Winning the Bermuda 1 – 2 Mini style

July 1, 2011 posted by admin

Leg 2 – double handed from Bermuda to Newport

Early afternoon…June 15, 2011. St. George’s Sport and Dinghy Club. Upstairs, the lights were off and it was quiet. Perfect for our purpose. We had done the tourist thing; explored caves, swam in aqua coloured ocean where the water was the temperature of soup and buzzed through tiny streets by scooter. The boat prep was done, done and re-done. We were itching to go racing.

The final and most important step remained. We had to solve the puzzle of The Gulf Stream and build our plan. Racing to and from Bermuda has always been known as a navigator’s race. There are people who make their entire living as navigators or routers for yachts in Bermuda races, and there’s a good reason for it. The race course crosses the Gulf Stream. Most people think of the Gulf Stream as a benign warm current that flows up the east coast of the US and then across the Atlantic to dump rain on the UK. Well, yes it does, but in its course, it meanders very much like a snake negotiating rocky terrain. This meandering is a result of the Stream brushing up against the cold, south bound Labrador current. It will double back on itself ‘pinching’ off loops of current and sometimes reaching speeds of 5 knots. These giant eddies can wobble around in the ocean for up to two years in some cases.

The other major factor is a by-product of these two currents. Weather systems pass over the cooler side of the stream and pick up momentum, then when they hit the heat of the stream their energy can explode like hitting a brick wall creating some very volatile storms. Knowing what the currents and the weather were going to do and when was paramount for any serious attempt to win this race.

With a single light on over the pool table we set up shop to find the answers and build our plan. We spread out our huge plotting chart of the race course. A single, straight line was printed on it joining Bermuda to Newport, Rhode Island. The rest of the table was covered with dividers, protractors, erasers and other paraphernalia of navigation and, very importantly, the laptop. We logged in and studied various scenarios. Most of the yachts have full access to the Internet while racing through either single-side band (SSB) radios or very good satellite phones. We did not. Minis do not. Our sole connection to the outside world was an obsolete sat phone that gave us voice only for very brief and unpredictable moments. So we printed off our weather predictions in four hour increments. During the race we would simply looked at our watch, turned to the appropriate weather chart and looked up for verification.

Next came the Gulf Stream. Lying about two hundred miles South of Newport Rhode Island, the Stream was crossing the rhumb line at almost ninety degrees. It then made a giant right turn South that paralleled the course before turning east once more. At its narrowest point it was about sixty miles wide.

About half way between the Stream and Bermuda lay a large cold water eddie. This eddie was rotating counter clockwise. It straddled the rhumb line from about twenty miles on the south west side to about eighty miles on the north east side. To benefit from beneficial push on the north east side we would have to sail eighty miles to that side of the rhumb line.
This presented three main strategies. We could ‘go right’, gunning for a push from the cold water eddie, then parallel the rhumb line and hitch a ride on the meander in the Stream just to the right of the rhumb line and then sprint for the finish. We could go right initially, looping around the right side of the eddie and then crossing to the left side of the rhumb line before entering the Stream. This would allow the Stream to carry us back to the rhumb line before the sprint to the finish. And finally, we could go left just far enough to avoid the adverse current on the eddie, parallel the rhumb line until we enter the Stream and then exit the Stream on the rhumb line for the sprint to the finish.

The only thing the three routes had in common was a belief that we’d be capable of sprinting to the finish once the Atlantic had its way with us.

A time consuming and close examination of the currents suggested that any positive push we might get from the right side of the eddie wouldn’t offset the extra distance sailed to get to it. Also, the meander of the Stream further down the track might have drifted off to the east by the time we got to it. This would mean facing into the Stream to cross it and would result in us being carried many miles away from the rhumb line and the finish.

The second strategy just didn’t compute with all the extra distance sailed.

We were starting to favour the left hand option. We didn’t see anything in the weather predictions that might influence this decision. There was a high due to pass over from the west on the second day. This would mean those going left would hit light are while those on the right would be going fast. However, after it passed, those on the left would enjoy the strong breeze as a frontal boundary approached. We`ll go left!

By this time other teams had started to drift in to do their homework. There was much discussion of strategy and swapping of links to good web sites for studying the Stream. We did what everyone else was doing; spreading as much disinformation about our strategy as possible without actually lying. That would be unsportsmanlike!

Race day found us pacing the docks like caged cats. This was odd behaviour since we (and our competition) had pronounced us to be the most prepared of all the mini’s. We were just really keen to get our race on. Of the five starts spaced at ten minutes, we were last, yet we were first boat off the dock.

This lead to one of our few boners of the race. St. George’s Harbour isn’t really big enough to go blasting around in a mini with the kite up. Otherwise we would have done a test hoist to try things out. But we figured we could carry the big Code 2 (big blue) off the line and give the race committee and spectators a bit of a show…and lead the way out onto the ocean.

WRONG! Always do a test hoist if you are planning to fly a kite off the start line in tight reaching conditions. We dragged our apparent wind so far forward, so fast that we couldn’t come close to carrying it. Now we had to get it down quick before we ran out of harbour. The cut out of the harbour is very narrow with sheer cliff sides and a fast current. We had no business screwing around like that and paid the price by being last boat out.

With the kite down, we concentrated on getting the accelerator down and managed to get by Pogo Loco by the first mark. This is a government mark guarding the eastern end of the reef. After this it’s basically a left hand turn and head for Newport.

Once out on the ocean, the wind was from the northwest, almost perfectly aligned with the rhumb line. It was almost like can racing with a true windward leg after the start. It was a perfect summer day with crystal clear sky and the ocean an unreal shade of blue.
As we started to get away from Bermuda, we met the first of the Sargasso Sea triad. Sargasso weed. This is like an aquatic version of tumble weed with an affinity for the leading edges of our rudders causing sudden loss of speed and response. Next came the flying fish which are truly one of nature’s more bizarre experiments and lastly the Portuguese Man o War jelly fish. These three species were constant companions until we cleared the Stream into the colder water of the Labrador Current.

Still up ahead were Frogger and the USA 415 (the only proto mini in the race). Frogger was starting to extend which wasn’t making us happy but we had a long race ahead of us we were very confident that we could beat them. USA 415, while ahead and showing good speed (as she should) seemed to be having trouble pointing with the other mini’s. Eventually she tacked back toward us and we easily crossed her. She continued on to the west while we kept an eye on her.

So now we had Frogger ahead and Pogo Loco behind all on port and heading north. USA 415 split from the fleet and is heading west. At this point our track would take us neatly to the east side of the eddie for a nice slingshot effect, avoid the high expected tomorrow and stay with the majority of our competition. This is how you get suckered into deviating from your plan. It’s just too easy. Written on the inside of the cabin on One Girls Ocean Challenge is the phrase “Stick To The Plan!”. We started to consider tacking to get back in touch with USA 415 when Frogger tacked, probably thinking the same thing as us.

Now the potentially fastest boat in the fleet and the leading boat are heading west. We needed to tack to stay in touch, but we didn’t want to make life easier for Frogger by just tacking under them and simply following them. Keep in mind that it’s a very long race and we have a couple of hundred miles to get to the eddie, we continued on. Then as predicted, the breeze started to back. We were lifting up to the rhumb line, which meant 415 and Frogger were being knocked. We carried this for almost 2 hours until we could barely make out Frogger and USA 415. When we thought it would be pretty impossible for them to tell what we were doing, we tacked to the west.

At this point we really started to like our positioning. Leaving Pogo Loco to head north was a wild card, but the guys to beat were heading west and going west was part of our plan. We were also positioned ‘inside’ them relative to the rhumb line. On a long race, we felt that straying far from the rhumb line should only be done with a very solid argument due to the extra miles that can run up.

Heading into the first night we really worked on speed and height. We also went into our watch system which is; we don’t stand watches. We both just go ‘full on’ until we can’t think or function. Then we take a quick ‘power nap’ on the side deck or cockpit floor and get back to it. Our feeling is that if we get to the finish and we aren’t on the brink of needing hospitalization, then we must have left something out on the race course. This treating distance racing as an extreme sport rather than yachting is our secret weapon. We’re confident in our ability to sail as fast as anyone, but we also know that we can go at it longer and with more energy than anyone.

The second day arrived with a fizzle. Turn the page on the weather maps and, ah yes. This is our high that was predicted. All right! Lake sailors rule! We spent the entire day tweaking out boat speed that rarely exceeded a knot. The light air meant constant sail changes and adjustments while the wind slowly clocked around. Sweat, salt and suntan lotion usually make for an amazing mud pack combination….really exfoliating the skin nicely, but the Aquafolia sunblock was amazing though…no mudpack. Sitting in a giant, liquid frying pan is a good way to loose a nose or an ear if you don’t have the right suntan lotion.

Time for a position report with a quick phone call home. 415 is really pushing hard. We’re neck and neck. Pogo Loco is making huge gains on the right hand side with the better breeze and is ahead. Where’s Frogger? Hmmmm. They have lost miles and may be on their way back to Bermuda. Naahhh. They must have lost their transponder overboard…right? Not a chance. Unfortunately one of the guys on the boat suffered a psyatic nerve failure and they chose to turn back to be safe rather than sorry.

By day 3 the wind was starting to build in on schedule. 18-20 knots…..we were in our element. Driving like mad and nothing to loose! Then the call came in from Pogo Loco. They hit something and sheared off their starboard rudder. What an awful situation! The starboard rudder was carrying plenty of load for sure. Now Pogo Loco was going to have to flatten the boat out just to keep their steering. Day 4….it was 415’s turn. They sheared a daggerboard and then due to those hi loads….they lost a rudder also. Wow. What are the odds that two boats would have rudder problems? At 0900 I was down below doing a fix when I heard a bang on deck. When you’re down below everything is amplified. A flying fish across the deck can sound like an elephant tromping through. Not ten seconds later the call came from Nick. “Get up here”. “We’ve blown the bolts on the starboard rudder bracket”. “Crap! Heave to and park this boat”. We had to get the loads off of the rudder and fast. There were four bolts in each transom bracket. One bracket at the top and one at the bottom of the rudder. Two of the bolt heads on the bottom bracket had sheared clean off and the last two bolts were floating loose and threatening to shear off at any second. Nick held the boat as best as could be in a heave to, which often resulted in us spinning around and heading back to Bermuda at an alarming rate. It’s not easy to park a mini that just wants to scream along! While Nick held us still, I started fishing bolts through the now empty holes. Water was squirting through every time we bounced through a wave. There is a cardinal rule in sailing. Keep the sea out of the boat. We got the new bolts in and tighten everything up. So far so good. The bolts were a little long, but as long as we were going in a straight line we were fine. Turning is over rated anyway! Then we kicked her back into hi gear and resumed our drag race to the finish line. By 1600 that day we hit the Stream. True to form, the wind went forward and started to build. 20, 25, 28, 30….At 35 knots we shortened sail up to the storm jib and two reefs in the main and put our foul weather gear on. Beautifully balanced we drove forward in the storm. The rain made a curtain across the ocean it was so thick, but we were warm and dry because Guarantee Company of North America made sure we had the right gear to wear. You can’t race fast if you’re miserable and wet. Where do the birds go when it rains? Interesting how these questions come to mind at the oddest times. That squall eased, we increased our sail area and then the next squall came. This one was not so tough….By 2200 we were well into the Stream and directly on our chosen path. We had a positive 2 knot current! The weather was scheduled to shake it’s way loose. The front should pass and start to clock. We knocked down to almost 100 degrees and tacked. We could lay the rhumb line perfectly and we were about fifteen miles from leaving the stream. Exactly as planned.

The next morning we had sun and 10 knots of wind. Life was feeling good. This should have been a sign….never relax and never assume anything! Boom! A third bolt blew on the rudder. We only had one bolt left that would fit, and it was a fine thread….we only had one nut that would fit it. Park the boat and start fishing bolts through again….phew. We didn’t drop the nut and everything seems tight again. Ok, let’s sail fast. We were reaching. The call came to tighten up the vang. With one good pull through the cleat the vang tightened, the main sheet was eased and the vang’s top block exploded into a million pieces. The only thing left was what was lashed to the deck! Well that’s not fast. Dig into the box and pull out an assortment of blocks. What did we want? 6:1, 8:1 or a simple cascade? Nick set about rigging up a nice little cascade that gave us a great jury rig with tons of power. Ok, let’s sail fast. Bang! “What was that”? Next the lashings on the starboard fairlead for the jib sheet and the car pullers blew. It’s a nice tidy little system that is all tied in together. No problem. Re run the sheet through the changing block and good use of a soft shackle puts the car puller back in place. What’s next? The breeze was building. Time to reef again. Bang! A six inch section parallel to the luff of the main tore open. No problem, we’ll keep the reef in and fix it up with some sticky back. In a short few hours we had enough failures and repairs to keep us dancing like a cat on a hot tin roof! Every one of them had a resolution, but every one of them reminded us that we are all vulnerable to the hands of fate, no matter how well we plan.

As we closed in on the finish line the last night, the wind eased up to 0-5 knots. With big blue up we quietly fished our way through the dark using tiny little zephyrs as they whisked back and forth. We made thirty miles that night on boats that barely made five. At 0602 on June 22, 2011 we crossed the finish line almost one hundred miles ahead of our competition. We had a plan, we executed it and we had the skills and drive to deal with anything we were handed along the way. It’s taken a year to get the campaign to this stage, and it’s taken a great team behind the campaign to get us here. Gotta love it when a plan comes together!

One Response to “Winning the Bermuda 1 – 2 Mini style”

  1. One Girls Ocean Challenge » Blog Archive » Recognition & Follow Up in the Press Says:

    […] by a bottle of Goslings Black Seal rum. When asked if the rum was belated recognition of Diane’s win in the Bermuda 1-2, RC Paul Brennan laughed and referenced the many Dark & Stormy nights on the Bay of Biscay. […]

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