Collin Alexander, the 18-year-old watch captain aboard the Tripp 41 High Noon, is on the helm. On deck beside him is Will McKeige, same in age and role, who is trimming the main and code zero. They’re in the midst of a tussle with Farr 72 Maximizer, vying for line honors in the 2016 Newport Bermuda Race.
The Junior Big Boat Sailing Team, from American YC (Rye, New York), had passed the Farr 72, now ahead of them, hours before. Then the wind shifted, and Maximizer was able to power-reach ahead. “They led us by a few miles for most of the night,” says McKeige. “And then the wind died and came around at 5 knots at a perfect angle for our code zero. Collin and I knew we had to get the sail up and go.”
Their confidence in the sail change stemmed from years of preparing for the Newport Bermuda Race, mentored by American YC members Peter Becker and Robert Alexander, who took on leadership of the Junior Big Boat Team in 2012. Between regional and distance regattas, team members assisted in return deliveries from Bermuda and Hawaii to log offshore hours. Their opportunity arose this year when the Tripp 41 became available for charter from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
The Bermuda Race crew of Richard O’Leary, Carina Becker, Hector McKemey, Madelyn Ploch, Collin Alexander, Brooks Daley and Will McKeige was coached by the elder Becker and Alexander, as well as by pro sailor Guillermo Altadill, who came aboard, pro bono, to assist with coaching, tactics and navigation. “Guillermo pushed the kids a little harder than they had been before, but with a smile,” says Becker. “They really took to his guidance, and throughout the race, we were all on the same page because of Guillermo’s strategies.”
Altadill boosted the confidence of the young crew when, in the 48 hours before the race, a weather forecast threatened the start date and the participation of many teams. “We all agreed that we were ready for this with the group we had on board,” says McKeige. “We were trying to convince other teams to stay in. We wanted a good race.”
“Every day we did things that we had never done before,” says McKeige of the coaching from Altadill, Alexander and Becker. “We had blocks blow up on us, and we had to figure out how to fix everything. Every day we had to deal with something new, and the adults guided us through it. I know how to take care of a boat now, thanks to them.”
In that final night of the race, however, Alexander and McKeige made the call on their own. Up went the code zero, and they blasted past Maximizer one last time. “We watched their mast light drop off the horizon, and that was when we knew that we had them,” says McKeige. “It was in the final sprint to the finish, and so we pushed the boat as hard as we could straight to Bermuda.”
Alexander and McKeige stayed on the helm and sheets from 0200 to 0700, and were two hours from the finish when they relinquished their stations. Maximizer was nowhere to be found.
“It was utterly wild for us,” says McKeige, recalling how High Noon crossed the finish line at St. David’s Light, second only to the 100-footer Comanche. “The Royal Bermuda YC commodore [Leatrice Oatley] arrived on a RIB with a bottle of champagne for us, which was just so awesome.” At home, this underage team would have had to pass on the drink. With Becker, Alexander and Altadill, the junior team washed down their win with some well-earned bubbly.