High Gear to Bermuda

After many years and many miles at the helm, the recent Bermuda Race experience stands out as one of my all-time favorites. Jobson Report from our September 2012 issue.

Kodiak Bermuda 2012

Kodiak Bermuda 2012

The Reichel/Pugh 65-footer Kodiak sets the pace for a record-breaking Bermuda Race with an unusually fast downwind start from Newport, R.I.Daniel Forster/PPL

A hand shook me awake. The 0400 watch was due on deck just before we were about to enter the northern edge of the Gulf Stream. The wind was blowing 29 knots out of the northeast, and the waves were big thanks to the Stream's opposing flow. With the boat lurching, putting on my boots, foul weather gear, and safety harness was a sweaty challenge. When I finally stepped out of the companionway at 0355, I was awake and alert, but with waves washing over the deck, I had to move gingerly across the cockpit toward the helm. The wake streaming off Kodiak's stern hissed as we maintained 22 knots toward Bermuda. As I was about to settle in on the rail with my watch mates, Fred Detweiler, who was standing behind one of boat's two carbon-fiber wheels, asked me the best question in sailing: "Are you ready to take the helm?"

My answer was emphatic: “Yes, I’m ready.”

This was my eighth Bermuda Race since 1974. I’ve endured a few drifters and many unforgettable hours in the Gulf Stream, but this race was unlike any I’ve experienced. We set off from Newport on the 635-mile race with the spinnaker flying, sailed even faster into the finish in 35-knot winds, and there was no letting up in between.

When Thomas Fleming Day started the first race to Bermuda in 1906, three boats completed the passage. Over 106 years, at least 3,500 teams have sailed the same racecourse. Some years were slow and others quick, but none came close to the fast pace of the 2012 edition.

The wind at the start was 16 knots out of the northeast, which is an unusual direction for a warm and bright June day in Newport. We set a medium asymmetric, and our Reichel/Pugh 65-footer sped away from Castle Hill Lighthouse at 14 knots. During the first night, the wind built to 22 knots, and our speed increased to 16.5, allowing us to log easy miles. These were perfect sailing conditions, and fortunately I was one of four designated helmsmen, along with Detwiler, Art Burke, and Tom Lihan. Our 76-year-old skipper, Llwyd Ecclestone, who won the 1998 edition with another Kodiak, was eager for a second win with our chartered grand-prix machine.

Of course, while racing, we never talk about winning or breaking records. When we do, something inevitably goes wrong. The best sailors focus on the moment, always concentrating on sailing faster and on the optimum course.

Like all good navigators, Kodiak's Peter Griffin had spent weeks preparing for the race. He had collected a tremendous amount of data to analyze the Gulf Stream and the weather. In the days before, we knew it would be a relative sprint. On the morning of the race, the afterguard, including professional sailmaker Steve Benjamin, met and confirmed our strategy, a strategy that we would follow precisely.

There were many sail changes, including setting an A5 heavy-air spinnaker, a variety of staysails, and eventually a small No. 4 headsail. Several times we discussed reefing the main, but carried it full all the way to the finish. Great communication between the helmsman and the mainsail trimmer is vital if you are to maintain speed and keep the boat from broaching. Kodiak has a button on the cockpit sole next to the steering pedestal: If the boat gets out of control, the helmsman stomps on it to ease the boom vang. Steering in the fast conditions never allowed a moment of relaxation at the helm.

With four helmsmen in the rotation, there were bound to be different driving styles. Fred, Art, and I worked to keep the boat on a straight course with minimal turning of the wheel. In contrast, Lihan, who was an All-American sailor at Kings Point, worked the helm aggressively to get the boat surfing on waves. Watching him made me nervous he'd break the rudder. The violent motion also made it difficult to move about the deck, but he did maintain very high, sustained speeds.
I have been in rough races, the most memorable, of course, being the 1979 Fastnet Race where the wind howled over 60 mph all night long, but I've never been in a race that just kept getting faster. It seemed that with every watch the wind would build another knot or two. As the hours passed, we grew more comfortable with our speed and the big waves. There was no seasickness aboard Kodiak. Some of the crew took pills or wore patches to ward off nausea, but I think the thrill of sailing at high speed stemmed any onset of illness.

I found it exhilarating to work the boat through the waves in sync with strong gusts. At times, it felt as though I was one with the boat, the wind, and the waves. It was mesmerizing, but I had to concentrate every second. The penalty for letting my attention falter could have been a wipeout, the consequences of which would have been a broken sail or race-ending damage. Part of me wanted to be conservative, but I was racing and wanted to sail fast.
When the helm went light I'd glance at the speedo. My personal best was 25.2 knots, and I'm sure the other helmsmen surpassed that. Thankfully no one was keeping score. I could even feel the relentless pace while lying in my bunk. At high speed, the pounding of the waves stopped, and the boat, gliding on top of the waves, would hiss.

All 16 crew aboard Kodiak relished the sustained speeds. As the hours and watches passed, the thought of breaking the record was on everyone's mind. I've been aboard boats that have broken records, including the Annapolis to Newport Race (1997) and the Marblehead to Halifax Race (2011). It's a great feeling to cross the finish line knowing you've just sailed faster than any previous boat. On Kodiak, we crossed the Bermuda Race finish line 46 hours and 53 minutes after starting. In fact, five other big boats finished ahead of us, including George David's 90-foot Rambler, which now holds an astounding course record of 39 hours and 39 minutes, along with Shockwave, Bella Mente, Team Tiburon, and Med Spirit. Indio, which finished after us, also broke the previous record. Moments after our finish, I hoped the next would be even faster

See a photo gallery of the 2012 Newport Bermuda Race start here.
Read more Jobson Reports here.