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Bluewater classic marks 100 years

Bermuda Race

Bluewater classic marks 100 years

Upon their arrival this June in the sweet, flowering warmth of Bermuda, more than 2,000 sailors — having raced 635 hard miles from Newport, R.I. — will share 100 years worth of sea stories.

The collection of salty tales is a treasure chest of lore that has been accumulating in the 44 races sailed since the Bermuda Race began in 1906. Included are the saga of the 1972 race, when the whole fleet survived a hurricane; the legend of Finisterre, the 38-foot yawl that Carlton Mitchell sailed to victory in three consecutive races; and countless personal triumphs and lingering heartaches the event has delivered to the 45,000 men and women who have skippered and crewed on the 4,200 sailboats that have entered the race. At some point in June after the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club committee boat has docked, someone probably will glance out on Hamilton Harbour and spy Allegra, the yacht of Jim Mertz, the Iron Man of the Bermuda Race, who fully intended — before his passing at age 94 — that this would be his 31st Bermuda Race.

While Mertz sailed more Bermuda Races than anyone else, it is not uncommon for competitors to have participated in 10 or more events. They are drawn by the challenges — gales on the Gulf Stream are but one example. They come for the camaraderie — a compatible crew on a competitive boat — and most say they look forward in particular to the landfall, where the scents of Easter lilies and roses, of lantana and passion flowers perfume the 80-degree late-spring breeze and where the post-race party lasts for days.

This year, of the first 275 entrants, about 160 skippers had sailed in at least one prior Bermuda Race. Normally, three-quarters of the entrants would be repeaters, but the ratio must be a bit lower for this anniversary edition with the fleet diluted by the record number of boats poised to start in Newport.

And at least until that June 16 start of this, the world’s oldest regularly scheduled ocean race, there is one more statistic that yachting writer and race historian John Rousmaniere calls “remarkable.” After 2.5 million bluewater miles over what can be a lethal sea, there have been but two boats sunk and one life lost. Indeed, the legacy of the Bermuda Race is precisely what its founders hoped to encourage a century ago: safety for small boats on the open sea.

‘Normal sailors, normal boats’

The first Bermuda Race, sailed from Brooklyn, N.Y., resulted from the prodding of Rudder Magazine editor Thomas Fleming Day. “He believed in the idea of people going offshore,” says Rousmaniere, author of a history of the race, “A Berth to Bermuda,” published recently by Mystic Seaport. “As he put it, forgetting that there is such a thing as God’s green earth in the universe. He believed this was something people could do if they were well-prepared, and that the fears of the sea were irrelevant.”

Until the Bermuda Race, ocean racing was done by professional crews under paid skippers. Charlie Barr, who in 1905 sailed the 185-foot schooner Atlantic from New Jersey to England in record time, was a hired captain and his yacht had a paid crew of 48, Rousmaniere says. By contrast, the three boats that started the first Bermuda Race the following year were all smaller than 40 feet and were sailed with a total of 15 amateur crewmembers, he says. Professionals were prohibited. “The idea was a race for normal sailors and normal boats out on the open ocean.”

The race was run on each of the following four years, with larger and larger yachts competing, before it died from lack of interest. Then another editor, Herbert L. Stone of Yachting Magazine, revived the Bermuda Race in 1923, and in 1926, the four-year-old Cruising Club of America became a sponsor. The club’s founders had sought through their involvement to improve seamanship and the design of seaworthy yachts. “We continue to be involved,” says current CCA Commodore Edward S. (Ned) Rowland, a veteran of eight Bermuda Races, “because we want to promote the design and construction of safe boats and of a rating rule which allows them to compete.”

Bill Barton, chairman of this year’s race committee, has sailed in the race four times, twice as skipper, and calls the event “a testing ground for rating rules and a proving ground for safety.”Barton has previously served as a safety inspector and chief inspector, examining the competing boats before the start to ensure that they have the required gear, including storm sails, two permanently installed manual bilge pumps, a life raft with an up-to-date inspection, flares, lifelines and emergency steering gear.

Truman Casner, who sailed three races as crew, links the development of seaworthy yachts to the use of rating rules that favor those designs. “If you look at the development of those rules … we’ve had an enormous influence on the development of safe and sound offshore boats,” he contends. (This year, the race will be conducted under two rating rules: the Offshore Racing Rule and the IRC Rule. Trophies will be awarded to the winners under both rules.)

Tales from a big ocean

The one fatality during a Bermuda Race happened in 1932 when the yacht Adrianna caught fire. All of the crewmembers except the helmsman had safely evacuated to the yacht Jolie Brise, which had pulled alongside, Barton says. But then as the helmsman tried to leap from his boat, the two vessels parted, he fell between and he was lost.

All the thousands of other racers over the last 100 years have come home safely, if at times nursing injuries — a testament to their sturdy boats. Many have had tales to tell.

“I can remember the first race I went on,” says Jim Hunt, a former Olympic gold medal sailor and son of legendary designer Ray Hunt. “I was 14 and we broke a spreader three days out.” Hunt, who has sailed the Bermuda Race a dozen times, continues: “In the Gulf Stream, it was rough as hell. I threw up for three consecutive days.”

Hunt’s friend Robie Pierce first sailed to Bermuda in the 1960 race. “I remember being caught in a gale of wind, 300 miles, halfway there, 75 knots, 25-foot seas, a 40-foot fiberglass boat. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”

Many are those sailors who have been physically pummeled by a violent Atlantic. On its Web page, the Storm Trysail club recalls the 1936 race — the first one sailed by Jim Mertz — and the scene aboard one of the yachts on which early CCA member John Parkinson was crew. During a storm, Parkinson, then 53, “flew stark naked out of a windward bunk across the main cabin and smashed, face-first, into the leeward side,” the club records. “He unhooked his lower lip from his lower teeth,” a witness remembered, “spat out a bloody handful of his smashed upper dentures … went on deck (it was 4 a.m.), and took his trick at the helm.”

Not every race has been this entertaining, however. Consider the first experience of Sheila McCurdy, who has progressed over 13 Bermuda Races from cook to skipper and navigator. In 1976, she says, “I was invited to cook on a boat in the Bermuda Race.” She had agreed a year before to cook on a trans-Atlantic voyage with the understanding that she would also be allowed to stand watch. This led to her 1976 berth in the Bermuda Race, a contest that found the ocean so calm that “we were still racing a week after the start” on the 47-foot ketch, Moonbeam. As they drifted along, “One of the crew happily announced that I had prepared 210 meals at that point. I read ‘Shogun’ on a Bermuda Race. That’s how slow it was.”

The technology factor

McCurdy says the Bermuda Race “has three distinct phases to it in a way that most other races do not have. It’s a bit like [equestrian] eventing. First you’re getting offshore in the sou’westers and cold water. Then you’ve got to negotiate the Gulf Stream and figure out your strategy and tactics for that. The last phase is trying to pick your way through the calms that tend to suck in around Bermuda. Heavy air sailors can lose their concentration at the end. The race can very often be won in that light air stuff.”

“It’s a navigator’s race … because of the Gulf Stream,” says Rousmaniere, who has competed seven times. “You never know how far it’s going to set you.” Racers must deal with a combination of eddies and meanders in the stream. Until 1980, electronic navigation devices were prohibited during the race. Then Loran was allowed, Rousmaniere says. At the same time, scientists were providing more understanding of how the stream works. “The combination of precise navigation and new knowledge of the Gulf Stream changed the way the race was run from a long-range target shoot to a chess match.” Now with satellite imagery to track the eddies and GPS to give precise boat locations, navigation has become, in a way, like living a video game, he says.

“The old-timers don’t like it,” Rousmaniere says. “There was this macho thing about celestial navigation.”

One of the diehards was Jim Mertz, the Iron Man. “He loved the old ways,” says his son, Jamie Brickell Jr. “Even with all the GPSes and stuff, he always did his own sights with the sextant,” the same model he had used as the commanding officer of a destroyer escort during World War II.

Mertz’s last Bermuda Race in 2004 was aboard Allegra, the Beneteau First 42 that he co-owned, which was named for his late wife and his daughter. “In his later years, he spent a lot of time below because when it was blowing hard, being on deck was not the place for him to be,” Brickell says. “He would come up occasionally and take sights. The Beneteau had a quarter berth on the port side. There was a porthole that opened into the cockpit.” Brickell says Mertz would call up to the crew through the porthole with a reprimand when, through the feel of the boat, he knew they had fallen off the wind to gain more speed. “If he heard people talking too much and not concentrating, you would hear this voice from below. ‘Hey! We’re still racing!’”

In June, in an event that sailing commentator and superstar Gary Jobson will film for a Public Broadcasting Service documentary, Allegra will race again, manned by Mertz’s co-owner and a crew of the old man’s friends, who will help bring the Bermuda Race into its second century.