Two years ago I purchased Spitfire, a 48-foot J Boat in Long Island, NY. Having competed 7 times in the Lake Ontario 300 in 3 different boats, I decided it was time to try something different – maybe the Chicago-Mackinac. My ‘bucket list’ included doing some of the famous ocean races and an ocean crossing. After some deliberation I decided that I would just get on with the list rather than risk that either time or life’s vagaries would give me an excuse not to go. So began an 18 month project to compete in the 630 nm 2014 Newport to Bermuda race.
The Preparation Phase:
Last season we brought together a crew of nine, not only to practice, but to help with the immense task of preparing for the race. Including me, we had 5 NYC members – Brian McKay, Kevin Brown, Rommel Santos and Roger Wood whose time and skills made the adventure possible. If I had fully understood the amount of work involved I might have had second thoughts but luckily I made the commitment first. We spent time with skippers of previous Bermuda races (thanks to the RCYC), we ensured that most of the crew had either First Aid or Safety at Sea Course certificates and, as well, I attended a weekend race seminar in Connecticut. At first look a boat that has qualified for the LO300 should be well prepared for an ocean race but, in reality there was still a large list of items to be completed both to meet race requirements but also for the common sense preparation to take a small boat offshore. We stored the boat indoors last winter – fortunate given the severity of the weather as we would have never been ready otherwise. All on the team gave of their time to work on the ‘check list’. This included the required safety items such as liferaft, drogue, storm sails, AIS, satellite e-mail/phone and shortwave radio as well as the appropriate boat preparation. The bottom was stripped and offshore paint applied, rigging, rudder and keel checked, new rudder bearing installed, sail-drive rebuilt, new batteries, high output alternator, LED lighting, deck hardware re-bed, water maker installed and a new holding tank (ugh). I purchased some new sails to ensure we had the right wardrobe for the expected conditions. Our sail maker – Greg Bratkiw of Evolution Sails joined us as one of the crew. The last, but not least part was the large amount of on-line form filling and paperwork required by the race committee.
The Journey to Newport
On April 28, Spitfire was launched at Outer Harbour and set off on May 6, mast on deck across a very cold Lake Ontario to Oswego, the Erie Canal and Hudson River and Manhattan to the Long Island marina where I first purchased her. The delivery crew included our past commodore Henry Piersig and Brian McKay. The only glitch apart from a couple of minor groundings was an alternator failure that required me driving 900km with a replacement. In Glen Cove, NY Spitfire was rigged and hauled for one last rudder and keel check. Spitfire also passed the race required rigourous safety inspection carried out by a naval architect. At the end of May we had a full crew practice a 130 nm delivery in bitterly cold conditions to Newport, RI. This gave us the opportunity to do the final safety training with storm sails, drogue and MOB drills. The boat was moored at New England Boatworks where Spitfire appeared to have shrunk now she was surrounded by 60 foot Swans and other multi-million dollar boats.
In mid-June we reconvened in Newport based in a house we rented for the week. Newport is a pretty, historic town with substantial displays of immense wealth and ‘old’ money, fabulous houses and boats. We competed in the 160th running of the New York Yacht Cub Annual Regatta. I won’t dwell on the minor collision or results except to say that a visit to the club’s impressive protest room was interesting but not a highlight. We then spent a hectic four days preparing for the big race including hiring a diver to clean the hull and stowing our race gear and sails. Our blazers, change of clothes and cruising gear were loaded into a container to meet us in Bermuda. A special thanks goes to my wife Diane and Jenny Wood for the herculean effort to prepare frozen meals and enough supplies for 9 crew for up to 6 days. We also received weather and Gulf Stream routing guidance.
On June 20 we motored 10 nm out to the start on Narragansett Bay and the impressive sight of 165 competitors along with crowds of spectator boats and people watching from the shore. We were off! The first two days were great, we had the reaching conditions that Spitfire likes and we successfully found a warm eddy that pulled us towards the Gulf Stream. The waters quickly changed from 18 deg to 24 deg as we reached the stream. Even on the first night where we had expected cold it was relatively mild. We were pleased to see a 60 foot all-out racing Swan behind us. We continued to follow our original plan, heading southwards to cross the GS at its narrowest. Wave conditions were relatively benign by GS standards but even so I was forced from my V berth bed after becoming airborne a few times as we fell of the square waves. We were accompanied by porpoises and saw a whale. A happy crew – racing well and well fed.
According to the routing advice we had received, we expected to meet a South East cold eddy to carry us at 2-3 knots towards Bermuda for the next 60 nm. However, from satellite maps received after the race, this eddy had moved NE and instead we found an unhelpful SW current in a light Easterly breeze. We could go SW or just about stand still if we tacked into the current. We had no choice but to go with the wind and current we had. We were swept perhaps 30 nm further off the rhumb line than we had intended. We received satellite reports of our fall from 4th to 80th position overall on the Yellowbrick tracker. A less happy, but still well fed crew.
We pulled ourselves together and spent the rest of the race pushing hard. Conditions had turned very light but our Lake Ontario in August (minus flies) experience helped. The nights were particularly tough with no moon or horizon as we optimised our speed through waves, hunted for wind under clouds and chased every puff. Our experienced helmsmen (Kevin and Brian) really made a difference. All of the competitors carried AIS transmitters and we gradually saw ourselves pull back the lost miles and positions. We were also in a good position for the expected wind shift from SE to SW. A happy crew again although the frozen food was gone and we now chose which crew member would be first on the menu. A flying fish that with one bounce off the deck dropped straight into the galley at 3.00 am proved insufficient for nine but did cause a scare for the crew member making coffee at the time.
The conditions were tough on the larger boats as every few hours the pack would fall into a wind hole, the smaller boats would catch up and the race would effectively restart. Although we only had one small period out of sight of other competitors, as we closed on Bermuda we converged on a fleet of boats approaching the finish. The conditions had compressed the fleet so that a record number of racers crossed the finish line within a 2 hour period. We crossed the line in 113 hours, averaging over 6 knots over the distance sailed.
A happy but rather pungent Spitfire crew motored the 2 hours to beautiful Hamilton and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club dock. We were met by our support team with a large tray of dark & stormy beverages – the combination of tiredness, sea-legs and alcohol apparently creating the most dangerous time in any Newport to Bermuda race.
We had a great four days in beautiful Bermuda, relaxing, then competing in the RBYC Annual Regatta and attending the formal award ceremonies and especially receiving a 4th place award in our Newport Bermuda division (3rd in IRC) and a 3rd in the RBYC regatta.
The Next Leg
I had decided that it would be a pity to return all the way to Toronto when the Caribbean was only 840 nm away. So we put Spitfire in BBQ mode with bimini and dodger. The race crew flew home and Brian McKay, myself along with 2 others (including Geoff Brown, another NYC member) exited Bermuda and turned south quickly losing sight of the flotilla of boats returning to the US North East. It was a very different experience – motoring when there was no wind, showers, fishing, frozen meals but this time with the appropriate and carefully chosen wine pairing. The roast chicken for four we had ordered turned into 4 roast chickens when we checked our provisions so we found several new ways to serve chicken. After 2.5 days with no wind and only 1/2 tank of diesel left we discovered why there was no wind – we had bananas aboard in the form of a delicious banana rum cake. An offering was made to the wind gods and a short while later the up came an east wind which gradually strengthened to 20-25 knots on the beam and we had two days with 200 nm each all the way into Tortola and the BVI ‘s.
In total we had motored 600 nm to New York and sailed 1600 nm to the Caribbean. Of the 10 days of sailing all but one was on port tack – my right leg is now longer than my left and I shall not eat chicken for some time! Spitfire is now safely ashore for hurricane season and will reappear for the winter season in the islands.
The whole 18 month project was a massive undertaking. It was also a wonderful life experience and I am truly grateful to all of team for allowing me to achieve a life dream.