Smallness and Newport Bermuda Race

Published on June 18th, 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 Jeff Tyrrel:

For the 2008 Newport Bermuda Race, our Beneteau 36.7 Tenacious had a sailmaker friend onboard the crew – both he and I worked for UK Sailmakers – so we were entered in The Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Division which is for race-oriented boats which include professional crew who may steer.

In our navigator’s briefing I gave to the crew prior to getting under way, I acknowledged that we had some pretty stiff competition with Rambler and Belle Mente in our division, but the weather would actually favor the smaller boats as the breeze would be building the entire race.

Butch Ulmer and I had been discussing that in his office a couple of days earlier as we talked strategies, and since the forecast would allow us to sail at our full potential for a longer time, I asked the crew just to do their best and concluded our little meeting by saying, “We do these things to win!”

Sailing about prior to our start, we were saying hello to friends on other boats. We watched as all the St David’s (amateur) classes started and were contemplating our best strategy for staying out of the way of the bigger boats.

At one point we crossed paths with the boat Mark Ploch of Doyle Sails was on, and he assured us that we were insane doing a Bermuda Race on a 36-footer. Later on we crossed tacks with Tom Carroll’s J/133 with Butch Ulmer onboard and he offered that, “It’s not too late to turn back!”

We chose to ignore their concerns for our comfort and pressed on, and as the gun sounded we were off. I seem to recall telling the crew, most of which did not have ocean experience, that as the sight of land slipped over the horizon, our mighty Tenacious would seem very small.

Fast forward to the finish, at about 20 miles out, we were converging with the fleet, as you do in a Bermuda Race after not seeing very many boats for several days. Anticipation ran high and the thought of Rum Punches and Dark & Stormies began to fill our very tired minds as a salve for our aching bodies. But one thing we noticed was the boats around us seemed quite large.

While we had the pedal down we were being regularly passed by 50-60 foot boats. I think one of us even commented that, “Those guys must not be doing particularly well.” As we passed Mills Breakers Buoy, we set up for our second to last tack in towards Town Cut. Once we had the layline to the finish in hand, we tacked and sailed across the line.

High fives and hugs all around; we had survived doing the Bermuda Race on a Beneteau 36.7. That, in of itself was a great triumph, something to be proud of giving challenging conditions, particularly in the Gulf Stream.

As we spun around to make our way to Hamilton and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club (RBYC), a Race Committee vessel came along side and asked to see our storm jib and storm trysail to ensure we had sheets “permanently attached” to be in compliance with the regulations. This is customary for boats having thought to have placed well in the standings but we didn’t really think anything of it.

How could we have an expectation of being competitive against boats whose budgets for this race were bigger than the cost of our little boat?

While I was at the chart table minding our way through the reef and filling out customs and immigration forms for the Bermuda authorities, Steve Cain, one of our Watch Captains, was on the phone with his wife when we heard his daughter Julie shouting in the background. Steve puts the call on speaker phone and Julie, who was all of about 12 or 13 at the time is screaming, “Daddy, Daddy, you won! You WON the Bermuda Race!”

Steve and I stare at one another in amazement, figuring Julie must have misread the results page. So Steve conveys that and Julie agrees to go check a second time. She is back in a flash and still screaming at the top of her lungs that we have indeed won.

As we were the last finisher in Gibbs Hill, and the slowest rated boat in the division, there could be no mistake, but Steve and I are still in complete disbelief. We discuss this momentarily and decide it would be best if we didn’t share this news with the rest of the crew in the event the information was incorrect. Fat chance of that happening!

Tenacious became the smallest boat in history to win a lighthouse trophy.

A few months later we received a letter from the Organizing Authorities, the Cruising Club of America and RBYC, stating that some had felt we had “gamed the system” and it was decided that the minimum size requirement for Gibbs Hill would be raised to prevent a repeat.

So never again could a low budget little production boat, crewed up with a small handful of friends, skunk all the big boys (BTW, I always thought that was the point of yacht racing, to take some plain vanilla and kick some exotic arse!)

However, they did state that if we wished to try and defend our win in the next race, they would waive that minimum size for Tenacious… a magnanimous gesture that we still all get a laugh out of until this day.

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