In 1906, Thomas Flemming Day, the editor of The Rudder magazine organized a race that would prove to the naysayers that Corinthian sailors could safety engage in bluewater sailing aboard smaller yachts.
The first year’s fleet was comprised of vessels under 40 feet, and-much to the surprise of the Day’s doubters-there were no tragedies. Instead, a grand tradition of offshore racing was born.
The first race to Bermuda started in Brooklyn Bay and brought boats to a finishing line off of St. David’s Heads. Some 4,000 spectators were on hand to see the winning boat-with Day as her sailing master-arrive (under tow) at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club’s quay.
While the first few races to Bermuda were held annually, this was eventually changed to a biennial schedule. Also, the startling line was eventually moved to Newport, Rhode Island, the race was given a new moniker, the Cruising Club of America became heavily involved and-over time-participant interest mushroomed.
Today, the Newport Bermuda Race has joined the ranks of the world’s great offshore contests and stands alongside events such as the Fastnet Race, the Sydney Hobart Race and the Transpac Race.
2016 marks the 110th anniversary of the first “Thrash to the Onion Patch”, as well as the 50th time that this historic race will be contested. I caught up the A.J. Evans, the regatta’s chair, to learn more about this year’s race, which is set to unfurl on Friday, June 17 at 1500 hours, local time. Anyone who will be in the vicinity of Newport, Rhode is highly encouraged to watch the start, which is unlike any other sailboat race that’s held on American waters.
Is this is your first year being the event’s chairman?
This will be my 10th Bermuda Race, it’s my first Bermuda race as a chairman. I’ve been on the committee for a few races now. The chairman usually does one race. That’s the standard. A couple guys have done it more than once.
Are you competing this year, or do official duties require you to stay ashore?
I’m a competitor-I’m a watch captain on a J/44, Vamp.
What have been your biggest challenges and rewards so far as race chairman?
I guess the biggest challenge is helping the competitors through the entry process. It is complex. I think that the race requirements don’t vary that much from what other offshore races require, but this race goes the extra step of verifying compliance. So there’s more verification of race requirements in this race, even though the requirements themselves are similar to other races. I think that does a number of things to protect the fairness of the race, the safety of the race and-back to the fairness-I think a competitor’s investment.
As a competitor myself, I’ve always wondered, in other races as well as this one, whether other boats are actually complying with the rules. I think the owner goes through a great expense to put a boat on the line, and this is a reassurance for them that they’re entering a race that is well organized and is a fair shake. The competition format, the way that we divide the divisions and the ORR rule help to focus the competition on the sailing and the sailors and their skill. It’s not supposed to be about the boats versus each other or versus other boats or designs. It’s about the sailing.
Being the “Thrash to the Onion Patch’s” 110th anniversary and the 50th running of this historic race, has the event experienced record numbers of interested racers this year?
It is a big anniversary year on a couple of different levels. As far as participation goes, we always experience a surge and then a little bit of a drop off just because people have personal issues or commitments, plus just getting the boat together and then having a full crew, we usually see a 10 percent reduction. We [now] are down to a little under 190 [boats]-I don’t have the exact number in front of me. So participation is up from the last race and [it’s] above average.
I believe that would make this the third or fourth largest. We had 197, 198 [boats] in 2008 and before that we had low-to-mid 200s on the 100th anniversary. I don’t have that number in front of me, either.
We have a very diverse fleet this year, especially with where the sailors come from. There’s 23 different countries represented on the crew list, and over 50 boats have sailors from more than one country onboard. So it’s a pretty diverse group of sailors, which we like to see.
As far as the boats themselves go, we have more canting-keel boats and movable-ballast boats than we’ve had previously, to my knowledge, and we’ve recognized that with this new competition, [which] we’ve unofficially been calling the “Hauling the Mail” competition. When a boat goes really fast, you say they’re ‘hauling the mail’ because the top trophy in the Open Division is a Royal Mail Cup. So that just kind of works out that the fastest boats are competing for that. And that’s the top trophy in the Open Division.
Do you have any special celebrations cooked-up?
What’s special this time? We already offer so many great things in so little time before the race that we really couldn’t add anything other than what we already do. So we have a big party for all of the crew this evening [in Newport]…and at the end [of the race] every day is a party at the yacht clubs and on the docks and the outside area. And there’s the outside bar, the terrace, D.J. and they’ve expanded the hard sand so there’s more space between the yacht club and the docks for the parties that go on every day til well past midnight. That’s certainly been my experience!
I know we’re still several days out, but what are the preliminary weather reports looking like?
It’s still several days out so the models are still divergent on a low [pressure system] that may be developing of the southeast of the United States towards the end of the week into the weekend. And with the difference in the [weather-forecast] models, they predict varied results.
So we have to wait and see what it’s going to be, and we’ll know more towards the end of the week. We’re getting opinions from numerous sources. More than we asked for!
Do you have any advice for Bermuda first-timers?
For Bermuda first-timers, my advice would be to enjoy it. My recollection of so many Bermuda races has been that I wish it lasted just a little bit longer. There have been a few that I wish went a little bit quicker and that I got to Bermuda sooner, but this race has always been meant as an introduction to offshore sailing. It’s a way to encourage people to go offshore, to experience offshore sailing, and to then later on maybe go cruising. It is a monumental task to prepare a boat to go offshore for a cruise, as well as a race. So the process is a challenge to go anywhere else. It’s a challenge. It’s better to do it when you have 1,500 of your friends also out and then sharing the party with you [are] in Bermuda on the other end. So my recommendation to first time sailors is to pause to enjoy the opportunity it presents.
What about any advice for seasoned competitors who are returning for this year?
That’s a good question. I think if they’re coming back, they probably don’t need any advice from me. They’ve already made a great decision!
So with all of the recent interest in multi-hull sailing-from the America’s cup, all the way down-do you foresee a time that the Newport Bermuda Race might allow multi-hulls to compete?
The Cruising Club of America, which is largely involved in the technical aspects of the race, doesn’t do anything that isn’t well thought out and explored. …[They] explore the appropriate requirements for sailing multi-hulls offshore, as well as what the rating or the appropriate handicap system would be if they were to incorporate them.
There [are] two primary sides of the argument, I guess. The safety aspect would be that the race has always included monohulls, which are presumably or expect to be self-righting. The people who are against multi-hulls out there would say that multi-hulls are most stable when they’re upside down. The multi-hull sailors have a good argument in that, ‘sure a monohull might be self-righting, but if it does capsize it’s going to take on a lot of water and probably eventually sink’. Whereas multi-hulls, when they capsize, [they] stay floating for quite a long time; the best example is the Gunboat that was found adrift off Bermuda.
So those are two arguments. The [Newport Bermuda] Race and the Cruising Club of America’s technical committee [is] taking a close look at whether multi-hulls should be included in the race, and how they might be included, and under which set of safety requirements they would be bound. So it’s possible, but we just need to think it through. We’re not going to make a hasty decision to include the multi-hulls, but we are pleased to see that there is such a great number of Gunboat owners or multi-hull owners [going] offshore sailing. It would be helpful if they were competing in other races that are already permitting multi-hulls so that we could take a look at that, but that participation does not seem to have [happened yet].
Anything else you’d like to add, for the record?
I’m just really looking forward to being offshore again. I just love the experience and I just really love the race and I really care a lot about it. It’s really opened my eyes to a whole other world of sailing, and I’m just excited to not only be a competitor, but [to be heavily involved with the] organizing.