Photo by spectrumphoto/fran grenon
UNPREDICTABLE: Crews must be ready for all conditions.
Photo by spectrumphoto/fran grenon UNPREDICTABLE: Crews must be ready for all conditions.

Every year in June there is a sailboat race from New England to Bermuda. 

In the odd years, cruising and racing/cruising boats compete in the Marion-Bermuda Race. 

This is a Corinthian event for non-paid crew, although professional cruising friends are welcome as long as they are not compensated. 

The professional paid crews and their specialized racing boats start in Newport, Rhode Island in the even years (Newport Bermuda Race). 

The race to Bermuda beyond the sight and safety of shore in blue water is a challenge for competitors in each race. 

While winning is perhaps the goal in the Newport Bermuda Race, it’s a bonus for the non-professionals in the Marion-Bermuda Race who are participating to achieve personal accomplishment.

No refuge

On June 14, 2013, Buzzards Bay outside of Marion, Massachuetts, the race to Bermuda will begin. 

For four to five days, depending on wind and weather, they will be sailing over 645 miles aiming towards a small dot in the ocean, Bermuda. 

There are no stops along the way, no harbours of refuge if the weather turns ugly. 

Stretching the lifeline to safety and security, it is a challenge into the unknown.  Weather changes during the race and predictions at the start are less accurate for three and four days into the race. Security decreases as the race progresses. 

Boats and crew are prepared and ready for these challenges. The accomplishment for everyone starting the race is the sight of the welcoming beacon — St David’s Lighthouse in Bermuda.   

This is the 19th race, which is formally known as the Marion-Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race.  

The first race was in 1977. The Newport Bermuda Race is older, first run in 1906, and then, only for amateurs. 

As the Newport Bermuda Race gained in popularity and grew to allow larger, demonstration boats, the need for a race purely for non-paid amateurs was filled by the Marion-Bermuda Race. 

In fact, to date, almost 1,700 boats have ventured offshore to and from Bermuda safely and successfully through their participation in the Marion -Bermuda Race, which is for many skippers and crew, their first blue water experience.   

“The Marion-Bermuda Race is a competitive event,” said Graham Quinn, former executive director and trustee of the Marion-Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race Association.

“Everyone is serious about doing well. It is just at a different tone than other races… There is great camaraderie among racers, and the more experienced racers share thoughts with the new entrants.” 

About one-half of the entrants in the 2011 race were repeats, and the others were new to offshore sailing.  

Mark Gabrielson on Lyra was a first timer who “wanted to do a multi-hundred mile offshore sail”.

“The Marion-Bermuda Race is the safest way to do it,” he said. 

His boat, Lyra, a Hinckley S’Wester 50, on which his family cruises the Maine coast during the summer, was built in 1976. 

“This was an opportunity to upgrade the boat to fulfill the requirements for the race and have a safer boat for the family cruising,” said Mr Gabrielson.

The 2011 Marion-Bermuda Race had 54 registered entrants. 

Anne Kolker, captain of Etoile, an all-female entrant in the race, was also a first timer.  

She had recently done the shorter, overnight Lobster Run from Stonington, Connecticut to Boothbay, Maine and thought she and her crew was ready for a greater challenge.

“We’ll have fun together, work together and figure things out together.” 

Warren Zapol sailed the Marion-Bermuda Race in 2005 on a friend’s boat and entered his own boat, Mahubay, in 2011. 

“It’s a wonderful thing to do. You get to know people when you are at sea and you build friendships.” 

Mr Quinn concurred: “It is a smaller, more intimate event than the Newport-Bermuda and sailors get to know each other.”   

For most, boat preparation begins long before the boat gets to the starting line. The race to prepare the boat may produce more anxiety than the race itself.

In order to gain entry to the starting line, boat and crew must meet standards established by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) for Category 1 racing, “where yachts must be self-sufficient for extended periods of time, capable of withstanding heavy storms and prepared to meet serious emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance”.

Then to make certain that the boat is properly prepared, each boat must be inspected and approved by a certified inspector. 

A seaworthy boat can be undone by an inexperienced crewperson or captain. 

The race requires at least some of the crew aboard each vessel to have participated in an offshore race of at least 250 miles. 

In addition, at least 30 per cent of the crew must have attended a Safety at Sea Seminar. 

Mr Gabrielson and crew attended the March 2011 Safety at Sea Symposium.

He said: “After attending the seminar, I’m not sure why I would leave the dock to race.

“Yet, it is an excellent immersion in safety and the problems that might arise when you are offshore.” 

In one day, the Safety at Sea Seminar highlights the range of weather, emergency, crew and safety situation that might arise when offshore. The 2011 Symposium was lead by John Rousmaniere, an experienced mariner with more than 40,000 miles of blue water behind him. 

You may not ever experience the difficult conditions described in the seminar, but the knowledge of how someone else has handled the conditions prepares you in the event that similar difficulties arise offshore.

The start of every race is exciting. For sailboat races, it is a close-quarter manoeuvre of large, lumbering boats not wandering too far from the starting line, while trying to gain an advantage for the start. 

This often results in heart-stopping manoeuvres to avoid collisions while the clock is ticking down to your class start time. 


Everyone is trying to cross the line at the precise second of their start. 

For a first time captain, just getting the boat to the starting line is a huge accomplishment in itself. 

After the start there is an 18-mile long reach down Buzzards Bay leaving the Elizabeth Islands and the south shore of Massachusetts behind. 

Having successfully navigated the shoals at the southwestern end of Cuttyhunk and out past the Buzzards Bay entrance buoy, it is a straight line to Bermuda for the next 630 miles.

Tight quarter manoeuvring is over and navigators now set their best course to Bermuda.  

As the light on Gay Head Lighthouse disappears from view, the boat and crew begin to settle into the routine that will carry them to the finish in Bermuda. 

There are no highways on the ocean and the boats separate. 

Each captain and their navigator has their best-guess course to Bermuda.   

It is now getting dark and crews begin the watch pattern of work shifts that will carry them through the next several days.

The first night offshore can be special. Garet Wohl, the navigator aboard Etoile in 2011 said: “Watching all of the stars at night is mystical.” 

About 150 miles offshore lies the Gulf Stream. Called “a river in the ocean” by Matthew Maury, the Gulf Stream is a major obstacle on the route to Bermuda.

It can be a challenge. 

Ranging from 50 to 100 miles wide, this river of warm water flows at speeds of up to five knots, often conspiring with local weather patterns to create big seas and challenging sailing conditions. 

Like a meandering river, Gulf Stream waters break away from the main body to create eddies — swirling pools of water — miles across. This can either help or hinder the progress of the fleet. 

In this day of satellites and GPS the well-prepared navigator has tracked the Gulf Stream and its eddies on the web for weeks in advance of the race as they create and update their optimal course to Bermuda before leaving the dock.

Emerging from the Gulf Stream, it is now time to reset the course to Bermuda.

Once through the Gulf Stream, foul weather gear is put away, shorts and T-shirts become the uniform of choice and the next few days are often a pleasant sail in tropical weather. 

The winds are steady and warm. This is the time to “sit on the bow watching dolphins ride the bow wave,” as Warren Zapol poetically put it. 

Conversely, as was the case in 2009, the winds never stopped blowing and the rain never stopped. It was gloomy, wet and miserable the entire trip. 

A few days later, as excitement becomes routine and routine becomes boredom, you think you see an outline on the horizon. 

Is it St David’s Lighthouse …or maybe a few clouds? 

GPS soon confirms you are about 20 miles from the finish line and everyone is re-energized. 

One of the more interesting charts, which the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce sends out, is the image of sunken ships surrounding the island. 

The island is surrounded by reefs, and for hundreds of years unwary vessels and many a tired crew have put their boats on these shoals. 

The reefs are well marked, but after four or five days on the boat, the desire to get back on land may overrule caution. 

Approaching from the north, the finish line is on the eastern side of the island and most racers follow the curve of the reefs to the finish. 

St David’s Lighthouse and a sea buoy mark the end of this multi-day journey.

Sailors look forward to getting to safe harbour for hot showers, a good meal, and a Dark ‘n’ Stormy as they celebrate with exhilaration and excitement their sense of accomplishment.


Rich Pinkowitz is vice president of operations, Immunetics Inc, in Massachusetts, US. He has completed the Marion-Bermuda Cruising Yacht Race three times, once as captain of his 39 ft CAL 39, Tantrum.