Youth Team Topples Bermuda Race Fleet

Published on June 21st, 2016

(June 21, 2016) – After the 100-foot Comanche crushed the Newport Bermuda Race record by almost five hours, finishing June 19, it has taken the next boat over two more days to reach Bermuda. While Comanche’s finish position was predicted, few could say the same about the runner-up.

High Noon, at 41 feet, is fully 59 feet shorter than Comanche and tens of feet shorter than many other of the 142 starters. Yet High Noon was the second boat to finish today at 09:07:05 am EDT, and did so with a 10-person crew, seven of which are teenagers between ages 15 and 18.

The story of High Noon 2016 is about new ideas in training young sailors. For decades they sailed only small boats. Enter Peter Becker, who sails out of American Yacht Cub, in Rye, New York. He was an eager 15-year-old when he sailed his first Newport Bermuda Race. “I was the kid on the boat, up on the bow changing sails,” he recalls. Since then he’s done 16 more Bermuda Races and a race from New York to Barcelona, Spain.

Four years ago his teenage children were getting interested in ocean racing, and he came up with a new approach: a unique training program at his club that came to be called the Young American Junior Big Boat Sailing Team.

He put youngsters in a J/105 racing in local regattas under the tutelage of himself and other big-boat sailors. It worked so well that for the 2016 Newport Bermuda Race, the US Merchant Marine Academy Sailing Foundation loaned High Noon to his program.

“This Bermuda Race will be the culmination of at least three years of work by these juniors,” said Becker. “First they did overnight distance races, then weekend races, and then they looked for opportunities to sail offshore.”

The young sailors underwent hands-on safety training, and some helped deliver boats home after ocean races. They are committed to the project, and so are their mentors.

But it’s not all about winning, said Becker. “The kids are resonating with this. They love big boats. It’s challenging, it’s social, and it’s really inspiring. You get out there and you see the stars overhead and you think, ‘the land is really far away.’”

PPL PHOTO AGENCY - COPYRIGHT FREE (for editorial use only) Tel: +44 (0)7768 395719. Photo Credit: Barry Pickthall/PPL ***2016 Newport Bermuda Yacht Race finish. HIGH NOON, a Tripp 41 skippered by Peter Becker and crewed by 7 young sailors aged between 15 and 18. Standing from left to right next to Leatrice Oatley, Commodore of the Royal Bermuda YC who presented each youngster with a Stephens Brothers Society pin, are: Collin Axleander, Richard O'Leary, Hector McKemey, William McKeige, Madelyn Ploch, Carina Becker, & Brooks Daley.

Standing from left to right next to Leatrice Oatley, Commodore of the Royal Bermuda YC who presented each of the HIGH NOON youngsters with a Stephens Brothers Society pin, are: Collin Axlander, Richard O’Leary, Hector McKemey, William McKeige, Madelyn Ploch, Carina Becker, & Brooks Daley. Photo Barry Pickthall/PPL

High Noon’s 2016 campaign was so ambitious that Becker and his colleague Rob Alexander, recruited a third adult to sail with them to assist with training, Guillermo Altadill, a Spanish sailor who has done ten ’round the world races. When he told the kids they had to change jibs three times in five minutes, they asked him why. Recalled Alexander, “He told them, ‘Because we have to do it, that’s why.’”

Two of those kids were the watch officer’s children, Colin Alexander and Carina Becker. Split-second sail handling was crucial in the race’s constantly fluctuating weather, with frequent changes of headsails and spinnakers. When it was light they went with the Code Zero when sailing close-hauled. When the wind came up, they favored a double-headsail rig for power reaching, sometimes tying in a reef.

They were prepared for heavy weather – each of the young sailors wore a scopolamine seasick patch – but got little of it in the race when, Becker said, the predicted storm “didn’t have much in it.” He credited their strategy of tacking downwind at aggressive angles for the big gains they made in this largely off-wind race, especially as they neared Bermuda.

Preparing for anything, the crew organized in three watches: three or four sailors (young and older) standing watch, another group standing by on deck, and the third resting below. They practiced everything; when the rudder snagged some Gulf weed, the crew knew what to do, most of them heeling the boat to one side while a shipmate leaned over the windward side and poked the weed away with a batten.

Like any boat that’s pushed hard in the ocean for several days, High Noon suffered some damage, but it was minor—a broken block here, some torn sails there—and with no injuries.

One goal was to do well, which they did in a way that became instantly famous. Another was to make the youngsters responsible leaders. “Our job,” Becker said of himself and Rob Alexander, the two parents, “is to help with tactics navigation, and sail selection.” He added, “I’m trying to give these kids the same passion and experience I was exposed to when I was young and sailing with older sailors.”

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The 635-mile Newport Bermuda Race, starting on June 17, is the 50th edition and also marks the 90th anniversary of the partnership of the organizers, the Cruising Club of America and Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.

Leading up to the start, the fleet size looked to be the second or third largest in history. Then the weather forecasts began predicting gales in and below the Gulf Stream. Following the weather briefing on Thursday night (June 16), boats began withdrawing from the race. Finally 47 boats that had entered decided not to race. That brought the total from 184 boats on June 13 to 142 starters on June 17.

There are seven divisions, each for a type of boat. The race has no overall winner (only division winners), though the winning St. David’s Lighthouse Division boat (the largest in the race, and a division dedicated to amateur sailors) is regarded as the race’s top boat.

• St. David’s Lighthouse Division, for normal multi-purpose cruising-racing boats sailed by amateur or mostly amateur crews. This division is the largest at approximately 100 boats. There are limits on the number of professional sailors in these boats, and only amateurs are allowed to steer.

• Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Division, for all-out racing, lightweight, high-performance boats often sailed by professional crews, who may steer. Ten to 15 boats usually enter this division.

• Cruiser Division, for boats that normally cruise, not race, sailed by mostly amateur crews, with only amateur helmsmen. The division usually has about 30 boats.

• Double-Handed Division, for boats sailed by two sailors. Approximately 20 boats usually sail in this division. One crew may be a professional and steer.

• Open Division, for racing boats with cant keels, which tilt from side to side. About five boats usually sail in this division. There is no limit on professionals.

• Spirit of Tradition, for traditional boats, most recently the Bermuda Sloop replica Spirit of Bermuda. No limit on professionals.

• Super Yacht Division. No limit on professionals.

Source: John Rousmaniere, Newport Bermuda Race

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