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When James A. “Jim” McCurdy of McCurdy & Rhodes in 1985 designed the 38-foot cutter Selkie for his family, competing in the Newport Bermuda Race was, of course, part of the plan.

“My father had done Bermuda races since the 1950s,” says Sheila McCurdy. “He would disappear every two years for a week or so. My mother would disappear and meet him in Bermuda. So there was this thing—it’s just what you do.”

It was especially sweet, then, after the 1994 race’s finish when McCurdy called her father, who had by then retired from competing offshore, to report that she, her fiancé and her two brothers had sailed Selkie to second place overall in the coveted St. David’s Lighthouse Division, a result any sailor who knows this race might only dream about. (Selkie repeated it in 2008 and finished second in class in 2016.)

“He was pretty much speechless,” she says. “That was a wonderful thing, because he died suddenly a couple of months later.”

After taking a solid beating in the Gulf Stream, competitors frequently encounter light-air conditions.

After taking a solid beating in the Gulf Stream, competitors frequently encounter light-air conditions.

On June 17, McCurdy and Selkie will be on the starting line again when more than 200 boats and 2,000 sailors take off in the 52nd biennial Newport Bermuda Race, known more commonly as the Bermuda Race and colloquially as the Thrash to the Onion Patch. It will be her 19th race, a symptom of what she has wryly called “a chronic condition”—that compulsion among certain sailors to pour immense amounts of time, money, effort, skill and hope toward sailing fast and well the 635 nautical miles from Newport, Rhode Island, through the tumultuous Gulf Stream, to skirt the reefs guarding Bermuda and finish off St. David’s Head, smelling the oleander and tasting the dark ‘n’ stormies to come.

Since 1926, the race has been cancelled just four times: in 1940, ’42 and ’44 during World War II, and in 2020 due to Covid-19. This year’s fleet of 215 boats is second only to the largest in the race’s history, when 265 raced in the 2006 centennial. Competing in eight divisions, they range in style and design from a cruising Pacific Seacraft 37 to a MOD70 trimaran that recently set a new course record in the Caribbean 600 of 600 miles in under 30 hours.

And while the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Division will see 27 of the hottest designs sailed by professional crews of up to 20, the St. David’s Lighthouse Division is—as usual—the largest, with 121 racer/cruisers mostly sailed by six to 10 amateurs and limited pros, many of them carrying on family traditions that stretch back generations.

They in particular will be fulfilling a vision championed 116 years ago by the man who started the whole spectacle when he set off from Brooklyn on a May afternoon in 1906 with 12 other sailors—including the first woman in the race’s history, Thora Lund Robinson—in three “small” boats bound for Bermuda. Thomas Fleming Day, the iconoclastic publisher of The Rudder, defied turn-of-the-century mores that established the ocean as the wealthy’s yachting playground. “Small vessels are safer than large, provided they are properly designed, strongly built, thoroughly equipped and skillfully manned,” he said.

Sailing the 38-foot yawl Tamerlane, Day and crew disregarded the naysayers (many of whom said he was a lunatic taking people to watery graves) and finished in 120 hours, averaging 5.5 knots. The 28-foot sloop Gauntlet soon followed. The 40-foot yawl Lila withdrew after a series of problems that began with losing her mainmast just 90 minutes after the start; she returned to New York, stepped a replacement, and restarted two days later but got pummeled by a southeast gale.

Newport-Bermuda is a navigator’s race that can be won or lost crossing the Gulf Stream and its many eddies.

Newport-Bermuda is a navigator’s race that can be won or lost crossing the Gulf Stream and its many eddies.

For the next few years, the race continued annually, though it saw a 13-year hiatus after 1910 before resuming in 1923. In 1926, the Cruising Club of America (CCA) and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club (RBYC) joined forces to run the race every other year, which they continue to do today. In the capable hands of hundreds of race committee volunteers, the two clubs have navigated the pressures of ever-evolving designs and rating rules, managing to embrace and encourage innovation while hewing to the founding concept.

“I think being good sailors and keeping whatever boat you’re in sailing as well as it can sail should be rewarded,” says McCurdy, a former CCA commodore. “Old boats can win, new boats can win. The people who hit the right spots in the course and sail the hell out of their boats are more likely than not to do well. And that can be a performance crew or a bunch of old wily guys from the Chesapeake in Cal 40s. Every race is different, and it’s because there’s some luck involved. The people who throw the most money at it don’t necessarily win.”

Luck seems an odd word when describing a race whose every mile is hyper-analyzed for months, if not years, before the start. But it is unequivocally a factor, because the Thrash is at least three races in one, and it’s not for nothing that it has always been known as a navigator’s race. There’s the start from Newport, frequently a bash upwind, but not always if a cold front is in the neighborhood. Then comes the biggest strategic decision: where and when to enter the Gulf Stream, and once in it, how to make the most of its meanders and avoid the worst of its eddies.

“Especially in a small boat, you’ve got to go into it in a way that will optimize the current,” Rich du Moulin notes in John Rousmaniere’s history of the race, A Berth to Bermuda. Starting his 26th race this year, du Moulin has won the Double-Handed Division four times with his Express 37 Lora Ann. “You have to throw away the ‘sail the favored tack’ way of thinking. You’ve got to be willing to make radical deviations of course so you can sail from doughnut to doughnut, from cold eddy to cold eddy.”

Sailors return to the race because they like the teamwork, the shared experience and the camaraderie they build at sea.

Sailors return to the race because they like the teamwork, the shared experience and the camaraderie they build at sea.

This isn’t necessarily intuitive or comfortable. McCurdy describes one race she navigated in the mid ’80s when she put the boat into a 90-mile meander that at times boosted them to 10 knots over the bottom heading straight to Bermuda. But it was wind against current—violently rough in a way the Stream is notorious for—and only she could stand to be below. At one point, the owner slid open the hatch and croaked, "'Sheila, how much longer?’ And I said, ‘Well, with any luck about 10 hours.’ And he just slid the hatch shut again,” she laughs. “It’s a great race for sea stories.”

After the Stream comes what some racers call “the happy valley,” where the sea settles down, you can dry your gear and the sun is soothing. But frequently this becomes a light-air zone that can be deadly for those who are tired and have lost their edge, and for the big boats who have charged ahead, only to stall out while smaller boats catch up. Finally, there’s the trip around the reef to the finish, which is easier today given modern navigation. But for generations it was a celestial crapshoot that, when it paid, was the sweetest reward.

“I’m going to sound like an old fart, but there is nothing as satisfying as doing celestial navigation,” du Moulin says. “To be totally independent and get your positions from the stars was really exciting and adventurous.”

Undoubtedly, the destination itself is one of the race’s major draws. Bermudians have always warmly welcomed sailors, and the post-race parties are legendary. But for most, it’s the challenge of the course, the skills and endurance demanded, and the camaraderie that grows offshore.

In 1906, the race’s founder wanted to prove that amateurs could safely race offshore. The majority of boats continue to be crewed by amateurs, often friends and family who return to race again.

In 1906, the race’s founder wanted to prove that amateurs could safely race offshore. The majority of boats continue to be crewed by amateurs, often friends and family who return to race again.

“Could we find maybe some better drivers, a more experienced navigator? Yeah, we probably could, but at what cost?” asks Julie Kallfelz, who with her husband, Andrew, successfully raced their 1972 Tartan 41 Aurora with friends and family six times from 2004 through 2014. This year they’re sailing a new-to-them Arcona 460 called Safir. “So much of the enjoyment of doing this is doing it with friends. It’s intensive togetherness when you’re out sailing day and night through some stressful weather, the inevitable highs and lows you go through during the race. These are people we want to share these adventures with.”

A.J. Evans, a member of the race committee and former chair starting in his 12th race this year, remembers a limpid, light-air night in the J/44 class, when the crew was slacking off rather than focusing on optimal speed. “You could see the stars horizon to horizon, and I remember telling jokes and laughing, and there were other boats nearby and we thought we could hear them laughing too.” Comparing notes later with the crew of another J/44, they learned it was them. “I loved that we were both doing the same thing at the same time and just enjoying the fellowship of our shipmates. The experience creates bonds that last quite a long time.”

Whether it’s the history, the challenge, the destination or the friendships, this race compels a devotion expressed in every statistic recorded, every story told. Few epitomize this as quintessentially as Jim Mertz, who completed his last Bermuda Race at 91 years old and still holds the record for the most races at 30. After he died in 2006, his partner in their Beneteau 42 Allegra, David Schwartz-Leeper, spread half of his ashes at the finish line. Du Moulin, who’d known and sailed with Mertz for decades, took the remainder on the trip home, where he scattered them in the restless blue reaches of the Gulf Stream. 

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.

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