Because some events are too special to do every time, I’ve sailed only eight Newport Bermuda Races over the past 42 years, beginning in 1966. It has been my good fortune to be in three prize winners, and two of them second-place boats. In the reaching race in 1980, we in Dave Noyes’ 37-foot yawl Elixir were runner-up to Rich Wilson’s great passagemaker Holger Danske. This year I was a watch captain for Sheila McCurdy in her family’s 38-foot sloop Selkie, and after four days plus a few hours of very wet beating more than 650 miles from Newport to St. David’s Head, we ended up with only one of the 122 other boats ahead of us in the corrected standings—Sinn Fein, Peter Rebovich’s Cal 40.
Over all the time that I have occasionally raced to Bermuda, many of my peers have sailed in twice that number of races, but have never been invited to the prize ceremony at Government House, with its spectacular hilltop view of the archipelago of coral and cedar and small white houses. But I am lucky not only in the silverware department. As everybody knows (or at least should know) trophy-collecting is only one tick on the list of life’s satisfactions. In these two races and a few others, I was shipmates with lifelong friends from my sailing home—the place where I learned how to sail and love boats—Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island, New York. My first offshore watch captain, in 1966, was Jim McCurdy, who lived near our little beach club and who taught me something, quietly encouraged me in his Scots way, and made me laugh a lot.
Later, this good man who did much to advance good boats and safe sailing was elected Commodore of the Cruising Club of America, one of the Bermuda Race’s two organizers (with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club). He worked to open the club’s doors to the many highly qualified women who went cruising and racing. One was his youngest daughter who had tens of thousands of offshore miles, including a cruise in the previous family boat to the Azores as skipper (I was in the crew). When she raced Selkie to Bermuda and was in or near the top of her class almost every time, once finishing second overall. This year, Sheila was elected Vice-Commodore of the CCA, which means that when the race is sailed next, in 2010, she will be the club’s first woman Commodore, and Jim McCurdy’s spirit upon the waters will have even more to rejoice about.
So here I was in June of 2008, sailing in a boat my old watch captain designed, with his daughter as skipper and his grandson on my watch—and we nearly won the race.
Here is a brief look at how we did it.
First comes the boat. Jim, a gifted naval architect (his firm, McCurdy & Rhodes, is now run by his son Ian), built her for himself in 1986 to be about the minimum size to qualify for the race, with a shape and displacement that were then considered moderate but now would be widely condemned in bouncy boat circles as most suitable for Noah’s ark. But here is one fine Bermuda Race and offshore boat. She has the easiest motion of any smaller boat I’ve sailed. In the very confused seas that we had through most of this race, down below she felt like a 50-foot cruiser, When the sheets and traveler are constantly attended to, and the helmsman masters the fine art of small twitches (not great sweeps), she finds her way rapidly and without much fuss, rolling up the miles when reaching, and is markedly close-winded.
A boat like that is a powerful weapon in a typical Bermuda Race, when you spend days with the wind ahead and you’re constantly searching for paths to the favorable sides of eddies spinning off the Gulf Stream. When I wrote my history of the race, A Berth to Bermuda, two years ago, one theme wove its way through the narrative: anyone who wishes to win the oldest of all ocean races must be prepared to be very bold in choosing strategy and tactics. As Richard B. Nye, who with his father and three Carinas won two races and almost a third, told me, “We used to swing for the fences a lot.” So clear and so decisive is the historical record of racing sailors wrestling with the Gulf Stream for more than a century that I’m astounded that serious students of ocean racing don’t study its history.
Jim McCurdy designed two Carinas. He also sailed with the Nyes, as did his daughters Hope and Sheila. On the night before the start on Friday, June 20, Sheila spread out a multi-hued satellite image of the race course, pointed to a big circular eddy north of the Gulf Stream, and said, with her characteristic decisiveness, “We’re going there.” There was a waypoint 50 miles west of the rhumb line and placed near the top of a big clockwise-swirling circular eddy. In the southwesterly wind that was forecast, getting there meant sailing very high for more than 100 miles.
Did we do it? The short answer is yes. After we reached Bermuda, while wandering the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club piers looking at boats and picking up chitchat about the race, I overheard someone say this: “It’s not hard to win a Bermuda Race. Get a good start, sail west, then collect your trophy.” I wish it were that easy, but that’s not a bad outline.
We got the good start. Dave Brown (the other watch captain and Sheila’s husband) put Selkie on the line at the committee boat end at good speed. We tacked to port across the strong ebb current, and when we ran out of water, went back to starboard, established an angle of heel that would define our lives over the next four days, and with Sheila steering started to point and point and point. Squeezing off a Swan 43 on our starboard quarter gave us an open lane to the eddy and proved to me, a new jack in the crew, that this boat could do what was asked of her.
Peeking under the boom I spied the main competition, two boats that Selkie had been dueling for years. One was Edwin Gaynor’s Aage Nielsen-designed Emily, always at or near the top and now sailing her sixteenth race to the Onion Patch. The other was Sinn Fein, Peter Rebovich’s Cal 40. Here is the most successful Bermuda Race boat in the 21st century—winner of her class in the last three races, and winner of the ORR rule division in 2006. Happily for us, Sinn Fein was sagging off. “She can’t climb up there, she won’t make the eddy,” I recall thinking (and hoping).
And so our true thrash to St. David’s Head was under way, with Selkie tight to the breeze. There were sail changes and some excitement: “1825, whale and dolphins all around,” said the log.
A little later, “0740, 0.5 knot current”. We were in the eddy, being swept south toward Bermuda, and we would stay in it for it seemed ages.
“1300, flying fish and good current boost”.
“2000, still enjoying 2.7 knot boost”.
“0330, current down to 0.5 kt”.
Over those 20 hours of sailing with sheets slightly eased, making 8 to 9 knots over the bottom, the apparent wind built to over 20 knots, reefs went in and came out, the heavy genoa and the number 3 jib appeared and disappeared, the sea was dramatically disturbed, the decks became very damp, and not everybody who sampled Annie Becker’s tasty stew succeeded in holding it down. We had seven in crew, with three women and four men. Annie and Carol Vernon were on Dave’s watch, and I had Rush Hambleton and Morgan McCurdy, Sheila’s nephew. The captain stood a trick at the helm and helped out with sail changes, when she was not studying up on our next tactical decision, which was what to do when the eddy fed us into the Gulf Stream.
At 0930 Sunday we were in the Stream, and were headed 20 degrees. We tacked to port to cross the stream with a strong lee bow current, and aiming away from the southeasterly trend into southwesterlies shown in tiny wind arrows on a weather map we’d obtained before the race. Here was our big gamble. Going to the eddy was an easy call. Would the southwesterly really fill in? It did. By noon the breeze began clocking into the southwest and soon it was over 25 knots apparent.
We had no idea what the others were doing because the sat phone and computer were at odds with each other. There was some interest in tracking other boats, but I said, “So what?” Sheila agreed. Knowing that Sinn Fein and Emily were out there somewhere was motivation enough.
We later learned that at this point we were leading the race with Sinn Fein well astern. Not as close-winded as Selkie, she had tacked up to the big eddy that we had fetched on one long starboard-tack leg. “We sailed a long time and worked hard to get into that eddy”, Kelly Robinson, their navigator, told me after the race. “It was hard to find it. We really had to battle to go into the ring”. There was more than one battle going on. The crew, which has been sailing together for years, had a dissenter from the eddy strategy, “Why are we going west?” Peter Rebovich, Jr., the tactician, kept asking. Bermuda was to the east.
His father knew who the competition was. Before the wet thrash killed off their electronics, he had caught a glimpse of us on the Bermuda Race Web site. After the race Sheila asked Peter Rebovich, Sr., if he was worried about us. “You didn’t worry us—you were driving us crazy!” They did go west, they did find the eddy, and when they left its southern boundary, according to tracking Sinn Fein trailed Selkie by six hours.
By then we were in the southwesterly after our port tack hitch. We had tacked onto starboard and were riding the front edge of this new breeze 300 miles to Bermuda on a nearly straight track. That wind caught up with Sinn Fein without having to probe for it, and she set a flat asymmetrical spinnaker and reached toward the finish. (This sail was one of the recommendations of a U.S. Sailing rating optimization program. According to Jim Teeters of U.S. Sailing, Sinn Fein is the only boat to use this program, which is available to all.)
As the wind freshened and eased on this long sprint to the finish, the work became more wearying, while the bonding among the crew tightened. Within minutes of the command “sail change”, at least one member of the off-watch was climbing up the companionway to lend a hand and give Sheila a little rest. Once I tacked over to port for 15 minutes to help the foredeck guys get the number 4 jib set in 30 knots apparent and a quick seaway. That’s a lot of time to give away when you sense the competition snapping at your heels, but I’m convinced it was the correct decision.
For a boat that doesn’t leak, Selkie was getting pretty wet below, what with all the goings and comings of sail bags and wet sailors, and the conversion of the forward cabin into a wet clothes hamper. I eased my laundry problem by wearing swimming trunks and a T-shirt under my foul weather pants and jacket, but after a day or so I was so damp that I was feeling a little hypothermic. The most demanding job was putting on and taking off my shoes. Leaning down to tie the laces, I could have been reaching into the Grand Canyon. (“Yoga, yoga,” I kept telling myself. “You’ve got to do yoga”).
Sleep came easily but, with all that adrenalin flowing, it did not last long, and real rest was hopeless. At night, the numbers on the instruments were fuzzy with my tiredness, so I turned steering over to my watch mates and they did handsomely—young Morgan getting the hang of it. I recalled how his grandfather, in his reticent manner, had guided me 40 years earlier, and decided my style was more effusive. When I encouraged them by offering the promise of the rum drink of their choice—“will it be Planter’s Punch, boys? Or a Dark and Stormy?”—Rush drew his finger across his throat in the classic “cut” signal and lurched to the rail. Rush fought seasickness and exhaustion so dutifully that he once looked up and me and said, “I’m letting you down, John”. No he wasn’t, I assured him.
A day later Rush was wolfing down Annie’s shepherd’s pie. Forty-five footers were around us, and there were reports on the VHF of very recent finishes of 50- and even 60-footers. North Rock finally appeared ahead. Sheila took the helm and amid the usual excited confusion that accompanies landfalls we beat to the finish in air wafting the traditional Bermuda welcome of oleander perfume down to us.
We heard Ed Gaynor in Emily checking in almost an hour astern. We had her beaten. But what of Sinn Fein?
Sails down, powering though the night to Hamilton in exhausted near-silence, with Carol carefully navigating us up the tricky channel, we heard Sinn Fein finishing two hours behind us. We needed more than three. Peter Rebovich had joined Carleton Mitchell in the small pantheon of skippers who have won consecutive Bermuda Races. (Besides a St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy as the winner of the Bermuda Race, Sinn Fein also won the new North Rock Trophy as top boat under IRC).
Another second place for Sheila McCurdy and Selkie—and for John Rousmaniere. This one was an honor.
-- John Rousmaniere, Hamilton Bermuda
June 26, 2008