Yale '62 - Racing to Bermuda - Thomas H. Belknap

"Racing to Bermuda"

To the Evening Star
Thou fair-hair'd angel of the evening,
Now, while the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves; and, while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro' the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover'd with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.

William Blake

The Race was absolutely fantastic -- all I had dreamed about and much more. The race was exciting, challenging and fun, the ocean is enormous and unpredictable, yet full of wonders such as whales, sharks, porpoises, etc., not to mention huge waves, squalls that come out of nowhere, beautiful bright blue water south of the Gulf Stream, and more

We didn't do as well in the race itself as we had hoped, mostly, we now know, because we weren't aggressive enough in picking our place to cross the Gulf Stream and follow its meander down along the course to Bermuda. We were trying to avoid an adverse current flowing in a warm eddy that spun off the stream itself and was directly to the east of our course. In doing so we allowed ourselves to go too far to the west of the very favorable current that could have given us a large boost for almost 100 miles. However, our primary goal was to get there and back safely and have a great time, and we did that in spades, so overall the trip was a huge success.

Sailing to Bermuda had not been one of my lifelong objectives. Although I've sailed small and large boats since age 10, I'd always said I thought it would be boring to sail across the ocean, and never really had any desire to do that.

Then we bought our present boat. "Evening Star" is a wonderful old, 1968 vintage, heavy, solid, well-built 45' cruising sailboat. She's a yawl that is not very fast under modern racing rules that motivate designers to create wide, shallow-draft flat-bottomed speed sleds, but she's beautiful to the eye of a traditionalist who favors the type of design made famous by the likes of Francis and Nathaniel Herreshoff, Olin Stephens and many others of an era gone by.

I had always dreamed of having a yawl. Having two masts means the boat has the flexibility of having an almost unlimited number of sail combinations to meet all variations of wind and wave conditions, and a yawl under full sail is one of the most beautiful sights there is on the water. Whenever I saw the first star at night, the wishing star as I had learned as a kid, I wished for my yawl, and when this one came along the name was a foregone conclusion.

As we were negotiating for the purchase of the boat, I learned that the prior owners had raced her in the Marion-Bermuda Race the year before. This meant that they had done all of the basic preparation work for the race. Everything loose, including floorboards, locker doors, drawers, batteries, spare anchors, etc. had a means of being fastened down in the event of a serious blow, and the boat had been inspected very thoroughly and found to be sound. Additionally, we had installed a new engine, an efficient, feathering propeller as well as a complete set of new sails.

The more we thought about it, the more we realized that the boat was ready for this type of adventure, so why shouldn't we give the race a try? That was in 1999. It was too late to gear up for that year's race, a biennial event alternating years with the better known Newport-Bermuda Race that attracts the faster boats designed for modern racing.

So we aimed for the 2001 Race. I spent two years securing my crew, preparing instruction manuals for the crew covering every aspect of the boat's operation, on deck and below, designing watch schedules, routine and emergency procedures for everything from dropping anchor to man-overboard and sailing without a rudder. I got the best ocean-going emergency gear I could, outfitted grab-bags to hold gear we would want on a life raft if needed, determined how to comply with the requirement that we have fourteen days of food aboard for eight crew members given the limited storage capability we would have. We determined how we would communicate with our wives during the trip (a satellite phone turned out to be a wonderful device for peace of mind back home).

We planned the best way to navigate our way down Buzzard's Bay on the first day of the race, figured out how to cross the Gulf Stream, given that it changes almost on a daily basis and that if it isn't crossed at the right place we could end up with two or three knots of current against us for a hundred miles instead of up to 4 knots in our favor. We plotted our course the old-fashioned way, by the sun and stars, instead of by using GPS and other modern electronics. We took into account how to deal with the famous "Bermuda High," a high pressure system that could potentially cost us as much as a half a day of sailing time if we didn't approach the island the right way. There were a myriad of other details involved in this type of adventure ? insurance, rental of a life raft and an EPIRB, up-to-date flares, enough life jackets and safety harnesses, enough sleeping bags, getting the bottom of the boat cleaned, and much, much more. At the end of the two years, my notes, manuals, memos and so on comprised seven loose-leaf notebooks, and the manuals I put together for the crew members had 50 tabs!

We were ready by the race date, June 22, 2001. Or so we thought. We got a great start and flew down Buzzard's Bay making great speed, and rounded the ocean buoy, heading out to sea, third in our class of about 15 boats. We were all excited to be doing so well, and we sailed all night in this frame of mind, coming on and off our 4-hour watches raring to go and ready to do all the sail changing, adjusting and tweaking required in a race, even though we knew it was going to wipe us out over the next 4 to 5 days of sailing.

Seventy-five miles out from Buzzard's Bay, at 10:15 on the second day of the race, I heard a noise that sounded like someone had dropped an armload of dishes onto a very hard floor ? crash! We searched everywhere down below to discover the source, and decided it must have been something settling in a cubby. Then five minutes later I heard the same thing again. This time, I looked out the porthole, to discover two large cracks in the deck, each about 8 to 10 inches long, one on either side of the main upper shroud, the cable that goes from the deck to the top of the main mast to keep it from falling over. The shroud was pulling out, and that was the end of that race.

We jury-rigged halyards and sets of blocks-and-tackle all along the side, going to the top of the mast to keep the pressure off the shroud and help hold the mast up, and managed to limp home with our tail between our legs. The next day the boat was hauled by our boatyard, where it remained for the next two months undergoing the necessary repairs.

Next question: Do we try again? I took a poll, and everyone very quickly agreed that we should complete what we set out to do, namely get to Bermuda and back safely and have a good time in the process. Our wives were understandably a bit nervous, particularly since the boat had given out once in a rather crucial way. But I had had it inspected following the repairs, and it was pronounced fit, and during the following months we had had an opportunity to test it in about 30 knots of wind, so we started the preparations again. Another two years worth.

It was much easier the second time around, of course, and not much had to be done the first year. Last winter was a busy one for me and our navigator, though, because we had to change a couple of crew members and get the new additions up to speed, and of course the Gulf Stream presented a whole new and different challenge this time around.

I think I actually enjoyed the preparation almost as much as the race itself. I guess I'm kind of anal, so it was a challenge to have to think through and solve all our potential problems ahead of time. To this day, I can't think of a situation or problem we might have encountered for which we weren't ready. That's not to say, of course, that we'd have handled any given situation the best way possible ? only encountering a problem would tell you that ? but I'd like to think that we would have had everything we needed no matter what we might have encountered, and this is very satisfying to me.

I was, of course, worried throughout that we'd have the same calamity we had two years earlier with the equipment and that we'd again have to cut the trip short before getting to Bermuda. It was with much relief and pleasure that we did actually arrive, safely and in tact, and that the boat performed so well.

Although we finished the race back in the middle of the fleet, I have to acknowledge the wonderful crew effort that went into making the boat go as fast and as well as she's ever gone since I've owned her. The enthusiasm and thought, not to mention teamwork and humor, on the part of my foredeck crew and my cockpit and winch chiefs that went into every sail change and every adjustment all the way down the course was amazing, and worth an award in and of itself. Notwithstanding the effects of the current, that we achieved two 9-mile hours and a significant number of hours during which we traveled 8+ miles has to be considered remarkable for a boat that has a hull speed of just over 7 knots!

I also want to acknowledge the challenge that our navigator undertook, and succeeded in overcoming. We found tiny Bermuda and its surrounding buoys in the dark, dealt with the Bermuda weather system and guided the boat to a safe finish off St. George's, without encountering any of the many square miles of dangerous reef that surrounds the island.

The food was excellent by any measurement, but all the more so given the adversities in which it was prepared. Small galley, limited storage capacity, constantly at a 30 angle, everything packed in on top of whatever was wanted no matter what it was, middle-of-the-night-needs ? all would be expected to conspire against our chef. Even with these adversities, he managed to prepare gourmet meals for us every day, kept his sense of humor notwithstanding a serious allergic shrimp reaction, and notwithstanding that he didn't get to sail the boat as much as I'm sure he would have liked. I don't think I ever saw so much food, even on our annual cruises to Maine.

Some random thoughts:

We were all extremely impressed with the friendliness and willingness to help evidenced by the volunteers at both the Beverly Yacht Club in Marion before the race and the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club, our host in Bermuda. One volunteer driver at the Dinghy Club, especially, gave us more than he'll ever know, with the many trips into Hamilton to look for a replacement CO2 cartridge for an automatically inflating harness that went off accidentally when the cord got caught and a replacement for a section of water hose that came loose, not to mention sightseeing and food-buying trips, etc., as well as giving us a running history lesson wherever we went.

I was very happy for a friend and client who navigated one of the other boats to a win in his Class.

My brother Bob and I were both delighted to run into two sons of my mother's former neighbor and one of her very best friends, and happy for them that they did well and arrived safely and happy on their boat. I was sorry that we couldn't have made the return trip in their company.

I was really happy to have gotten to know a bit better the son-in-law of the folks from whom we bought the boat, and to have sailed in tandem with him on the return trip. What a surprise when they came up on our stern and in answer to my son Tom's question whether they had any Grey's Poupon, offered to give us 2 pounds of freshly-caught Wahoo fillets. Tom's excellent cooking of same, with his original avocado salsa, of course was an equal treat.

We were all glad Bob didn't bring his briefcase this time (he brought it two years ago because he had work (!) to do in Bermuda) since anything with hard, square corners is a menace on board a boat. Originally I was a little concerned that he had brought a whole case of wine because I wasn't sure where we were going to put it, and of course it was quite heavy. However, we managed to put away 7/12 of it the night he came on board, and the remaining 5 bottles were quite welcome on arrival in Bermuda, notwithstanding the late hour.

Surely one of the happiest moments of the entire trip was when Tom announced that we are going to become grandparents next January! Although he is a very capable lawyer, it was immediately clear that his maritime and litigation expertise did not include any tax training, inasmuch as they will miss the added tax exemption by five days!

There is no moral, or, indeed, even an end to the story. Ours was a wonderful, fun, exciting and challenging adventure that we'll never forget, but to appreciate it, "you really had to be there." It was all the more special because we probably won't do it again. It will always be among our best memories.

© 2003 Thomas H. Belknap