To a blue-water sailor a berth to Bermuda is often a lifetime goal. For me, too, it was a childhood dream, but I was a girl.
Girls didn't go on ocean races. Among other things, they were considered bad luck. They were frail, couldn't pull their own weight on a boat, inhibited swearing, relieving oneself over the side of the vessel and changing clothes or running around in one's underwear. Who needed them except as a last-resort cook?
Never will I forget standing on the dock of the Pequot Yacht Club in Southport, Connecticut, waving goodbye to my six male sailing friends as they set sail on the Brilliant with Briggs Cunningham, who later sailed the Columbia to victory in the America's Cup race.
That 1946 Bermuda race was the first race after the war, and I wanted to go more than anything in the world. I stood on the dock with tears in my eyes, saying to myself like the Little Engine That Could, "I will, I will, I will go to Bermuda someday."
Eighteen years later I shipped out as a cook, commissary officer, helmsman and able-bodied seaman on a tiny 40' wooden yawl named Blixtar. She had a beam of 9' and six bunks at best.
Despite the woman jinx, we came in fourth in our class and ninth in a fleet of 135 boats. I was in ecstasy for the entire trip even though the boat was small and cramped, the passage rough and stormy, the two-burner alcohol stove crotchety and my bunk on the windward side, meaning that I spent five days sleeping suspended above the main cabin in my canvas sling.
To prove myself seaman enough to go on that race, I had to sail in many overnight contests. In one of them, it hailed, sleeted and snowed, half the fleet dropped out, four out of six persons on Blixtar were ill and I had to steer with no compass or masthead lights for three hours into the teeth of the storm. We came in third in class and I was invited on the next Bermuda race.
By then I'd sailed back from Bermuda twice and spent most of my summer weekends with my husband (occasionally without him) crewing for friends on offshore boats. The four children grew up seeming to understand this crazy love for sailing and the sea, particularly when they were old enough to be included.
Now, free of family obligations that forced me to turn down passages to Denmark, Ireland and Capetown to Rio, I'm a seagoing grandmother, feeling stronger, healthier and more physically fit than ever before.
In the 1980 Bermuda race -- my 13th passage to Bermuda, on six different vessels -- I was on the Indian Summer, a New York 40 class boat, with nine men, ranging from 16 to 65. As always, my teammates were great, only this trip by the end of the race the foredeck gang was calling me "mom" and I loved it!
On Friday June 20, in the fog and rain, 161 boats crossed the starting line at 15-minute intervals, the smallest classes going first. The six classes ranged in size from Snow Star, a 36' sloop from Massachusetts, to Huey Long's powerful 79.6' sloop Ondine, which set the speed record for the race in 1974.
Two boats had to withdraw, one with rudder trouble and another with a hole in her side from a pre-start collision. By Tuesday afternoon, in record time, the entire fleet was nestled snugly, anchors down, in the welcoming blue waters of the famous Onion Patch.
The winner was a homey, well-appointed 16-year-old ketch, Holger Danske, owned by John J. Wilson of Marblehead and sailed by his 30-year-old son Richard, the youngest skipper ever to win the coveted St. David's Head trophy. With all sails flying from her two masts, this 42' class F boat proved to the delight of the cruising/racing sailors that lovely old boats can still compete with the newer, stripped-out hulls.
Everyone has his own tensions before the Bermuda race: Skippers grapple with last-minute details; navigators get updates on weather and try to ascertain the where-abouts of the wily, fickle Gulf Stream; and the cooks are loading up last-minute purchases knowing there are no supermarkets at sea.
I have provisioned every boat I sail on and still am not seasoned to the point where I can relax until the anchor is up and I know there's nothing more I can do. The day before the race we stow the frozen casseroles, roasts, milk, cooked bacon deep in the ice box in the order they'll be eaten in. Electricians and mechanics are crawling all over, making stowing food almost impossible, but we all know that a healthy Loran and engine outrank being able to locate the beans and the beer.The last night on shore my sleep is fitful, full of lists ending up with an odd variety of items to be bought before the start: more sun block, visored hat for skipper, dental floss, earplugs, juice container, film, batteries and grapes -- my men were grape feaks. My mind races over menus: Is there Maple syrup for the French toast? Last bath, hair wash. Finally, the last step off land onto my floating home for -- how long? We have fresh foods for a week, and as required, nourishment for ten people for more than two weeks.
The start is overcast, raining intermittently with patchy fog. I'm nervous in the pit of my stomach as we join the parade of boats headed for the line. It's already rough, and we all take seasick pills. Our start is uneventful; co-owner Jerry Coe is below securing a leaking water tank that has come loose from its supports in the rough chop. We cross the line late, trying to maneuver carefully so we don't dislodge the tank again. Thoughts of hot days, no wind and no water run through my head. "Goodbye, Newport," Bermuda, here we come," "Let's get 'em" are the comments as we cross the line and pick up the closest heading for Bermuda.
Under way at 1:35, the starboard watch is in place; we on the port watch are off duty until we've been fed and take over at 7.
We work Swedish watches, alternating every four hours at night and six during the day. One day we're on from 1 to 7 p.m. The cook (me) has to be up and ready to serve all meals one hour before watch changes. This means less sleep, but I personally find it more satisfying to be a working part of the team pulling lines, steering and sharing in what goes on above decks. I share the crew's intense desire to win and want to contribute to the efficiency of the boat. As we work together in our different roles, various skills aptitudes and abilities emerge; even after four practice overnights, we find ourselves becoming more finely tuned.
The first day or two will probably be cold, as the water is still only 57 degrees to 60 degree f. We're still enjoying the cool northerly air that covers much of the Northeast, and dress warmly both on deck and in our bunks.
The good breeze has the boat leaning at a 25-degree angle most of the trip, making it hard to move around below. Ther's no place to set anything down except the stove, which is gimbaled, and we're constantly being banged around the cabin.
The crew comes below for dinner, and several find it difficult to eat or even stay below. Greenly, they head for fresh air. One is sick but recovers quickly. Operating the head under such conditions is an undescribable challenge. The room is tiny and the angle defies imaginatiion. We are sobering to the task ahead and the unknowns of the approaching Gulf Stream, famous for its wild squalls and violent seas.
By morning on Day 2, Saturday, we're well into our routine after a beautiful night's sail with moon, stars and satellites. You could steer by the stars in the rigging. The crew is fed hash and eggs, which is easy in the rough seas. The engine is run to charge batteries. The navigator takes some sun lines. It's a beautiful sunny day with cloudless sky and ubelievably blue sparkling sea. Porpoises visit. We barrel along at almost hull speed. By 1:30 we've gone 190 miles in 24 hours -- a feat for a 40' boat. Everyone is elated and up for the challenge of trying to beat the unusual number of boats visible near us. We take water temperature at half-hour intervals to try to determine the currents and eddies of the Gulf Stream; we're trying to go through a warm eddy and straight into the stream. Suddenly the temperature goes from 70 degrees to 76 degrees in half an hour: It's 8:15 p.m., and we're in the Gulf Stream.
Where are the birds, porpoises, whale, waves and squalls? Nothing but the deep-blue rolling seas, lots of sargasso weed and an indescribable sunset. Instead of the usual violent weather with winds up to 80 knots, we're in a calm all night. Only by constant work can we keep the sails full enough to maintain a knot or two of forward motion. We also know we're being carried somewhere by the stream. During 11 hours we go but 51 miles, are set 29 miles east by the current and given a nine-mile shove down our course toward Bermuda. A good night for sleeping.
By midmorning on Sunday, Day 3, we have a strengthening breeze from the northeast, lovely dry air that will send us an incredible sleigh-ride to Bermuda. With spinnaker and sometimes a staysail, along with our started mainsail, we surf south on the following sea. Day and night we hear the hiss of water, groaning of straining lines, rigging vibrating like piano wire, winches cranking, the rolling of canned food under the floorboards, slosh of water in the bilges, sounds of pumping it out. Wet sails all over, wet clothes, wet bodies; joy, exhilaration, a sense of speed, power and beauty that makes us all want to yell. The navigator gets more sun lines a star sight. If this keeps up we'll be in Bermuda for breakfast by Tuesday. Unbelievable!
A breeze can drop as fast as it comes up, but this one stays with us all day Monday, Monday night and to finish at 5:31 on Tuesday morning.
A memorable last-night sail, with the moon leaving a path on the sea, the stars faint in the sky for the moon's light. The winking of the tiny masthead lights of our fellow competitors make us wonder who are they, which class? How are we doing with the competition? "Not so good -- that's an F class boat over there." "We can't let them beat us; what are they doing that we aren't doing?" More sail-trimming and winch-cranking. We're reading sails like dinghy racers.
No one can sleep that final night. The tension of match racing, the competition and the excitement of our Bermuda landfall put us all on "uppers." We see the loom of land, a white glow in the sky. We're on deck, lined up on the windward rail, trying to make the tactical decision that will determine our final standing; we make some wrong moves that cost us places in our class. The navigator is using all available means to get a fix -- stars, Loran and radio direction-finder. (We didn't use the Loran enough on the way down: This was the first time it allowed for the whole race, and the smart sailors used it every half-hour. They did better than we.)
We have a momentary panic that we're on the wrong side of North Rocks which would mean reefs and destruction. We tack unnecessarily to make sure to avoid the peril of the coral. We go too far before we come about again and head for Kitchen Shoals buoy and the finish line. We watch the light on St. David's Head and as another weather-perfect day dawns we finish the Bermuda race side by side with many of our sister boats, plus boats from all classes. We feel we haven't won anything, but we have sailed a good race.
After we cross the line we take down sails, coil lines and hoist our Bermuda flag. The skipper brings out a bottle of rum and pours generously into the breakfast orange juice -- our first taste of alcohol since we left Newport. We start the three-hour trip to Hamilton Harbor, and I feed everyone their favorite breakfast, French toast and sausage. It tastes pretty good after the rum!
Those last moments together have a wistful and almost sad feeling: In a few hours we will be on our way to many parts of the world. From the moment we step off the boat, our fragile microcosm is shattered. The end of a long race is often accompanied by a let-down and nostalgia until you're on shore -- you lurch down the dock with unsteady legs, head for the phone to let the family know you've arrived, and set out for the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, to look at the big board with the finish results.
Once there, surrounded by old sailing buddies, you start swapping sea stories and talking about the next run to the Onion Patch.