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WAVE-ing back at Newport-Bermuda guys

All-female crew places first in Cruising Division, striking a blow for Women Against Violence Everywhere

All-female crew places first in Cruising Division, striking a blow for Women Against Violence Everywhere

The finish line of the 100th anniversary Newport-Bermuda Race was within easy reach when, after five days of frustrating calms, the all-female crew of the Frers 49, Synergy, found themselves on the rail in their foul weather gear in a squall that offered their first real, strong breeze of the race.

“We were singing for joy because we needed that wind,” says Synergy’s owner and skipper Eleonora de Haas, 58, a native of Holland who now lives aboard in St. Maarten. A short time later, the women passed St. David’s Light and sailed into race history as the first female skipper and first all-female crew to win a major division — the Cruising Division — in a Bermuda Race.

If de Haas’ “girls” surprised some of the gentlemen behind them, that was only part of their goal. “Our vision,” they had stated before the race, “is to win our division while steadfastly adhering to our mission of raising awareness to help make a difference in the fight to stop domestic violence globally.” They call themselves Team WAVE (Women Against Violence Everywhere.)

Not only did they beat the other 58 boats in their division by reaching Bermuda in 5 days, 7 hours, 41 minutes and 11 seconds, they placed 14th overall on corrected time out of 264 starters, despite sailing in a division designed, according to race chairman Bill Barton, for sailors looking for a “little less intense competition.” And they did it in a boat that de Haas has owned twice — one that sank in a 1999 hurricane in St. Maarten.

“In ’99, I went to the States and sailed the [wooden boat race] in Martha’s Vineyard and the Opera House in Nantucket, with lots of friends,” de Haas recalls in an e-mail interview. “I left the States 6th of November to St. Maarten and was just in time for the unusual Hurricane Lenny, who came from the west and hit us two times. After 30 hours’ fight, we got the second eye and did not have time enough to remove the boat. She ended on a concrete dock and sank within one hour.”

A salvager paid de Haas $1 for the wreck. “From transom to mast on port side was gone. They even did not know if they could lift her without [collapsing the boat.] I could not do the job myself and stay another year in a yard. I am a sailor, not a boatbuilder.”

The new owner rebuilt Synergy and, de Haas says, won the St. Maarten Heineken Trophy twice while she worked making deliveries, some on Synergy. In 2003, she delivered the yacht to Great Britain for Cowes Week and the Fastnet Race, then bought the yacht back.

“Because of the Fastnet 2003, Synergy had still all the stuff on board they require for the Bermuda Race,” she says. She decided to use the boat to raise funds for WAVE.

“Team WAVE’s ultimate goal is to set up a nonprofit trust to fund a leadership training development program for young women in order to promote abuse-free environments through teaching and mentoring young women. We hope to make a change through education,” says a statement on the organization’s Web site ( Sponsors for Synergy’s efforts include Nagico Insurance, BVI Yacht Charters, West End Yacht Club, Sistership Sailing School and several others, listed at the site.

For her team, de Haas recruited three sailors from the United States, two from Canada and one from Australia. “I knew some of them, but all of them had crewed for Val Doan [one of the Canadians, who signed on as navigator] on offshore deliveries,” de Haas says.

The mother of two adult children, de Haas was born sailing and is accustomed to sailing with women. “In 1985 I bought my first boat, Tayana 37, Penelope. I sailed mostly with the females in the family … because the males in the family were not very enthusiastic,” she explains. In 1992, she left the Netherlands “for good” and single-handed Penelope to the Caribbean, where she eventually settled. A 1996 hurricane sank Penelope, and de Haas used the insurance money to buy Synergy, an “old, neglected racing boat with beautiful lines” that was designed for the 1974 Admiral’s Cup.

For the 100th anniversary of the first Bermuda Race in 1906, de Haas chose to enter the cruising division, where boats this year were limited to carrying one asymmetrical cruising spinnaker but prohibited from using a spinnaker with a pole, a move designed to make the race attractive to competitors who race the Merion-Bermuda Race in alternate years.

“We trained together in the BVI Spring Regatta and the Antigua Race Week with most of the girls,” de Haas says.

The largest fleet ever for a Bermuda Race left Newport June 16 in a decent breeze that soon was replaced by several days of light wind. The unique challenge of the 635-mile race is crossing the Gulf Stream, about halfway through the passage. In the most difficult editions of the biennial race, sailors have met that challenge while dealing with hurricanes. This time, the problem was the opposite.

“There were moments we were so frustrated, but never we let go,” says de Haas. “The concentration was there all the time. The girls had fun, the food was excellent, and there has never been an argument between us. We all had the same goal. But when we came closer to the finish, we knew we had done well so far, because we only saw bigger and faster boats with higher ratings.

“My navigator, Val Doan, leaded us through the Gulf Stream,” de Haas continues. “I have to give her the biggest credit to have won this race. We only had the [Gulf Stream information] at the skippers’ meeting before the start. The whole crew was steering the boat during this race, to keep the concentration up.”

Synergy crossed the finish line some sixteen hours after Bella Mente, a Newport, R.I., Judel/Vrolijk 66 that took line honors with a time of 4 days, 15 hours, 12 minutes and 18 seconds. The race was run under two sets of rating rules — IRC and ORR — and trophies were awarded for the best finishes under each rule. Winner of the ORR trophy in the amateur St. David’s Lighthouse Division was Sinn Fein, a Cal 40 from New Jersey, and the IRC winner was Lively Lady, a Carter 37 from New York. (Synergy’s time beat both Lively Lady and Sinn Fein.) Temptress, an IMX 45 from Rhode Island, won the professional Gibbs Hill Trophy in the ORR Gibbs Hill Division, and Four Stars, a Beneteau First 44.7 from Massachusetts, won the IRC Gibbs Hill Trophy.

De Haas calls Synergy’s accomplishment “good for ourself and our sponsors. Reason to go on with our goal to raise money and awareness for WAVE. Princess Ann, daughter of Queen Elizabeth, chose to visit the crew and boat. How nice to win a race like Bermuda, after all the work we had done.”