WEDNESDAY, MAR. 28: There’s a good reason why the Bermuda Race’s nickname is “The Thrash to the Onion Patch.” 

Many good reasons, in fact. On the 40th anniversary of the toughest Bermuda Race in history, in 1972, when the tail of a hurricane lashed the big fleet, let’s remember that rough weather and the Newport Bermuda Race are hardly strangers.

Consider, for example, the 2002 race. Early on, a cold northeaster pushed the 182 boats at high speeds into the Gulf Stream, which proceeded to fulfill its reputation as a dangerous weather-maker by churning up black squalls punctuated by waterspouts.

Then things really got nasty when the northeast wind gave way to a force 6-7 southwesterly blowing right into the teeth of a long, powerful southbound eddy reaching almost to Bermuda.

The impossible seaway was reminiscent of a description of the Stream by a great sailor of a past generation, Erroll Bruce, who called it “a mass of separate steep crests, each moving independently, and breaking haphazardly.” Fred Detwiler’s 70-footer Trader stuck her bow into one of these waves and lost her mast.

Disney

One of the many boats that were nursed through this chaos was the 75-foot turbomaxi Pyewacket, a Transpac Race record holder that Roy Disney had brought east. In the worst going she jogged along at a mere 8 knots under deeply reefed mainsail and no headsail. She suffered no damage, but there was great discomfort among the crew, who had fought not only the bone-shaking conditions but also a contagion of the flu.

“You would not have wanted to be on the boat,” Disney said somberly after the finish. Still, Pyewacket was first to finish. Averaging 11.8 knots, she shattered the elapsed time record by almost four hours, at 53 hours, 39 minutes.

Except for the flu, this was hardly a new chapter in the long history of the Bermuda Race.

The tone was set in the first race, in 1906, when a gale in the Stream stopped one of the entries in her tracks and forced her back to North America. Recalled a sailor in another boat, “By 6 a.m. we were clear of the Gulf Stream, which place, I am under the impression, might be improved upon. I really enjoyed it, only I thought it would be kind of nice to be dry again for a change.”

After another rough race three decades later, a sailor recalled the entrancing sight of the sea in turmoil: “The phosphorus was beautiful and would light up the whole deck.” But, he added, “When phosphorus goes down your neck it is nothing more than plain sea water.” 

Worst

Forty-four boats started the 1936 race, and after days of beating into an unwavering southeast gale, only 35 finished.

The 20 per cent dropout rate is one of the worst in the race’s history.

Twenty years later, in 1956, it was blowing so hard when the 73-foot maxis of that era neared Bermuda that the leader, Venturer, couldn’t tie a reef into her heavy cotton mainsail and had to make do under jib and mizzen. Overtaking her, Bolero couldn’t reef, either. She blew out two jibs, and then when the headstay turnbuckle broke, the crew quickly doused the headsail, ran jib halyards out to the bow, and set a small forestaysail. Bursting out of the fog at 11 knots, Bolero set a new elapsed time race record.

 In 1960 an 80-degree wind shift caught Henry Morgan’s 62-foot sloop Djinn aback. “The boat went right over on her port side,” Morgan recalled. “I know how far over because we found weed in the top of the three sets of spreaders while checking the rig in Bermuda.”

When she came back upright, Morgan, at the wheel, realized he was the only person on deck. “I could see that there wasn’t a soul, whereas I knew there had been seven others when we tacked. That was a bit of a thrill, but very shortly people started appearing over the rail, swarming up their safety harness tethers. This was the best lesson in the merits of everybody hooked on I’ve ever seen.”

The wind devils were back at work again in 1970. As the fleet was hammered by thunderstorms sweeping in from the west with hurricane-strength gusts, Harvey Loomis, sailing in John Page’s Pageant, noticed “a particularly heavy cloud that we wishfully hoped was not doing what it appeared to be doing: moving against the wind, toward us. The leading edge was blacker and sharper than any squall I’d ever seen. Reminded me of the thin black moustache on the upper lip of the villainous landlord in the old melodramas. And spitting straight down out of it were occasional blasts of lightning. Altogether a very much more than ordinarily imposing piece of nature’s work.” The crew doused all sail. Pageant went on to win her class.

See part two next week…