By Ron Weiss, Tactician aboard YYZ in the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race

Click for the YYZ NBR 2018 Video

It was my pleasure and privilege to be the tactician on Justin Bonar’s Jeanneau 53 for this year’s Bermuda Race.  Justin and YYZ Navigator Brian O’Farrell broached the subject of bringing me aboard when they had another crew member back out, and I was available as my “ride” had backed out of the race as well.  It seemed fortuitous, and indeed it was.

The overall forecast for the race called for light air at the beginning (including a hole of almost zero breeze), followed by another massive hole about 150 miles wide just around the time we would be arriving at the Gulfs Stream.  Brian and I had analyzed the forecasts and the projected optimal routes that our Expedition program was showing. We could really only focus on the first 48 hours of the recommended route as the forecasts often change and you have to be careful about not over-committing to a route and then finding out that the forecasts have changed and you’re in the wrong “corner” of the race course.  We were comfortable, however, that our entry point into the Gulf Stream would be somewhere around 20 - 25nm west of the rhumb line.  We’d play it a little bit by ear based on conditions, but used a waypoint in that vicinity for reference.

The hole south of Newport did materialize Friday afternoon as expected, and it was a little painful to compare YYZ’s upwind performance with most of the fleet; with a shoal draft keel designed for cruising, keeping up with the boats with race-configured keels was impossible. Our only choice was to sail the boat fast and low, and not worry too much about the upwind portion of the race as the forecasts showed more reaching/YYZ-friendly conditions later in the race.

By Saturday afternoon the southerly started to veer more to the west, and timing of the shift in terms of our entry point into the Gulf Stream was just about perfect.  There was a colder, more Northwesterly gradient breeze that was mixing with the warmer air rising off of the Gulf Stream and the conditions made for very challenging driving as the winds shifted back and forth 30-45 degrees and varied in intensity from 6 - 12 or even 15 knots.  We decided on a double headsail rig of the Code 0/JibTop (it doesn’t have as much roach as a Code 0, is cut more like a jib, but is 0-type cloth) and the staysail and it worked like a charm.  The boat was balanced and the combination of the sails worked throughout the range of conditions we were experiencing.

At some point Sunday morning, we exited the Stream and began looking for the favorable currents along the western side of the rhumb line.  The forecasts for the wind hole, however, proved to be correct and the entire fleet was engulfed by the windless zone.  There were several watches where the boat barely moved, and we probably spent 18 hours drifting with the sails slatting (we eventually took them down to wait for breeze) and barely made 25 miles of progress - if that.  (Oh, the thrill of offshore racing!!) It was hot, painfully slow, and supremely boring.  Our patience was being sorely tested.  

Brian and I looked at the updated forecasts and saw that while they all predicted that this windless zone would remain for quite a time, they also generally agreed that the next “real” breeze would be from the SW/WSW/W direction and we felt that had to work the boat as far in that direction as possible, even though that direction would not be taking us toward Bermuda. It was a “bet the race call”, and we consulted with Justin, who saw the wisdom in the approach and readily agreed. “Go West, young man” was the call and so we did.

In looking at the race tracker after the race, it is clear that we were in the minority in this decision, but we were not alone.  It’s also clear that the boats that did go west around this time generally made out better than the boats that went east, and the boats that went east in the Gulf Stream did even worse than that.  We did, however, go further west than most.  The boats that we could see around us were bigger/faster boats, several in our division, and a couple of very well-sailed J120’s - Madison, with my friend Lee Reichart as navigator (Lee was our navigator on Crazy Horse in 2008, and has done about 20 Bermuda Races) and Rocket Science - another experienced and winning boat.  Their presence made Brian and me relax a little since while we might have been wrong about being that far west, we weren’t entirely crazy and alone out there.

By Monday the breeze started to fill in from the West, and we were one of the first boats to get it.  We were also getting some odd current readings that did not agree with what the current forecasts predicted. It seemed to suggest that all of the currents and eddies had shifted west and north.  Everything we saw in the instruments regarding current supported this, and happily it made for a good pathway to the finish with good current almost all the way to the end of the race.  

We traded tacks with Madison, and she seemed to make out better a little farther to the west, while we had opted to sail further south to Bermuda, so we took another tack further west for a couple of hours and the current seemed to be much stronger out there.  Once we had dug into this eddy, we tacked back toward the finish line about 125 - 150 miles ahead.

At this stage, we felt that we were doing pretty well - all the boats we were seeing were bigger and/or faster than we were - and there weren’t any boats around us that we felt indicated we were doing poorly.  Our Expedition software’s routing and forecasts were asking us to bear off and head toward the rhumb line and then head up to make a beeline to Bermuda.  Brian and I - and then Justin again - felt that making the commitment to go down the rhumb line early could turn out to be a mistake if the forecast changed as we could potentially be beating upwind again, possibly in bad current, whereas we could parallel the rhumb line with good current for the next 12-15 hours and then once we were closer to the finish - maybe 60 miles out - we could bear off a bit and make for the finish.  This tactic worked like charm and we were doing 10 - 11 knots over the bottom with a reefed main and #2 jib. The other boats in our division that were east of us were struggling to do over 9 knots and this provided us with the “passing lane” that we needed.

Around midnight Tuesday night we were in radio range of Bermuda and we heard “Warrior Won” - the scratch (fastest) boat in our division, and the big trophy winner and Best Overall Performance winner in 2016 - was only about 2.5 hours ahead of us.  With the handicap ratings, we knew that she would be giving us a generous amount of time and that there was very good chance we had beaten her. As more boats were heard on the radio, or appeared on our AIS, it became increasingly apparent that we were in a great position to do well - perhaps even a podium finish.

As we approached the finish in the dark (it’s a complicated finish line and it demands close attention by the Navigator), we saw literally about 100 sets of running lights behind us. The finish line was going to be bedlam.  We had to tack several times, criss-crossing other boats, and the Race Committee was having trouble keeping up with all of the boats reporting in via radio as required. Usually, when you cross the finish line properly and identify yourself the RC responds with an affirmation of your ID, and “welcome to Bermuda”.  If you don’t hear the “welcome” it generally means you did not finish properly and might be penalized.  This happens more often than you would think.  We didn’t hear the “Welcome to Bermuda”, and when we called the RC again on the radio they responded that “we can’t confirm or deny” YYZ finished properly.  Both Brian and I panicked a bit, but didn’t want to alarm the crew.  It was very possible that with all of the radio traffic we simply didn’t hear it.  Brian double-checked the track on our chartplotter and even took a screenshot it to show the committee in case there was an issue. This was around 3am Wednesday.

It was still dark, and we had to wait until first light before we began to motor for several hours to the harbor where the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club would receive us.  I fired up my mobile phone and checked the results.  Only a few boats in our division had been marked as finished, and probably only 30 of the 160+ boats were shown in total.  We weren’t among them, but it seemed that the results had not been updated for some time.  As we started to motor while cleaning up the boat after 4.5 days of racing, I compulsively kept hitting the refresh button on the results.  I was in danger of using up all of my data plan even before we reached land. After doing this about 100 times (not kidding), more results started coming in. Still, no YYZ and we were still in Heartburn City about whether we had finished properly. Talk about suspense.

It was about four hours after we finished that our results came through; we were listed as number one in our division and since we were the slowest boat in the group we didn’t have to give any boats in our class time on handicap so no one could catch us from behind.  We were exhausted and elated.  The champagne cork was popped and we toasted our skipper, the boat, and each other.  But the best was yet to come.

It took another 10 or 12 hours for the slower boats in the fleet to finish, but by Wednesday afternoon it began to look as if we would have a chance to win an even bigger prize - the Overall Performance Trophy.  The St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy is the biggest trophy; it’s for the boat that finishes first in the St. David’s division (the amateur racing division) on corrected/handicap time.  The Overall Performance Trophy is arguably the second biggest and probably even harder to win.  The trophy (named after Walter Wheeler, a local/Stamford sailing legend, by the way) is given to the boat that beats the 2nd and 3rd boat in her division by the most time.  Many of the divisions were decided by 10 - 15 minutes (which is incredibly close after 635 miles and over 100 hours of racing).  We had beaten the second place boat by almost 3.5 hours. including last year’s division winner, St. David’s winner and Overall Performance Trophy winner “Warrior Won”.  We couldn’t believe it.  I think all of us kept thinking that some mistake had been made and that we’d find out later that the standings had been changed.  I, for one, would not completely believe it until we held the trophy in our hot little hands.

Ultimately, we did have the honor and pleasure to win the award.  We were also part of a three boat team named after our friend and shipmate Jim Berge who recently suffered from a serious stroke.  TeamBerge consisted of YYZ, Madison and Dreamcatcher - the Swan 48 donated to the Mudratz youth team and captained by our “SUNY Maritime son” Taylor Walker. Dreamcatcher also got first in their division (despite many of the young sailors lack of offshore experience), and they won the “Stephen’s Trophy” for best performance by a youth team. Madison got a fourth in their division. Despite the 1,1,4 finishes for Team Berge, we were edged out of the team trophy.  Still, the total “haul” for Team Berge was 4 impressive trophies; First in Class 8, First in Class 6, the best Overall Performance Trophy, and Best Performance by a Youth Team.

The total elapsed time for us was 108 hours - almost 4.5 days. We enjoyed some tremendous sailing, and endured some very tough calm conditions, but the crew’s spirits were always high and as one of our watch captains, Dr. Dan Galyon, put it “we raced the shit out of the boat” at all times.

Thanks, first of all, to Justin and his wife Stacey, who provided a platform that was well prepared, and who assembled a great crew.  Brian O’Farrell (who dislocated his shoulder in a fall just before we left the dock!) fought through the pain and handled all of the electronic data collection and navigation smoothly despite my attempts to “stump the navigator”.  Watch Captains Dan Galyon and Warren Willett handled a lot of the helm duty, and did a tremendous job of keeping the boat going fast with good driving and excellent sail trim.  Mike Galaty, Mike Raynor, Derek Joynt, Scott Gertsen and Joe Spinella, and Drew Lambert - who handled galley duties with aplomb -  rounded out the team.  All of them worked hard, stayed focused, and we all had fun pretty much the whole way.

What more can I say other than this was one of my top racing experiences ever.