Majestic sight: White sails glide out of Newport Harbour into open ocean at the start of the 2010 Newport Bermuda race.
Majestic sight: White sails glide out of Newport Harbour into open ocean at the start of the 2010 Newport Bermuda race.

There’s an allure to racing to Bermuda that many sailors dream of doing.

It’s a test that encompasses a challenging ocean crossing but with the draw of crossing the finish line to find yourself in one of the world’s most beautiful islands.

The spectacle of white sails gliding out of Newport Harbour on the third Friday of June is a sight to behold and many spectators flock to Castle Hill in Newport to watch as the boats make their way out into the open ocean. It can take up to two hours for the entire fleet to make their way past, but it’s not long before they are at the mercy of the deep blue sea and, for the majority of the race, will see nothing but ocean and a few dolphins, who enjoy diving alongside the boats.

“By the first evening the boats are out of sight of land,” says John Rousmaniere, media contact for the Newport Bermuda Race organizing committee. “For most of the race, you are out of sight of land and you don’t usually see any other boats. You might see a passing ship, but for the most part you are on your own.”

The concept of being out in the middle of the ocean is thrilling for these blue-water sailors.

All alone

“You’re offshore and entirely on your own,” explains Mr Rousmaniere, who has sailed the race nine times starting in 1966, and who has done another 12 passages between the island and the US, as well as Europe. This year he will not be taking part in the race but is preparing to take the boat Selkie back to the US following the race.

“Bermuda is so low that the first thing you see is the light of Gibb’s Hill and then you’re only about 30 to 40 miles out. So you are entirely out in the ocean. This is real ocean sailing.”

But while the race is challenging, it’s not meant to be dangerous, says Mr Rousmaniere. However, the strong ocean currents of the Gulf Stream and the shifty nature of the winds mean that good seamanship and knowledge of sailing are a must. There are safety seminars and boat inspections organized by the Bermuda Race committee in the months and weeks leading up to the race, and crews must be qualified. The preparations for the race are not taken lightly, he said. And, as any salty sailor worth their sailing stripes will tell you, that while technology has improved over the years, it’s still important to have someone on the boat that knows how to navigate the old-fashioned way –– by the stars.

Gulf Stream encounter

“The crews have been preparing for the last two years for the race,” Mr Rousmaniere says. “You don’t just go into the Gulf Stream by mistake. You know that it is coming and so you prepare.”

As the crews leave Newport, they will probably spend one chilly night out on the boat before the temperatures rise and by the following afternoon the temperatures will be in the 70s and 80s.

“The Gulf Stream is really tricky. You go from water in the 60s and in a matter of hours the temperature has risen and you have very strong currents. Tremendous squalls come in, especially at night, and it can be very wet.”

But while the Gulf Stream is certainly one of the more remarkable weather phenomena that the crew will see during their crossing, Mr Rousmaniere says that once the boats have sailed out of the Gulf Stream, that last 300 to 400 miles is where the weather can really play a part in how the race will end.

“The winds can be very shifty and this is often where the race is won.”

The trip takes about three to five days to complete with a variety of boats, most usually around 45-feet in length.

Over the years the race has been designed to be open to most “normal, moderate performance cruiser-racers”, although there is still room for some of the high-performance boats, such as Rambler, which broke the elapsed-time record by approximately 14 hours in 2012.

However, most of the boats are filled with amateur, family crews who enjoy the competition and the warm welcome they receive in Bermuda.

“A lot of people do it for the sail and then there are others that do it for the race and they push hard,” says Mr Rousmaniere. “The race is designed for both.”

Shockwave and Bella Mente are the two boats to keep an eye on for this year’s race, he says. “It should be really exciting.”