Saturday, June 16, 11 a.m., aboard 70-foot yawl Gulf Stream, Newport, R.I.
Two hours before the Class A start of the Bermuda race, we cast off our lines and slide out the channel toward start at Brenton Reef, 13 aboard counting Skipper Monroe Hemmerdinger. Ahead a forest of masts moves along to low roar of auxiliaries, mastheads waggling as boats—89 of them—roll on oil-slick surface of water. Day is hot with almost no wind, air hazy with high overcast. The fleet rumbles by the ugly gray cottages on shore with crowds of people spread along rocks by the channel, looking like colorful water birds on landspits. Sails begin to go up. There's Gesture, the 1946 winner with blue hull and aluminum spar; there's Mustang—Arthur Knapp at the tiller with a splash of white bandage across his sunburned nose. There's Malay, winner in the last race and, as we come to the line, big, black Bolero booms across our bow under a working rig. A Coast Guard boat comes alongside and hails us, "Twenty-mile-an-hour northeast forecast."
One p.m.: Start for Class A marked by a horn blast from the destroyer escort U.S.S. Rhodes, which will patrol the races. Absolutely no wind. Bolero has what would be windward position with Gulf Stream next. Now a zephyr comes in, and the 67-foot cutter Mogu walks out ahead, her big genoa trimmed close. If we get this kind of air all the way down, Mogu could take it. Now Class B, C and D boats are going off at 15-minute intervals. Fleet is strung out from shore to horizon, most of them trying to set spinnakers in the shifting air. 635 miles to go.
Aboard Finisterre. Saturday,
June 16, 6:30 p.m.
July 1, 1956
Bad start hurt, but Finisterre came over the line well to leeward and picked up a bit more clear air than the bunch at the windward end. Wind turned to WSW at about eight knots. Finisterre dumped spinnaker and got a good run out of her ballon jib. By 7 p.m. she was leading Class D and had moved up among the C boats.
Aboard Gulf Stream, Saturday,
June 16, 11:30 p.m.
Incredibly beautiful night with bright half moon and light WSW breeze. A real tourist race so far. A silky haze slides over the moon. There is a weather front hanging over us, and radio reports have given up on the northeaster. Our course is 175 magnetic to bring us into the Gulf Stream current 35 miles west of the rhumb line, the straight course for Bermuda. We're counting on the current to set us back onto the rhumb line. Distance-recording log strung from stern shows us 60 miles out of Newport. Water temperature is 62°. We'll know we're in the Stream when the water temperature goes up to 78°. The watch on deck lies along the cockpit, easy in the light air, watching masthead lights spaced out to leeward. Still Mogu weather.
Sunday, June 17, 6:50 a.m.: Air light at sunup. I took my first trick at wheel. This is a big boat with not too much feel in light wind. Only two boats in sight: Barlovento and Ni√±a, both to leeward. This is good company for Gulf Stream. If we can stick with them till we get some wind, we might do something. Course 178, barometer 30 and rising. The day should be hot.
One p.m.: Twenty-four hours out and we've made 170.3 miles. Wind has freshened to 15 knots, and Kenyon speed indicator shows a steady 9. This is more like it. While I was in my bunk off watch about 10 a.m. I could feel the boat take a list and begin to work, lifting and dropping her nose in slow rhythm while water hissed along outside. We've sailed into sargasso weed now, meaning the Stream is not far off. Course 167. A perfect sailing day. There's a school of porpoises off to leeward edging over toward us, playing back and forth, some taking 12-to 15-foot leaps arching out of water like heavy blue-gray projectiles. They play all around the ship, then dive off to windward.
4 p.m.: Into the heart of the Gulf Stream. Water temperature up to 78. Course 160, Kenyon shows 10.4 knots, close to hull speed. No sign of usual line squalls that guard the edges of Stream.
8 p.m.: Our watch below, and now it starts. In my bunk I can feel the boat throw her bow up; then she plunges down the back side of the wave like a freight train. Squalls must be hitting. She is heeling farther over. A cross chop whacks her, and she shudders and slows momentarily. Sleep in this tiny rack is impossible. Any minute I'll be heaved out onto the floor. I climb out and raise the edge of the bunk. No good. Raise it again. Not much better, but that's as high as it'll go. I'm so close to the overhead I can hardly roll over—a process of arching your body on your feet and hands and then doing a quick flip. Cabin is stifling hot with ventilators turned back away from spray. Hard not to get claustrophobia. Something in the galley just came down with a crash. I can hear a man on deck watch calling the set of the genoa from forward. "Light, luffing, that's good."
Midnight: On deck. The wind is roaring WSW at 25, gusts to 35; line squall clouds like balls of dirty cotton show ominously whenever moon breaks through. Water is washing along the lee rail, which dips at each puff. Feels like we're carrying too much canvas. There are the lights of a steamer ahead, steady and incongruously cheerful in the building sea. There's the DE's triangle of lights to port, nosing around to check the fleet. We clear the mainsheet carefully so we can let it go if the boat gets knocked on her ear. Abruptly with a dull crack our genny staysail rips in two. Up come the off-watch, half naked. Six of us flounder forward along the slanting, spray-swept deck. The bow is riding like an elevator. When we get up there we pull down the torn sail. It's slow to come and rough on fingers. I reach into my pocket for a pair of pliers to take off the fittings, and half the ocean goes inside my pants to stay. Oilskins are useless up here. Water in every crack. Water to sit in, water down my neck. We bend on a new sail and pull it up but the halyard fouls. It takes 10 minutes to clear it, hanging on to the lifeline with one hand, hauling with the other. The ocean looks wild and black out there. No place for a swim. They'd never be able to pick you up. A couple of the boys are feeling poorly—me, too, but I've been taking Bonamine and everything has stayed down so far. Now the halyard's clear. We pull up the sail and go aft to rest. I'm bushed. Boat has slowed to 8½ knots, but this is enough sail for now. It's time to go off watch and we go below, moving in slow motion. Wet oilskins and clothes are peeled off, matted into soggy balls and stuck into corners. The hell with that little bunk. I lie down on a settee in the main cabin and go dead asleep till 8:30 a.m. Oatmeal, coffee and Bonamine, and the world looks brighter.
Monday, June 18, one p.m.: Two days out and we've covered 375 miles, 224 of them in last 24 hours. If we had this for three days we'd break Highland Light's course record of 71 hours 35 minutes. Bolero must be flying. Mogu is finished. Too much sea and wind for her. Wind WSW at 25. Now the novelty of living at a 30° angle has ceased to be amusing. We're all tired and our equilibrium is poor. You stand at what you think is the right angle, lift one leg to peel off your wet pants and suddenly you lurch into a table, locker or, if you're lucky, into a bunk. When eating you go for the windward side of the table because on the lower side, if you misjudge the angle of heel, you pour milk or cereal into your lap. In the bunk you wake suddenly to a bad roll and crash that sounds as though you've run through a log boom. The chop is apparently worse and she quivers with each roller. Water in the bilges sloshes up nearly to the sheathing. We get a pump going and head off the wind, and the boat steadies. Back to sleep, then dinner of roast beef at 6:45. We're still taking a licking, and the beef doesn't sell too well.
Aboard Finisterre, Monday,
June 18, 9 p.m.
Finisterre's balloon jib has blown out and she's under a genny. She entered the stream at 11 p.m. last night and altered course to 163 to run down the rhumb line. At 6:30 a.m. the wind suddenly went dead. Torrential rain squalls half-filled the cockpit. During one brilliant flash of lightning her steel rigging glowed a ghostly blue. Squalls getting worse. At 9 p.m. a black anvil-shaped cloud creeps in from windward, pushing hot tropical air in front of it. A burst of rain hits and suddenly the sky is absolutely clear with not a breath of wind. Carleton Mitchell calls below and the off-watch scrambles on deck. The wind wheels around from southwest to northeast in the space of seconds. The crew drops the lightsails before they can rip against the shrouds, and sets them again on the opposite tack against a 15-to 20-knot northeaster. Finisterre heads down her old course of 163. The northeaster blows harder and harder. Finisterre is flying. By noon Tuesday she has covered 205.9 miles in 24 hours of log readings, a record pace for a boat her size. All through the run down the heavy cross-hatched seas, she drives like an A-class boat, never taking solid water aboard. Another 20 hours of this and Finisterre might win the race.
Aboard Bolero, Tuesday,
June 19, before dawn
Ship is well inside Highland Light's record. Two headsails have blown out. Bolero is too far ahead to catch the northeast wind shift and has ridden the southwesterly all the way, making 250 miles from Monday noon to Tuesday noon—steamer time. Suddenly the jibstay sags dangerously and the head of No. 2 jib topsails tears out. The stay fitting has let go. This is no time to lose the mast with the record nearly in hand and dangerous coral reefs not far to leeward. The crew leads two wire spinnaker halyards forward, snubs them down as jury stays, and Bolero gets ready to tack into the finish line.
Aboard the escort vessel Rhodes,
Tuesday, June 19, dawn
There's Bolero, roaring ahead at 10 knots, only 50 miles from the finish—but she's past the 100-fathom shelf and heading straight for the reefs. Now she's only a thousand yards off the reef and still holding course. At that speed she could tear her bottom out. The U.S.S. Rhodes fires eight red Very flares and puts her 12-inch blinker light on Bolero. Abruptly the big yawl makes a 90° turn and starts tacking through safe water toward the finish. She goes across the line at 11:11 a.m. for a new Bermuda course record of 70 hours 11 minutes 37 seconds.
Aboard Gulf Stream, Tuesday,
June 19, 9 a.m.
We blew out another headsail at 9:30 last night and put on another wringing-wet Chinese fire drill on the foredeck getting the sail down at 4 a.m. this morning. Wind is still WSW at 25 to 30. I eat a quick breakfast of chocolate cookies, Coke, corn flakes, ginger ale, coffee and sausages. Why it stays with me I'll never know. At 10 a.m. we get the northeaster. At 2 p.m. we look back and see the taffrail log is hanging slack. We pull it in and the rotating propeller mechanism is gone. Apparently a shark that had been alongside hit it like a bass lure so we have no record of our distance traveled. No matter. Solid estimates put us only 38 miles from the finish line with wind blowing a good 20 and we're making 9 to 10 knots. Bermuda for cocktails. Hold everything. A sun sight puts us 85 miles west of the island. Somebody leans against a stay and gets a strong electric shock. Our whole lighting system is shorted out, and the compass has been thrown off 15°. We've had it. We're way out of the money. Nothing to do but bring the bow up and slug our way into the rising northeaster. Bermuda for breakfast tomorrow. Then the radio reports Bolero's record. Happy days. At 7 p.m. we go below with the wind up to 35 and gray seas rising above the cockpit, twisting us sometimes 20° off course. I eat a bowl of chili and try to sleep. Impossible. Everything is wet below. Boat is taking a bad pounding. Frankly, we're a bit lost. It's getting dark, and the reefs north of Bermuda can't be too far to leeward.
Aboard Finisterre, Tuesday,
June 19, 11 p.m.
Wind a steady 30 knots. The little boat is riding beautifully under jib topsail and working forestaysail. No. 2 jib blew out last night. Mitchell gets his first decent star sight in two days and finds he's not 80 miles from Bermuda as calculated, but 40 miles. Radio says Bolero and Venturer have broken the record and all the other boats reported in so far are in Class A. Finisterre, a D boat, is well within her time allowance. She hardens up from 163 to 150 to get a cushion of safety against the reefs. Not much longer now.
Aboard Elda, Wednesday,
June 20, 11:36 a.m.
Just north of Bermuda, Crewman Slade Mills standing in the bow suddenly sees a white wall of water 20 feet ahead. He turns to yell to the man at the wheel. There is a sickening crash and Elda's whole starboard side is torn out by a coral reef. The cabin top bursts open, the boom falls and smashes the dinghy. A wave washes away the rubber life raft. In one minute water is chest high in the cabin where Skipper Henry Wise is handing up life jackets. The crew lifts him out. In a minute and a half Elda is on the bottom, a total loss. The crew is hanging onto the rigging still above water. Rollers are roaring over reef, battering them. No one is badly hurt, but one man is bleeding enough to bring in five sharks. But the sharks are staying away, lazily feeding on bacon from Elda's shattered icebox. After seven hours an Air Force plane sees the wreck and drops life rafts. Two fishing boats come over the reef to pick up the eight men and transfer them to a Coast Guard cutter. All safe, but Elda is gone.
Aboard Finislerre, Wednesday,
June 20, 7 a.m.
Finisterre passes the last buoy and sets her heavy-weather spinnaker for final run to the finish line. Only three-quarters of a mile to go. They have come 634 miles and are dead tired but working the sheets like a Star boat.
7:10 a.m.: Finisterre crosses the line at St. David's Head. A loudspeaker tells crowds on shore—some of whom have stayed out all night in the squalls—that Finisterre has won the Bermuda race. None of the boats still out can beat her on handicap. Now over the line, she drops her spinnaker and heads for Hamilton Harbor. The crew still doesn't know they've won, but they find out when a launch from the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club comes alongside in Hamilton. Mitchell is quietly and tiredly the happiest man within a thousand miles. This is the race he's always wanted. And this is his boat Finisterre, built after a lifetime of planning, that did it. She is a perfect boat—sound and tight as when she left Newport. Now she is undisputed champion of the Atlantic racing fleet.
Aboard Gulf Stream, Wednesday,
June 20, 7 a.m.
We're at the finish line. Wet, tired, glad to be in. There is a little yawl coming behind us. Looks like Finisterre, but she could hardly be this far even with our 85-mile detour.
7:03 a.m.: We cross the line, drop our sails and go straight into narrow St. George Harbor under diesel power. Flat water feels good. The little yawl behind crosses and rounds up for Hamilton. By God, it was Finisterre. We tie up and step ashore. The concrete pier seems to heave under us. The race is over, the fastest and roughest since the series began in 1906. A big-boat race all the way, and Finisterre, the winner, is the smallest boat ever to take it.
BERMUDA RACE CHART
GULF STREAM CURRENT
635 MILES TO BERMUDA
JUNE 17 NOON—JUNE 18 JUNE: 250 MILES
JUNE 18 NOON—JUNE 19 NOON: 205.9 MILES
[GULF STREAM]GULF STREAM