While most Rhode Islanders were peacefully sheltered ashore, an elite group of sailors was enjoying an intimate encounter with Mother Nature during the Ida Lewis Distance Race in mid-August.
From off Fort Adams in Narragansett Bay past Castle Hill, Brenton Reef, Block Island, Montauk Point, Martha’s Vineyard, Buzzards Tower, to a signature finish inside Newport Harbor, the fourth running of the Ida Lewis Distance Race started Aug. 15, with classes for IRC, PHRF (spinnaker and non-spinnaker), and double- handed boats.
Competing were 11 teams, four of those sailing in a handicap-rule class for IRC, four sailing under PHRF and three competing in a double-handed division. The PHRF and double-handed contenders sailed a 150-mile course, while the IRC boats sailed a slightly different, longer course of 177 miles.
A light 10-12 knot breeze marked the start, then sputtered to barely anything overnight, while the teams made their way to Montauk Point, immediately putting the fastest boats behind schedule on an expected early afternoon arrival back at the club the next day.
Sailors were anything but bored, however, when the trip from Montauk to No Man’s Land and then to Buzzard’s Bay Tower served up extreme wind shifts that had them hurrying to change head sails and figure out their next moves.
“We had a three-hour period where we didn’t move even 1 nautical mile,” says Hap Fauth of Newport, R.I., whose Reichel/Pugh 69 Bella Mente, was first to finish — in just more than 24 hours, at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 16 — and won the IRC class. “And in my last 10 years of racing, I don’t think I’ve seen so many sail changes in a single race.”
Because she made it around the course the quickest, Bella Mente missed out on most of the stronger winds of up to 23 knots that made the last 50 miles of the race a “real blast” for the rest of the fleet. A scattering of severe weather cells, marked by fantastic shows of lightning, necessitated close scrutiny of radar systems and “a snaking through” to avoid unwanted encounters.
“It looked pretty scary at times,” says Mike Coe of Milford, Conn., crewman aboard Bill Jurgensen’s winning PHRF entrant Falcon, a Tripp 50 design from Stamford, Conn. “It seemed like the lightning was actually striking all around us.”
Lightning was not the only thing that caught Falcon’s attention. John Brim’s IRC class Reichel/Pugh 55 Rima from Newport, which finished second in the race two years ago, had been close with them up until the Buzzard’s Bay Tower mark, when the IRC fleet had to diverge from the two courses’ common legs to take another leg out to Montauk, while Falcon and the others sailed to a closer mark off Block Island before heading back to Newport. It led the Falcon team to believe that, had they chosen to enter IRC instead of PHRF, they might have done well there, too.
As it was, Falcon finished at around 6:30 p.m. Aug. 16, the second boat past the finish line after Bella Mente. Rima, which wound up fourth in IRC class, finished a little after 8:30 p.m., only 15 seconds behind William Byron’s PHRF entrant Fearless, an Alden 72 from Newport, which finished third in its class.
Jason Richter of Port Jefferson, N.Y., returned to successfully defend his double-handed crown in the J/35 Paladin. Asked why he likes sailing shorthanded in the Ida Lewis Distance Race, he laughed, saying, “I like the punishment. While we’re out there, sometimes we say ‘Why do we do this?’ ”
The last boat to finish was Simon Day’s 21-foot mini Transat boat, Josephine, from Newport, which he, too, sailed with only one additional crew. She finished at 4:15 a.m. Aug. 17, completing the course in just shy of 37 hours.