Whether in light winds or a gear buster, 160 to 200 boats depart Castle Hill, Newport every two years and take aim at Bermuda’s northeast tip across 635 miles of open ocean. Seeking competition, camaraderie and personal challenge, skippers race for lighthouse trophies and other silverware bearing names of 114 years of previous winners.
The water warms, the history grows richer
Ranging from 33ft to 112ft LOA, the fleet flies a mix of Dacron and carbon sails as it crosses the chilly late-spring waters of the continental shelf, slices across the thermal engine of the northeast-flowing Gulf Stream and sails down “happy valley” on the final miles to Bermuda. The first boats usually finish in two to three days; smaller boats may take five or six.
The sailing is not always comfortable, but when you finish, you feel you’ve earned a place in the race’s extraordinary history. At age 20, Olin Stephens sailed this race aboard John Alden’s Malabar IX in 1928, then designed Dorade to shake up the ocean-racing status quo. Legendary racers have been winning ever since, from Carleton Mitchell’s three-timewinning yawl, Finisterre, to Dick Nye’s series of sloops named Carina, Ted Hood’s Robin, and maxis from Bolero to Boomerang, Kialoa to Comanche.
Racing for all ocean sailors
Each race includes divisions for different boat types and with different levels of professionalism allowed, so sailors can race with the boat and crew they prefer. The Offshore Racing Rule (ORR) handles scoring and protects the fleets from the disruptive obsolescence of rules in the past.
St. David’s Lighthouse — for the winner of the largest division, a mix of racer/cruisers crewed by amateurs (limited non-steering Category 3 pros are allowed). In 2018, it was won by a family crew on a well-tuned Columbia 50 built in 1968.
Gibbs Hill Lighthouse — for the winner of the flat-out race class, no limits on pros. Won in 2018 by the Volvo Open 70 Wizard.
Castle Hill Lighthouse — for the multihull winner, a division open to larger multihulls only. Won in 2018 by the Gunboat 62, Elvis.
Finisterre Trophy — for the winner of cruising division boats steered by Category 1 amateurs. Won in 2018 by the Island Packet 38, Orca.
Also, Doublehanded, Superyacht and Open divisions for boats with lifting foils.
Emphasis on safety, youth
Co-organisers Cruising Club of America and Royal Bermuda Yacht Club prize the contest’s safety record, requiring hands-on safety training for all skippers and at least 30 per cent of each boat’s crew, plus serious yacht safety requirements with pre-race and post-race inspections. For 2020, race organisers have streamlined entry and compliance procedures (see bermudarace.com/entry).
The Stephens Brothers Society and Youth Division Prize recognise young sailors following the likes of Olin and Rod Stephens. Coincidentally, the top Stephens Brothers Youth boat in 2016 and 2018 won senior silverware, too.
A Caribbean complement
For European boats, the race fits with events like the Caribbean 600 and Antigua Bermuda Race, plus crew spots are available on some of the charter boats that do the Caribbean races. Officials use the SailGate entry system, like the Fastnet, so many owners will have a ready boat profile. Sooner or later, another European boat will make history and match the UK’s Noryema, winner in 1972 of the roughest Bermuda race on record.
Race entry commenced in June 2019.