The hazy hours of a long-distance ocean race are filled with either spurts of intense focus or wandering reflections where our minds drift off across the horizon. I had plenty of both during the 2014 Newport to Bermuda.
The race started on a beautiful summer day in June, with bright blue skies, a building sea breeze, and a flat sea ahead. Our first 100 miles of the 635-mile course pass by quickly, with 15-knot gusts pushing Llywd Ecclestone’s 65-foot Kodiak down the rhumbline, but once we reach the Gulf Stream’s Northern Wall, the wind stops. Completely. Zeros on the instruments.
The Gulf Stream is the Bermuda Race. Within a few miles you can be fighting against a 4-knot adverse current, or riding a meander in the direction you want to go. Getting it right requires some careful weather and ocean current studies long before race-day boat call. If there’s any light wind in the forecast, we avoid getting close to areas of strong adverse current, using every weather resource available. At the chart table we huddle around the latest weather data, and we study the position and performance of our competitors. Everyone in the afterguard is on these sessions. There’s merit in using collective wisdom. Aboard Kodiak we keep to our original game plan, only making small modifications along the way.
If any one of us were to compete in 100 long-distance races over the course of our lifetimes, and we only stuck to one strategy—staying to the rhumbline—our results would be better than average. The reason is simple; the rhumbline is the straight line.
Historians say the key to the Bermuda Race is to “sail 30 miles west of the rhumbline.” It’s an excellent rule of thumb because the Gulf Stream generally flows to the northeast. In theory, by staying west, the current will set you on the rhumbline upon exiting the Stream.
But first, one must get through it, and our passage through the North Wall is a test of patience. I assure you there’s no greater test of morale than slating on a calm sea. Sail changes seem to take place with every helmsman every rotation and jokes run their course. Worst of all, the distance-to-finish needle doesn’t budge. When this happens we fear the competition is somewhere over the horizon, speeding away. So we remind ourselves that other boats nearby are suffering, too. But then the Stream’s confused sea prevents the boat from gliding over the waves, and when there’s no wind, no amount of sail trim seems to work. It’s a struggle to build speed or simply hold a straight compass course. Nerves start to agitate.
In these conditions I avoid staring at the large bank of displays, and instead scan the water for puffs, check the telltales, concentrate on steering, and use the compass. One of our helmsmen, Fred Detwiler, of Detroit, sails a lot in light winds on Lake Michigan, so he’s a natural at nudging Kodiak along in sloppy conditions. His technique is to sail a slightly low course while on the wind to generate speed. When the wind was coming from behind, he’d keep a slightly higher course than normal to get the boat moving and the water flowing past the underwater foils.
Keeping a positive attitude is a challenge in these conditions. It helps to set small, attainable goals. For example, we keep track of the time it takes to sail one mile. Then, try to sail the next mile in less time. It’s good mental therapy for everyone because racing sailors, by nature, like a challenge. Of course, there’s the inevitable and healthy competition between watches. There is a quiet satisfaction when you’ve gained more miles during your four-hour watch. During one long stretch, Detwiler’s watch outperforms the other watch by 10 miles, twice in a row. Of course, part of this is pure luck, but it stokes our competitive fire.
We avoid a lot of extra conversation among the sailors on watch because if the talk isn’t about the boat’s performance, our performance suffers. The best time for conversation and story telling is during meals, when everyone is more relaxed, and the chatter doesn’t disrupt the flow of trimmers and helmsmen on deck.
A good attitude on and off deck is important. Frequent sarcasm destroys confidence and team spirit. I once heard the great Captain Irving Johnson say to a crew before leaving the dock, “If we each do a little bit more than our share, we will be OK.” Great skippers, watch captains, and tacticians build morale by asking for ideas and input. Whether to use the input can be decided later. Sure, it’s common sense good manners, but “please” and “thank you” do positively contribute to the boatspeed.
A favorite old-time ocean-racing adage dictates that one should not race on a boat shorter in length than one’s age. Kodiak, at 65 feet LOA, gives me a one-year cushion. Three crewmates are in the 70s, three of us are in our sixties, and several others are over 50. It’s great for us to be out enjoying this at our age, but I’ll admit it’s not getting easier. The process of going on watch is exhausting, especially with the boat pounding in big waves and no wind. At one point chuckle to myself, thinking how much pleasure I used to get from going on watch. We were young, rugged, and didn’t know any better, but the rewards of ocean racing forever outweigh any forgettable discomfort.
We endure three agonizing calms, each lasting 8 to 12 hours. Between them, we’re pounded by three powerful storms. At the helm, it’s difficult to see through the intense rain, but the strong winds and resulting speeds lift everyone’s spirits and recalibrate their minds back into race mode.
At one point during the race, I’m talking to Karl von Schwarz while preparing to go on watch. It’s 0340. No one had gotten much sleep with the boat pounding. I ask him if we still have the same spinnaker flying?
He laughs and says, “We’ve had six sail changes.”
It’s hard to believe I actually slept through all the commotion on deck, but maybe deep sleep comes with age, too.
Kodiak is a 19-year-old Reichel/Pugh design. It has sailed under different names, including Exile, Blue Yankee, and Aurora. It’s a well-rounded boat, and the Bermuda Race organizers, the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, score the race using different handicap rules. Often a boat will end up in a different finishing position depending on the rule applied, which creates all sorts of confusion. It sure would be great if race organizers would use one handicap rule to avoid the inevitable argument of who actual won?
We win our class in ORR, and placed second under IRC, so we get a trophy.
Finishing at 0200, after 86 hours at sea, a hard rain drenches our long motor into the harbor. The rain bothers no one. Our minds are on race committee patrol boat passing us cold beer. With each swallow there’s great satisfaction that an amateur crew of veteran sailors has successfully completed the thrash to the Onion Patch.
After a long shower at the hotel I check the dates of the 2016 edition and wonder if Ecclestone would stretch Kodiak by another foot.
This article first appeared as “Fresh Air” in the September/October 2014 issue of Sailing World. Click here to read more from Gary Jobson.