June 27, 2012
When three young skippers in U.S. Navy uniforms stepped forward last Saturday afternoon to accept their boats' trophies at the traditional Bermuda Race prize giving ceremony, they represented another tradition stretching back three-quarters of a century. That is the history of participation by U.S. Naval Academy sailor teams in the Newport Bermuda Race.
To be sure, the navy was not too enthusiastic about the idea when it was first proposed in the 1930s. Not only did many high-ranking officers deem sailing and small-boat seamanship irrelevant to the modern fighting navy, but there was a cultural problem with the reputation of racing yachtsmen. To quote one navy captain, "It is my understanding that after the conclusion of such a race a rousing celebration usually takes place in Bermuda and the yachtsmen endeavor to forget the hardships of the voyage."
Still, some Navy sailors and members of the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club succeeded in persuading the admirals that going to sea would be a healthy exercise in team-building and leadership training. The academy's 72-foot ketch Vamarie raced to Bermuda in 1938 with a crew of ensigns under the close supervision of senior officers, one of whom (alas for the young officers) was the teetotaling captain.
Four of those ensigns went on to become flag officers. One, Robert W. McNitt, would write in his history of sailing at the Naval Academy that it was on that first race when he acquired a love for the sea: "Like human attachments, this romance cannot be taught or forced. It comes gently during a midwatch in the soft warm moonlight of the Gulf Stream, in the crashing roar of a sudden squall, and in the dawn of a new day at sea. It comes most easily and naturally under sail."
By the 1990s the academy had sent 157 crews on the Bermuda Race as a part of their professional training requirement. They took home a few small cups over the years until the big breakthrough in 1992 when the academy's 48-footer Constellation was overall winner under her 22-year-old captain, Kyle Weaver, the youngest winning skipper in the race's history.
Some crews were in boats that had been donated to the academy, but most sailed out in the academy's three classes of 44-footers. The Luders-designed 44-foot yawls built for the academy were succeeded in the 1980s by Navy 44 sloops designed by McCurdy & Rhodes. Recently came a new generation of Navy 44s designed by David Pedrick that look similar to their older cousins but have some differences in rig and underbody. Overbuilt by yacht standards and laid out for extended use by mixed-gender crews of 10 mids, the two types of Navy 44s are sailed hard alongside the custom boats.
This brings us to the 2012 Newport Bermuda Race and the remarkable team effort by the academy's three boats and 36 sailors, each a midshipman (a Naval Academy student). The boats have one or two coaches on board to keep an eye on things, lending a hand or giving a command only in emergencies.
Each of the three Naval Academy boats finished in the top three of her division. Swift, a first-generation Navy 44, won Class 2. Defiance, a second-generation Navy 44, finished second in Class 3. And Invictus, a grand prix TP 52 designed by Botin and Carkeek, finished third in Class 8 and was also top boat in the Onion Patch Series on the eve of the last Onion Patch races in the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club's Anniversary Regatta.
These boats are raced aggressively. Swift crossed the starting line on starboard tack, which came as a surprise to her competitors on the other tack who had to give way. "We had a couple of interesting crossings," recalled her skipper, Steve Jaenke (Annapolis, Md.). On the long leg to and through the Gulf Stream, the two 44s were regularly in sight of each another, and were constantly shifting gears as the wind speed or direction shifted. Every two or three hours, Defiance skipper Bryan Weisberg (Ocean City, N.J.) and Jaenke had their crews change from the spinnaker to the jib, or vice-versa. As deck crews kept a constant watch on sail trim, and the steerers sailed their courses and made the best of the waves, the navigators tracked the boats' progress and kept an eye constantly peeled for changes in the weather forecasts and Gulf Stream. As hard as they pushed, the sailors took in a vivid display of phosphorescence.
Miles ahead of the 44s, the 16-member crew of the high-powered Invictus pushed equally hard. A modern light-displacement boat has a critical sailing angle and has to be sailed exactly there if she is to perform well. This demands aggressive sail trimming, frequent sail changes, and skillful steering. The speed records - 24 and 22 knots - were set by the boat's two helmswomen, Annis Cox (Columbus, Miss.) and Marissa Lihan (Ft. Lauderdale, Fl.). Said coach Jahn Tihansky (West River, Md.), "The chicks set the record."
Near Bermuda, Invictus was knocked down by a 53-knot squall. As the crew struggled to get the mainsail down, the boat's aging jib topsail disintegrated, the mainsail's leech parted company with the rest of the sail, and there was general disarray that the crew cleaned up quickly and competently. Tihansky said that the steering and boathandling on board Invictus were so competent that at no time during the race did he feel that he should take over.
As rare as the record-setting sprint to Bermuda was, the crews were well prepared. Invictus skipper Ralph Duffett (Grosse Isle, Mi.) said the best thing the crews had going for them coming into this rough race was their experience sailing as teams in their boats under a great range of conditions. Since April the crews had done a cruise around the Delmarva Peninsula and, during the daily practice sessions, made at least 40 practice crewoverboard recoveries. Tihansky estimated that each boat puts about 3,500 miles in its wake each year.
All agreed that the very best preparation for this rough race was a single fortuitous event. This was the even rougher delivery of the three boats under sail to the race start at Newport. "If they hadn't had the dead beat from Cape May to Montauk in 25 to 30 knots, the mids might have been in a lot of trouble," Tihansky said.
The rigors of the delivery did not deplete the sailors' competitive spirit. Soon after they arrived in Newport, the three boats were hauled out and the midshipmen devoted a day to wet-sanding the boats' bottoms to leave them with a smooth, glossy finish. "That's a good team-building exercise," explained Tihansky with a big grin.