YYZ Completes the 2016 Newport Bermuda Race
From the time I was a toddler walking the long dock to the RCYC Island Clubhouse, my uncle, Captain John Leonard, used to tell me stories of piloting ships on the great lakes. His stories were always full of adventures at sea, and he made me want to have adventures of my own. I truly believe sailing in the 50th Newport-Bermuda race is something I’ve been preparing for my whole life…
The Decision and the Preparation
In early 2014, I took delivery of a new semi-custom Jeanneau 53 and named her “YYZ” in homage to my native Toronto, and to Rush, the band I had grown up with. While I didn’t originally intend to race the boat (at least not consciously), I deliberately chose this specific model because I was confident the designer, Philippe Briand, had created a strong and fast hull.
It wasn’t long before I started wondering, “let’s see what she can do”. So, I got some old and new crew together, and we registered our sail number “2112” in honour of Rush. We started racing in late 2014, ironing out many kinks in the most embarrassing manner. For example, it seemed like we donated winch handles to Neptune as if inserting tokens in some masochistic amusement park ride. And during the Stratford Shoal race, we spent twenty minutes headless because we had completely fouled a spinnaker sheet around a furling drum.
Undeterred, we pursued a full distance racing schedule on Long Island Sound, including the Block Island Race and the Vineyard Race. In 2015, we figured out how to make the boat competitive. In 2016, we started placing. For the Vineyard Race, we were required to outfit the boat for a Category “A” offshore race, and that inevitably got us thinking about eventually doing the greatest offshore ocean race of all: the 635 nautical mile Newport Bermuda Race.
We spent the winter and the spring preparing the boat, having her measured for the ORR rating certificate, equipping the boat according to the extensive ISAF, ORC, and Bermuda Race Safety Requirements, and getting accredited with Safety at Sea, Offshore Personal Survival, First Aid, CPR, etc. It was a huge project. By the time we officially entered the Bermuda Race, we had assembled a crew of ten, aged 35-60. Collectively, we had over 300 distance races, including a dozen Bermuda Races. Some of us had sailed together for 25 years while one of our crew, who had only just learned to sail with the arrival of YYZ, showed great promise.
The Fine Line of Abandonment
As the start of the 50th Bermuda Race drew near, we mustered in Newport, Rhode Island, with excitement and anticipation. Shortly after arriving, rumors were swirling, rumors of never-before-seen apocalyptic weather patterns. Well before the start, several crews (including, so-called “professional” crews) were in mutiny and boats were quickly withdrawing. We attended the Captain’s meeting, and various briefings on the Gulf Stream and general weather conditions, only to leave these meetings with the grim countenance of doomed souls going to the gallows.
The weather “experts” were saying they had never seen such weather patterns and they were painting the worst case scenario: winds coming out of the east going west directly against the easterly Gulf Stream currents, resulting in enormous, breaking square waves. While I respect the power of the wind, I knew to be cautious, even fearful, of breaking waves. To have come this far, with such a dedicated and committed crew, only to contemplate not running the race, was sheer agony. But I couldn’t send the boat and her crew to a slaughter.
The night before the start, our pre-race party was muted. We had open conversations about the conditions we might face at sea. Some of the crew were truly unnerved. And I, as Captain, bore the sacred responsibility of their welfare in a way that I had never experienced before.
The Race Begins
The solution was to manage the risk. And that is what we did, precisely and methodically. We decided to start the race. It made sense to start so we could analyze and evaluate our options along the way. To quit, would have closed off all our options – and extinguished our dream.
On Friday June 17th, we checked in with the committee boat off Castle Hill and reveled in the pageantry of the start of the world’s greatest ocean race. In the back of our minds, we wondered if we would simply drop anchor after the start and monitor the weather conditions, or if we would go on a consolation cruise to Nantucket or Block Island. Many other boats did exactly that, as evidenced by their transponders tracking in all different directions like rats scattering from a sinking ship.
We did none of this. We started the race and we headed offshore. The senior “officers” (Captain, Navigator, Watch Captain) met regularly in private to assess the weather updates that we received via satellite phone, and then we briefed the crew. We set off and pursued a course with the intention of racing as competitively as we could.
We decided that, as long as conditions allowed, we would get “off the shelf” and that we would identify an entry point on the north side of the Gulf Stream before which we could turn around if the conditions had not improved or worsened. We knew that once we were in the Gulf Stream, there would be no turning back, especially with beam-on seas.
And We’re Off!
After the excitement of our start, the 100-foot “Comanche” passed us, heading on navigator Stan Honey’s radical record-breaking course east of the rhumb line. As the spectator boats diminished into ever smaller specks behind us, we settled into our watch schedules. We were treated to steady wind, reasonably benign seas, and a waxing new moon that illuminated the night as if we were on a Broadway set. It was beautiful. And there was no distressed talk of turning back.
The Bermuda Race is generally regarded as a “reaching race” and the expectation is a starboard reach all the way to Bermuda. The first sign that things were different was that we were on a port reach under spinnaker for most of the race into and through the Gulf Stream. We expected the wind to go south when we exited the Gulf Stream and we were mentally preparing ourselves for an eventual beat to Bermuda, knowing that pointing and close-hauling were not a strength of our boat.
For now, we were cruising along consistently at speeds of 10, 11, 12 and even 13 knots. It has been a fun tradition on YYZ that if the helmsman cracks a new best in boat speed, he gets an Oreo cookie, sort of like a doggie treat. Well, on this race, we had to create a whole new scale of Oreo rewards because we kept going faster and faster. This boat was crushing it! And we were running out of Oreos.
Occasionally, we would catch a helmsman “Oreo hunting”, driving off to maximize his speed in order to get his doggie treat. When this happened, our ever watchful navigator would pop his head up from down below and indignantly upbraid the helmsman to get back on course. It wasn’t such a naughty thing because we knew that the goal was to sail the boat as fast as possible within an acceptable course deviation as long as we remained in our sweet spot.
As we closed in on the Gulf Stream, so grew heavier the burden of the decision about whether to continue or to turn back. Finally, that fateful moment was upon us. And the satellite phone connection had gone flaky, preventing us from getting a critical weather update. While fiddling with the satellite connection, we happened to hear chatter over the VHF radio from a few other boats that were nearby and, careful not to breach any of the race rules about receiving outside assistance, we determined that they were continuing.
We finally fixed the satellite connection and downloaded the latest weather update. Our trinity of senior officers met to review the conditions. Our navigator, Brian, probably one of the most experienced offshore sailors in the entire fleet, reviewed the latest weather grib update, looked up at us from the nav desk and declared “it’s mitigating”. We briefed the crew accordingly and, with that, we knew that the Race was on, and we charged ahead into the Gulf Stream.
The Journey Really Begins
The sea temperature rose from 63F to 80F inside of an hour. The height of the sea grew. The color of the water changed, demarcating the great river flowing in the ocean. The boat sweated up with the humidity. The wind grew “heavier” because of the density of the humid air. Now the seas were growing and the wind was building. We reduced sail, balanced the boat, and the hull slipped through the water so gracefully, it seemed like she was asking for more. Dan, a neurosurgeon by training and one of our Watch Captains, became our “Speed Doctor”, relentlessly trimming and adjusting every line and control on the boat to eke out every tenth of a knot of boat speed.
Many of the crew took turns on the helm, gaining experience driving the boat in the large and sometimes confused seas. Remarkably, the boat almost never pounded; she occasionally took a quick slap from a crossing wave on the stern quarter but, for the most part, she drove through the waves with aplomb, never burying her bow.
Normally, we would relieve and rotate the helmsman every hour, even every thirty minutes in demanding conditions. However, at one point, I spent a solid two and a half hours on the helm driving the boat through the Gulf Stream under spinnaker. I was completely dialed in, anticipating the wind on the back of my neck, and driving the boat down in the gusts. I was so engrossed that the boat itself became my horizontal reference, while the sea took on the appearance of a fantastic slope that we were either climbing or descending. This spatial disorientation represented a welcome kind of fugue state in which the normal demarcations between the boat, the sea, and the sky disappear and sailors achieve their nirvana traveling in an alternate dimension.
Day drew into night and night drew into day. Watches came and went. Meal after delicious meal magically appeared thanks to Drew, our talented and cheerful galley chef. Our crew work and sail changes were without any drama, thanks to Watch Captain Warren, bowmen Derek and MikeR, and our trimmer/grinders MikeG, Joseph and Steve. YYZ sped along at a blistering pace. We saw whales breaching. Flying fish landed in the cockpit, a big one going straight to the frying pan with some garlic and butter.
And then came the porpoises. A dozen of them rode our bow wave in a gallant turmoil for twenty minutes, tantamount to an entire lifetime of happiness, elevating our experience into something that words cannot describe. The moon waxed and the stars shone. We were doing something truly special, that few people in the world experience, subtly changing us for the better, with every nautical mile under our keel. The artifice and oppression of the daily calendar evaporated as time became an abstraction and nobody knew or cared anymore what day of the week it was.
At some point, we took a knockdown from an intense but short down draft. The off-watch crew slept right through and we just kept on going. It was minor blip in comparison to the majesty of being truly alone, from horizon to horizon, in every direction, with a “moonglade roadway” made by the full moon illuminating on the sea, and the cosmic emergence of the full and bright Milky Way.
When we exited the Gulf Stream, our strategy was to thread our way between a cold eddy turning counter-clockwise and a warm eddy turning clockwise. Brian, our navigator, did a masterful job sending us along the right path and we continued to charge ahead south. The wind started to go south but we were able to maintain a good angle and keep our speed up.
And then the wind stopped
Sixty miles off Bermuda, we sailed straight into a high pressure area, a wind hole, where there was nothing but a stifling calm. To make matters worse, there was a current moving us east at a few knots. After the thrill of speed rewarded with Oreos and the majesty of the porpoises escorting us, this was mother nature testing our resolve. For ten hours, we drifted, sails slapping with the roll of every wave. What could we do to break the monotony?
Prior to the race, I had secretly stowed on board an assortment of wigs, beards and masks. I didn’t really know when it might be fitting to disgorge these props, but when we were becalmed, drifting, and frustrated, it was clear, now was the time. I called a crew meeting and got everyone topside. Then, much to the bemusement of the crew, I emerged from below wearing a long grey beard. The bag was passed around, everyone donning a wig, a beard, a mask and we had a great laugh and some memorable photos. But the calm endured and I wondered what to do next.
Normally, we have an unwritten rule that we never play music while racing. However, becalmed, we were as close to not racing as one could get without withdrawing. So, I turned on the sound system, set it on random play and, no lie, “YYZ” by Rush flooded the air. By the end of the powerful instrumental track, the wind picked up and we were one our way to Bermuda! I wish I had played our theme song sooner!
We finally spotted land and started to set up for the finish. The trick is to respect the aids to navigation marking the infamous reefs that have claimed hundreds of unlucky ships over many centuries. Once clear of the Easternmost “Kitchen Shoal”, we were good to tack our way to the finish.
The race instructions are very clear that the finish line is a line bearing 276 degrees True to St David’s Lighthouse. There are race markers that a boat must cross between, but these do not mark the finish line. To properly finish, a boat must call in by radio to the committee when passing Kitchen Shoal, then must pass between the finish markers and, finally, must mark the time when the boat bears 276 degrees True (291⁰m) to St David’s Lighthouse. At this point, the navigator calls again to the race committee to report the time. A vessel is not properly finished until Bermuda Radio utters the words “Welcome to Bermuda”. Upon hearing those three words, the crew let out a huge cheer, and the champagne cork was popped.
And that moment was the imprint on each and every one of us that marked the enormity of our accomplishment. There was a contented, emotional, silent transformation that occurred in each of us as we allowed the imprint to become permanent.
We entered the south channel and headed to Hamilton, to our berth at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, to a man, looking forward to the 51st Bermuda Race in 2018.
After a few days of festivities, sailors’ antics, and tourism in Bermuda, most of the crew flew home. A few of us who remained were joined by a couple of return crew to take YYZ back to Long Island Sound. The return was actually difficult, with a series of strong storms and broken equipment followed by little or no wind, and a lot of motoring. A day away from home, I banged my knee hard on something and was incapacitated with chills and fever. I wound up spending nine days in hospital with a serious staph infection that required knee surgery. It was a tough way to end an incredible experience. But I survived the sea, and I survived the infection, and was not reduced one iota in my enthusiasm to sail on.