There and Back Again

This was my third trip to Bermuda by sea, but the 2015 Marion Bermuda Race proved to be something entirely different than it was before.

As I begin to write this blog, I'm sitting in an Adirondack chair on the crest of a hill overlooking the docks of the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club. It's early in the morning, and aside from a few distant mopeds zipping around corners, the island is still asleep. It has been an unusually hot week in Bermuda, with temperatures touching the low 90s. Life on the island is a far cry from life aboard the Stellar Sloop Etoile just a few days earlier.

When we started the race, I was praying for wind. My previous Bermuda races had all ended in drift-a-thons in the famed Bermuda high, frustration mounting as the twinkling lights of Hamilton teased us in the distance for hours on end.

This year, the forecast looked good, with two low-pressure systems building and the remnants of tropical depression Bill winding its way up the East Coast. But, most of the crew felt it was best to cross our fingers and hope for more. However, we failed to heed the advice of our most experienced crewmember, Pat: when you’re praying to the wind gods, be sure to specify how much—and be careful what you wish for.

The start was easy and the sail out of Buzzards Bay was beautiful, if a bit slow. With confidence in our ability to outrun most of our class in the first 24 hours, we slept well that night after a pork dinner—waving our forks at Sow and Pigs as we passed.

Day two started out beautifully, and we cruised under full sails on Etiole, scooting off the Continental Shelf and towards Bermuda at 8+knots. As the sun went down, the wind went up, and it continued to climb through the night.

The end of day two and day three were a blur. Between bleary-eyed watches on the helm and deck, restless sleep being thrown into the bulkhead, and a number of reefs, we watched the sea state build and began to hear reports of other boats in the fleet encountering even bigger wind and waves: Morris 48, Icebear, broaching in 15-foot seas, and Jovini, a Little Harbor 46, hitting numerous sequential squalls. The most experienced sailors aboard were required to take on a heavy load, while those of us less experienced were put to the test. A handful of boats retired from the race, but most of them still continued the journey to Bermuda. After all, there were parties to be had!

We finished the race in the night, and pulled into St. George’s harbor for a rest. Most sailors balk at navigating the channel into Hamilton Harbor in the daylight, and we had no desire to attempt it sleep-deprived and in the dark. Instead, we spent two hours on the VHF with Bermuda Radio while they guided us to a mooring in St. George’s which ended up not existing, finally dropped the anchor at the mouth of the harbor, and polished off a few bottles of wine and some dinner before we collapsed into our bunks.

In the end, it was the invaluable input from the more practiced sailors aboard was what made this trip a success. Learning to helm in high wind and heavy seas is something only learned in the moment, and we all learned it well. In itself, those skills are an accomplishment. They were made sweeter by the fact that Etoile finished fourth in Class C, 14th overall, and won the Commodore Faith Paulsen Trophy for the first-finishing yacht crewed entirely by women. Overall, a respectable showing, but more importantly we all arrived safely and as better sailors.

My taxi to the airport arrives and I climb in, sharing the ride with two of my crewmates and my Mom. We speed to the airport as another summer squall threatens on the horizon. Back to reality we go…until next time.

The crew of Etoile poses upon arrival to Hamilton, Bermuda, while awaiting Customs clearance.Betsy Gabrielson
Solvej Freitas, on the helm, and her daughter Lise in the middle of the heaviest weather of the race.Lisa Gabrielson
Watch captain Pat Marshall contemplates a reef in the main as the wind begins to build on Day 2 of the 2015 Marion Bermuda Race.Lisa Gabrielson