By John Rousmaniere
The Newport Bermuda Race is hard enough to win once. But twice? In 46 races since 1906, just three boats have won the major prize, the St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy, at least two times. A pair of these boats won consecutive races – Carleton Mitchell’s fabled Finisterre in 1956-60 and, in the two most recent races in 2006 and 2008, Peter S. Rebovich’s Sinn Fein, from New Jersey’s Raritan Yacht Club. Rebovich and his usual crew will be back again this year with the gleam of a third St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy in their eyes.
How does this 45-year old stock Cal 40 sloop do so well, so often against much newer and more sophisticated custom boats? The explanation is that this is a happy marriage of a good boat to an able amateur crew that has been racing her for decades. During Finisterre’s glory days half a century ago, one of her regular crew credited Mitchell’s “good admiralship” – meaning his cheerful but firm, detail-driven, open-minded command of a deeply loyal crew. The same can be said of Pete Rebovich and his guys.
One thing that cannot be said about them is that they’re riding a brief lucky streak. When Sinn Fein first raced offshore in the Marion to Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race in the 1980s, she won class and family prizes. She’s sailed six Newport Bermuda Races, paying her dues with low finishes before winning her class in 2002 and 2004 and then taking the St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy, first in a drifter in a glassy sea in 2006 followed by a classic upwind thrash to the Onion Patch in 2008. Over Memorial Day weekend, she won her class in the 2010 Block Island Race, the major tune-up for the Bermuda Race.
Sinn Fein has also won the Olin J. Stephens Ocean Racing Trophy three straight times – in fact, the only times it has been presented – for the best combined performance in successive Newport Bermuda Races and Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Races. Rebovich has a special memory of winning the first Stephens Trophy because the presentation of the award to the 70-year-old winning skipper was made by 99-year-old Olin Stephens himself. “We won, and while I was hobbling to the stage to meet him and receive the trophy, he commented, ‘Isn't it nice to see an old guy, like me, still out there racing – and winning.’”
Despite her superb record, whenever this successful yacht’s name comes up, some people become obsessed with speculating about what Princess Anne of Great Britain had to say when she presented the 2006 Lighthouse Trophy to a boat called Sinn Fein. Rebovich reports that Irish politics never came up. “She was very warm and generous. Anyway, the boat had that name when I bought her back in 1972. I was racing a Comet and I decided it was time to buy a boat I could sail with my sons. I liked the name because it means ‘we ourselves.’”
That spirit seems to define the boat and her team. Mark Rebovich and Pete Rebovich Jr. are the mainstays of a tight-knit crew. All live within 15 miles of the Raritan Yacht Club, and all but one race their own boats in the club’s highly competitive Wednesday night and weekend racing series on Raritan Bay, just south of Staten Island. Competitors at home, the sailors are a tightly bonded crew offshore. They usually race with eight but when one of the regulars, Joe Patsco, couldn’t make the 2008 start, they went ahead and sailed with seven. Though this was a windy race that rewarded weight on the rail, they still won.
Not that the Sinn Fein guys always agree. After the start of the 2008 race, Pete decided to tack up to a big eddy west of the rhumb line. “We sailed a long time and worked hard to get into that eddy,” navigator Kelly Robinson said. “It was hard to find it. We really had to battle to go into the ring.” All this time, tactician Pete Jr. was demanding “Why are we going west?” After all, Bermuda was to the east. Helmsmen are pushed just as hard. “When you’re on the helm, the three other guys are watching,” Pete Jr. told me. “We don’t just drive off into the night blindly. In the 2000 race we were behind this J-44 when the sun went down. The next day they caught us. Then we passed them again the second night, and the next day they appeared on our stern again, slowly gaining. These guys were passing us for the second time in two days!”
To ease the financial burden on the owner, a former school superintendent, Pete’s guys (none of whom has an elevated economic status) pay their own expenses. Twenty-seven sailors and cheerleaders were in Bermuda after the 2008 race. Frugality is the boat’s S.O.P. Rebovich speculates that he is one of the very few Bermuda Race skippers who prepares and scrubs his boat’s bottom. He acquired a backup processor for the electronic instrument system on eBay. Tagging along on a sail-testing cruise in late May, I spotted a few items that I would not expect to find in the average Bermuda Race winner, including a big galvanized shackle, a roughly finished helmsman’s foot brace, some sheets and halyards that Pete had fashioned from low-cost Spectra tugboat lines, and, down below, a seat for the navigator at the chart table that appeared to be inspired by a schoolyard swing.
The fact that this chart table is also the top of the ice chest is a reminder of Sinn Fein’s considerable age. When designer Bill Lapworth and builder Jensen Marine produced the first Cal 40s in 1964 and 1965, they transformed racer-cruiser design. With its fin keel, separate rudder, simple rig, and (then) light displacement, it flew downwind and, in the right hands, could do almost as well upwind. Approaching Bermuda in my first Bermuda Race in 1966 in a 58-foot heavy displacement cutter, Caper, I counted five Cal 40s swarming nearby, all among the first 30 finishers.
Cal 40s never died out on the West Coast, but not many are racing Back East. After Stan and Sally Honey, who race one in San Francisco Bay and the Pacific, visited Rebovich and Sinn Fein a couple of years ago, Stan told blogger Kimball Livingston, “His boat is maybe a little rough around the edges, but in every aspect of preparedness and seamanship it is spot on, and the crew is good. It was also cleverly set up for the Bermuda Race.”
That last point concerned Sinn Fein’s asymmetric spinnakers, with which Rebovich had been experimenting for years. The wind is rarely astern in a Bermuda Race (I don’t recall ever jibing during the nine races I’ve made). Taking the advice of an ORR optimization program provided by US Sailing, in 2008 Rebovich removed the symmetrical spinnakers and pole. This provided a small rating advantage, and the asymmetrics were powerful weapons for the close reaches that often appear near Bermuda. In the 2008 race, in Sheila McCurdy’s Selkie we carried a healthy lead over Sinn Fein as we came out of the eddy, but when the wind faired during the last day, the Rebovich team ground us down in their lighter boat, alternating an asymmetric and a reaching jib set over a Melges 24 jib rigged as a staysail. They ended up beating us by an hour on corrected time.
The offseason before the 2010 Bermuda Race was a little harrowing for Team “We Ourselves.” An early March nor’easter flooded the boat yard with thigh-high water, breaking loose a small boat that knocked over three of Sinn Fein’s supports. Mark Rebovich arrived just in time to replace them before the boat toppled.
Recovering from that scare, the team got to work on the boat. Despite racing on a limited budget, the Reboviches like to have a new weapon each spring. “This year it’s harder to come up with something new,” said Pete Jr. as we ran across Raritan Bay in a soft Westerly under an asymmetric, checking out sailing angles and practicing jibes. “We have a new number 3 and some new sheets for the storm sails. And we’re always trying to save weight.” His father spoke up. “It reaches a point where you’re not looking at saving pounds. You’re looking at saving ounces.” To give me an idea of where their thoughts were running, the crew presented me with their latest weight-saving discovery – a small but elegant plastic eating tool – part fork, spoon, and knife.
I suspect that, somehow, Pete and his guys will have a bigger and better new arrow in their quiver when they go after their third Lighthouse.