the cabin sole. So, following Bill’s lead, George Suttler and I spent most of the run out the bay and past the Elizabeth Islands stitching madly. Using sail ties of webbing as make-do luff tapes, we pushed big needles 10 times, 20 times, 30 times through the cloth while Bill filed and heated heavy-gauge stainless-steel wire to punch holes through the headboard. By Cuttyhunk, we were finished, our handiwork decorated with scads of duct tape. At the moment we came on deck, the sun popped out from a cover of clouds, treating us to the spectacle of 80 boats racing under the spread of colorful spinnakers, all bound over the horizon. We scrambled to haul aloft our own red, white, and blue colors, and what a vision it was-for about eight minutes, at which point the entire belly of the sail tore away, leaving only the luff tapes and our repair still flying from the masthead.

We were under working sails alone, boys.  

Aboard Hunter’s Child: Day Two
Herb Hilgenberg was only partially right about his pre-race forecast to the Marion-Bermuda contestants. Oh yes, someone would indeed get pasted, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t the Marion lads. It was, most unfortunately, us.

We’d had an eventful first day, ricocheting off the cold eddy south of the Stream-where the air temperature and sea state both changed dramatically, and neither for the better-and rendezvousing with our first squall just as we approached the Stream’s southern boundary. The motion was wicked, but Hunter’s Child, with a tuck in her main and water-ballast tanks topped up, was reveling in the fresh breeze, which had freed a bit to the southwest. Twenty-four hours into it, we’d knocked off 251.5 miles. “We’re haulin’ the mail,” said Steve.

That first squall, however, had been a harbinger of things to come. As Day Two wore on (and on), and we were strafed by one deluge after the next, it became very clear we wouldn’t be escaping the clutches of the Stream any time soon. With the wind gusting into the lower 30s, we took a second reef in the main and were still making 17 knots of boat speed in the surfs. During the day, Steve converted the galley into a makeshift sail loft (in the rough going, its usefulness as a place to prepare food was moot anyway), and with sticky-back tape we effected repairs to the wounded screecher, though it was clear we’d be requiring its services at no time in the immediate future.

Early that evening, we received word that competitor Tim Kent’s 50-foot Everest Horizontal had capsized the previous day after the keel’s ballast bulb had broken free (see “Everest Horizontal Capsized,” January 2004). Happily, Tim and his crew had been picked up by a cruise ship and were safe and well.

As the night wore on, the image of an ocean liner became more and more appealing. Hunter’s Child was hauling the mail, all right, but it was one wet haul. Furthermore, I was feeling fairly crummy, though I’d managed to keep down a banana and a handful of ginger snaps (to this stage, Chef Guillaume’s talents would’ve been wasted on me). In the wee, wee hours, I was huddled under the hard dodger when a flying fish came screaming into the cockpit and knocked himself temporarily senseless. It took me three tries to get ahold of his slimy, suddenly conscious carcass and fling him back into the drink.

I should’ve just waited a second. Moments later a solid wall of water barreled over the side and flooded the cockpit, whose contents-gloves, line, harnesses, water bottles-bore an eerie resemblance to kid’s toys afloat in a bathtub. As the fast-draining cockpit addressed the matter, Steve’s head popped out through the companionway. “No worries, mate,” he said. “Just keep the wet side down. We’re heading home.”

It seemed like a far way away. I had no clue just how far.

Aboard Rose: Day Three
Our fine easterly breeze held steady till the evening of June 21. Then it well and truly shut off, leaving us to watch the Windex spin round and round the masthead as Rose rolled gently in the leftover swell. At first, no one objected. It was dinnertime, after all, and Chef Guillaume had seen to it that our minds were on other things. For here, aboard this boat, at the edge of the Gulf Stream, the man had roasted a 20-pound turkey. Stuffed it with dressing. Boiled and mashed a whole mess of potatoes. Even made cranberry sauce. No, for a lovely hour our so, we fat-and-happy shipmates weren’t complaining about the weather.

But when, by sunset, the wind still hadn’t come up, the grumbling began. “This is so demoralizing,” said George. “We’ve got a boatful of guys who’re here because they want to move the boat. I’ve been in 60 knots, and I’d rather have that than this.”

Rather than add my voice to the chorus, I found my starboard-side bunk and slept off a powerful tryptophan buzz. I roused just once-enough to realize we were heeling- and set up my lee cloth for the first time, then drifted back off to sleep.

When I awoke, the classic North Atlantic southwesterly had filled in. Through the wee hours, Ron and I steered and talked about the Britt Chance 36 he found and rebuilt 25 years ago, a boat he took down the Mississippi from Michigan in 1984 and raced in the Caribbean circuit. Like so many sailors before him, he spent the night watch recalling details he hadn’t remembered in years. While we talked, a single starboard running light off our port quarter waxed, even as we willed it to dim.

I stayed on deck just long enough to see the sun come up and to identify that running light as Lady B, a Swan 53 out of Massachusetts and a competitor.

Aboard Hunter’s Child: Day Three
In the final moments of our nearly 24-hour battle to break free from the grasp of the Gulf Stream, a beast that at times was setting us afoul at speeds up to six knots, I was reduced to conjuring up fresh adjectives to describe it. Agitated, snotty, miserable, roiled, hideous, gray, depressing, and, of course, demonic all came to mind.

But then, suddenly, we were loose. Not only that, but we were trucking. Soon after putting the Stream in our rear-view mirror, and having latched on to the spiraling effects of the much anticipated warm eddy just to its north-as evidenced by the long, streaming contrails of yellow sargasso weed, resplendent against the navy-blue sea-we were making a good nine knots through the water and a solid 12 over the ground. Now two days into the passage, we were just 250 miles from Newport, closehauled with a Number Three headsail and a single-reefed main and holding course dead on the rhumb line. The sun was out, the sea was down, and before long, Steve was passing a hot lunch and a cold drink up from the galley. Can you say “Champagne sailing?”

Alas, the figurative bubbly was about to lose its fizz. As the afternoon waned, so too did the wind; the robust northwester about which we’d heard so much never did materialize, overruled by a massive high-pressure system with wide, windless gaps separating the gradients. We kept the boat moving reasonably well for the remainder of the day in a fading northerly and through the night, but not without a struggle. By dawn, Steve’s light-air sailing clinic was descending perilously close to becoming an ordeal.

Aboard Rose: Landfall
George Rickley turned out to be a man of surprising interests. At a time when the congressional cafeteria was serving freedom fries to America’s leaders, George-who served in Viet Nam with the U. S. Marines in 1969-was studying French. His boat was full of music, the styles ranging from Willie Nelson to latter-day chansonniers like Francis Cabrel. Edith Piaf held the place of honor: His boat’s theme song was “La Vie en Rose.”

I awoke on the afternoon of June 23 to a full-on fais dodo from the Cajun group BeauSoleil blasting from the speakers and the rest of the crew whooping it up in the cockpit. For half the day, Lady B, with her crisp new carbon-flecked sails and her dozen uniformed crew on the rail, had been trying to pass us. Eventually, they headed up, sailing the hotter angle, while we-taking turns with the autopilot remote, eating like kings, and napping often-sailed the rhumb line, at hull speed and at ease ever since the breeze came back.

The ruckus that woke me came when Lady B, now on port tack, returned and, for all her trying to get ahead of us, crossed astern. Ron was alone on deck and had to wake the others to come. “I’d been saving the BeauSoleil,” George said. “Until now, I hadn’t felt happy enough to play it.”

By this time, it was clear he knew he’d found a good boat. If the mid-1970s Holman & Pye design was, as he said, obsolete, then it was obsolete in all the right ways. The ketch rig was simple to manage, the modest displacement lent an easy motion through all the conditions we’d experienced, and the layout was divided ideally to accommodate the six of us. George was on the final approach in his career, two years out from retirement. He hoped to sail Rose in this race again in 2005, but then keep going south and west.

At day’s end, as we gathered in the cockpit for a meal of Caesar salad, creamed spinach, potatoes au gratin, and the best prime rib I’ve ever eaten, Lady B crossed ahead of us and disappeared over the western horizon. By then, we weren’t much interested.

That night, using a Winlink account over SSB radio, I exchanged e-mails with my wife in Rhode Island. The weather we’d worried about four days earlier had stalled for a day, then pounded the folks back home. Lightning and thunder, she said, blew pictures off the walls in our house. Meanwhile, all through the night we aboard Rose were lulled by 12- and 15-knot southwesterlies that kept our wake hissing astern and, before long, brought the loom of Gibbs Hill Light into view.

Next morning, as we approached Kitchen Shoal, three boats came up behind us from the west. At their vanguard was-yes!-Lady B. Now in the home stretch, hardening up for the finish off St. David’s Head, we were truly racing, fingers on the helm, crew poised over winch handles, trimming for every header and lift. But once the Swan was up on the wind, there was no stopping her. A couple of hundred yards shy of the finish, she rolled us.

Aboard Rose, there were no hard feelings. They’d earned their triumph, after all. As we motored in through Bermuda’s crystal-blue water toward Hamilton, George asked me whether I’d come back for the next one.

“Hell, yes,” I said. This was my kind of racing.

Aboard Hunter’s Child: Landfall
On our bright-red 50-footer, there was no turkey. There was no prime rib. The nearest thing we had was humble pie.

That’s what light air will serve you, and we had it in spades. Our last day at sea was longer than long. The salient numbers are these: It took us nearly 18 hours to cover the last 60 miles. We weren’t going very fast, but at least it was searing outside.

We rolled the screecher out, we rolled the screecher in (with no screeching in between). The spinnaker went up, the spinnaker came down. The breeze, such as it was, was due south. Then due east. Then due west. Then gone. Like, well, the wind. The only good news, we’d later learn, was that there was only one boat ahead of us: Tim Troy’s Open 60 Margaret Anna, which was racing in a different class and finished a full day before us. Astern were the remainder of the 25-odd competing boats, including the six boats in our division, which would catch us on neither elapsed nor corrected time. Happily for us, their conditions were no better than ours.
The final indignity was latching on to a fishing trap some 15 miles from the finish. Luckily, we broke free quickly and were treated first to a spectacular sunrise, then to the astounding vision of a school of sharks, dozens of them, looking as if they were on the way to a casting call for Jaws VI. They turned out to be a good omen.

We hoisted the spinnaker one last time, sheeted it all the way home-it’s an off-wind sail, but even strapped in, it was the only thing that’d keep us moving-and at a little after 8 in the morning crossed the finish line near Castle Hill at a blistering four knots to complete the little-bit-of-everything leg in a smidgen under four days.

Steve popped in an old Marshall Tucker Band tape-Edith Piaf was nowhere to be found-but all I could think of was a line from an old Doors tune: “Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.” Which is exactly what we did.

Longtime Cruising World colleagues Tim Murphy and Herb McCormick have come to realize they’re probably unemployable in any other field. But they’re OK with it.


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