The Plan and the Newport Bermuda Race
Published on June 16th, 2020
While the 52nd edition of the Newport Bermuda Race was cancelled in 2020, there remain 51 editions of memories that have come from this 635nm course. Prior to the scratched June 19 start, Scuttlebutt is celebrating the race’s history by sharing the stories… here’s one from Twig Burke:
On June 20th is the fortieth anniversary of Holger Danske winning the 1980 Bermuda Race in what the yachting public would herald as a huge upset! The owner’s son, a young Richie “Willy” Wilson who was the vessel’s skipper & navigator managed to win the prestigious St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy on his first trip down the rhumb line from Newport to Bermuda in a historic race.
As a member of the crew on this 42-foot double-ended ketch alongside several friends and new acquaintances assembled by Wilson, I remember that race like it was yesterday.
The story requires a brief background on the yacht known as Holger Danske, named in reference to a Danish Folklore hero. The owner, John J. Wilson, Jr. (“JJ”) had commissioned famed yacht designer K. Aage Nielsen in 1964 to build him a “comfortable offshore cruising yacht” capable of transatlantic voyages.
Built at Walsteds Baadevaert in Denmark, Commodore Wilson would log five transatlantic crossings with Holger Danske before he would entrust his wooden ketch to his 30-year-old son Richie to enter the 1980 Bermuda Race.
The crew consisted mostly of one design sailors who learned the sport at the Pleon Yacht Club (the oldest Junior Yacht Club on the planet!), a cook from France, a Medical Doctor from Virginia, a sailing buddy from Annapolis, the vessel’s boat captain, and a longtime friend and shipmate of the owner who had extensive experience on the boat…and was undoubtedly entrusted by “JJ” to keep an eye on his prized possession!
As vessels gathered in port prior for the 32nd running of what has become known as the “Thrash to the Onion Patch”, the scuttlebutt on the crowded wharves and docks of Newport was if BUMBLEBEE V, a maxi sled that hailed from Australian, could best the blistering first-to-finish time of 2 days, 19 hours, 52 minutes and 22 seconds set by Sumner Long’s ONDINE only 6 years prior.
And when they came upon Holger Danske resting in port amongst a maze of yachts, they probably had her pegged for The Cooks Trophy, reserved for the last place finisher. That thinking had no place in the mind of young skipper Richie Wilson…he had a plan.
Race day arrived on the third Friday in June of 1980. The 160 yachts entered in the contest made their way to the designated starting area sailing past Newport’s historic Fort Adams, and creating great spectacle for the crowds watching from Castle Hill. Upon arrival at the starting area each vessels crew were busily removing sail covers and stretching sail in anticipation of the starting sequences for their respective class.
As we maneuvered in and out of the fleet assembled in the starting area, it was a bit daunting to be moving in mass with the likes of Acadia, Arieto, Kialoa, Merrythought, Scaramouche, Tenacious, and Williwaw, all greyhounds who had sailed months earlier in the once famous SORC (Southern Ocean Racing Conference).
The SORC was where the grand prix machines and sailing professionals of that era gathered to do battle in Florida and the Bahamas, and on the even years returned to Newport in the spring hell bent on winning the coveted St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy.
And there we were, escorting the best-looking girl at the dance…Holger Danske …with her wooden spars, flawless topsides reflecting off the water, and varnished cap rail and butterfly hatch gleaming in the morning sun…with young Wilson at the helm full of nervous anticipation. To the greyhounds in our midst, with their “too cool for school” crews in their team uniforms, we were just road kill… “stay out of our way…we have a race to win”!
Willy, who had been a crew member onboard Jack King’s famed MERRYTHOUGHT for the previous two years when he was living in Annapolis, gave a sincere “good luck” shout to his friend Jack as they crossed bows, to which some of the crew responded “have a good cruise”! Unbeknownst to them, under that wry smile of Willy’s, after months of planning, research, and study…he had a plan…and it was about to unfold.
Holger Danske was in Class F, which rolled off the starting a little after noon…and it was now ‘game on’ for Willy! We started in a light rain with fog rolling in an out, not much breeze…making it hard for the Danish folklore hero to awaken and realize the potential Nielsen had designed into her, and what the young skipper knew she was capable of.
Willy, who had given up the helm after the start, was undeterred and immediately wedged himself into the navigator’s berth where he would go to work for the next 3½ days. He had a plan to execute and wanted to be ready when the predicted Wind Gods showed up!
By early evening we were ghosting along in a dying breeze that followed the sun. Our cook, who was showing signs of motion sickness (not the best start for a cook with about 625 miles left to sail), began scooping beef bourguignon into dinner bowls. With our first meal onboard complete, we settled into our respective watches and got ready for our first night of sailing. A few hours in and the Wind Gods made their first appearance, teasing us with conditions that would allow Holger Danske the giddy up needed to help Willy execute his plan.
With a freshening breeze that would produce a favorable angle of sail, Willy stuck his head up from down below and barked “tack here”! The helmsman complied and the crew of mostly small boat sailors threw in a tack and began to put up additional canvas that comes with a ketch, from both the main and mizzen masts, rigging rope blocks on the varnished hand rails, trimmed the hell out of the old girl…and the speedo began to tic upwards.
Willy would continue to stick his head up through the companionway throughout, instructing the helmsman with an updated compass course…and whoever was steering would dutifully comply, while at the same time consciously working the breeze and wind angle to keep the speedo moving upwards. It was now becoming obvious to all of us that this was not just our inaugural race to Bermuda. Willy had a plan, and it was starting to reveal itself!
Reaching along in a welcomed weather front, we were treated to a night of Moon tans, constant course ‘fine tuning’ by our young navigator, and the crew pushing the “comfortable offshore cruising boat” towards Bermuda at an ever-increasing pace. And for our Saturday morning breakfast and watch change, we found ourselves enjoying the company of some who were a bit surprised to see us hanging on.
The Wind Gods continued to shine favorably on Holger Danske throughout the day on Saturday…and the speedo responded with a series of 8 to 10+ knot readings (an ironically slow speed for Willy, who would more than double that number on his trips sailing multihulls in and around the world years later!).
Willy continued to work the science of the stream, looking for favorable current that would provide a southeast boost, with canvas set from every possible halyard, and the Danish folk hero responding to her lines…we found ourselves barreling down the course headed for Bermuda at what we thought was a pretty impressive clip. Wilson’s plan was working, which now included the added component of a favorable wind that was building and producing the perfect angle of sail…power reaching…and we were all pumped!
Sunday morning had Willy stealing an occasional cat nap while continuing his wrestling match with the Gulf Stream. And the crew was working in concert with Wilson’s course suggestions to maximize the vessels speed, always working to maintain if not exceed that magical 10 knot number on the speedo.
The Nielsen ketch was eating up distance and logged 200+ miles over the bottom in the previous 24 hours. Willy’s navigational skill combined with use of Loran-C (the first time these electronics were allowed by race organizers) and his pre-race homework on the Gulf Stream was paying off. The crew became increasingly optimistic when vessels which had Holger Danske competing for the Cook’s Trophy were within sight! Willy’s plan was working, and other boats in the race were noticing too!
Monday brought more horsepower from the Wind Gods, with Holger Danske continuing to eat up distance. Having just finished another magnificent night of Moon tans, brownies, and cookies that Richie couldn’t eat because of food allergies, and subtle course changes that contributed to another 200+ miles over the bottom, Holger Danske had a bone in her teeth and we were all feeling quite good about the boats performance.
This would only be reinforced when we found ourselves sailing in the company of another Marblehead boat, Stampede, which was owned by Westy Adams and navigated by Jonathan Curtis (brother of famed sailor Dave Curtis). Curtis, like Wilson, was one of the best navigators in the ocean racing game at the time. If we were hanging with Stampede, we were doing a number of things right. It was coming together for Willy…his plan was working…and we were believing it.
With three days now behind our Nielsen canoe-end stern and the Wind Gods continuing to deliver, we continued to power reach late into Monday night and very early Tuesday morning, pegging 10+ knots with regularity. The finish line, now hours away, had us begin the process of estimating our time against the fleet.
A crewmember grabbed the scratch sheet, Willy turned up the VHF so we could listen to vessels reporting in, and we began checking off the boats we believed ole Holger Danske had saved her time on. With check marks starting to dominate every page of the scratch sheet, it was becoming increasingly evident that we were doing a lot better than the crowds on the docks had expected, along with the 159 other boats that had wished us a good cruise!
To get to the finish line we had to jibe over, and with the spreader lights on (more like street lights on Holger Danske!) we performed our first and only jibe 630 miles into the race…flawlessly. With a new compass course to Kitchen Shoals and the finish, and Willy, who at this point could stand in for the Ancient Mariner as a result of his sleep deprivation, was now at the helm, a bit bleary eyed but with anticipated excitement.
Holger Danske, with her owner’s son at the helm, proudly slid across the finish line completing the race in 87 hours, 43 minutes & 14 seconds. At this point it appeared that Willy’s plan for a respectable finish was accomplished (he would later admit that he always believed Holger Danske could win!) and we were anxious to confirm just how well we had done!
With dawn breaking and a long motor into Hamilton Harbor, knowing that we had given it our all…Wilson hopped off the helm, went down below and re-appeared with some crew shirts and champagne that he had superstitiously hidden away without any one’s knowledge prior to the start.
Clad in our fresh team colors, and reinvigorated by some fancy champagne…we motored to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club feeling ‘high spirited’! As we pulled up to the Club’s main dock, we came upon BUMBLEBEE V who had taken line honors, but short of Ondine’s record by 2 hours & 15 minutes.
Next to this state-of-the-art maxi sled, which was the antitheses of what Willy’s father and designer Nielsen had designed into Holger Danske, was an empty slip awaiting the arrival of the winning yacht. With a nod from several officials in blue blazers, white pants, and straw hats…Richie Wilson was formally asked to back down into the winner’s slip!
Willy’s plan had worked, he had become the youngest skipper to win the Newport to Bermuda Race (that record would be broken by a 22 years old Kyle Weaver in 1992), with a strategy to tame the fickle Gulf Stream, work with a formidable crew who would push the boat, and take any favor offered by the Wind Gods.
The Danish folk hero had awakened and was the overall winner of the 1980 Bermuda Race! Willy was awarded the St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy, the Class F Trophy, and the George W. Mixter Memorial Trophy for the navigator of the yacht winning the Lighthouse Trophy.
While most have argued that it was a favorable MHS rule that created the path to victory for Holger Danske in 1980, it should be noted that on elapsed time we…
• Beat all 21 boats in our class (F)
• Bested 24 of the 26 boats in the next largest class (E)
• Was faster than 30 of 35 in Class D
• And half of the vessels in Class C
And don’t be fooled into thinking that the Bermuda Race victory by Holger Danske was a fluke. It was the result of a skipper/navigator who did his homework, executed a plan, and trusted a crew to do its job which allowed a “comfortable offshore cruising boat” to perform to her designed capabilities.
Did luck play a role? Perhaps…but as they say, especially in sailboat racing…luck is where preparation meets opportunity and that’s how Richie “Willy” Wilson and the crew of Holger Danske became the improbable winners of the 1980 Bermuda Race.
One final note: The bonds of friendship between Captain and Crew have remained strong through the years. At each ten-year anniversary, Skipper & Navigator Richie “Willy” Wilson organizes a reunion to celebrate friendship, youth, love of sailing, love of adventure, and the victory he had always believed was possible. And that, in a nut shell, is what sailing is all about!
Scuttlebutt wants to share your great tales from the past, and to encourage you, the prize chest is expanding with race gear and Scuttlebutt hats for the favorite stories. Submit your memorable moment to firstname.lastname@example.org.