A total of 45 ocean-racing yachts are hanging restlessly on their moorings or groaning at dockside in Bermuda's Hamilton Harbour this week as their crews and skippers make ready to set sail on the biggest blue-water race ever scheduled: the 3,500-mile run from Bermuda to Copenhagen. "This large entry list," says a formal bulletin on that race, "is certainly a testimony to the great increase of interest in long-distance ocean racing" (see cover). What makes the testimony even more telling is the fact that the yachts heading out across the Atlantic have just completed another race—the biennial 635-mile Newport-to-Bermuda.
Although it is neither the longest nor the roughest of the regularly scheduled blue-water events, the 60-year-old Bermuda race has established itself as the classic of them all. Its course leads through sudden squalls that keep a sailor honest, tracks across a slippery current called the Gulf Stream whose swirls and eddies can cost a skipper the difference in his boat's rated-time allowance, and aims at an island target so small that many a navigator has missed it altogether.
This year's race to the Onion Patch was notable both for too much wind and too little. The course was pockmarked with angry squalls and flat calms. Wind velocities ran from nothing at all to 50 knots. Before the race was done, 10 boats had got into serious trouble and one of them, the U.S. Naval Academy's 71-foot yawl Royono, had the galling experience of having to call on its rival service, the U.S. Coast Guard, for help. Over and beyond that catastrophe, there were more cases of seasickness scattered throughout the armada than any veteran could remember.
Thanks to the churlishness of the weather, it was slow going for all the 167 contestants. Jim Kilroy's big aluminum sloop Kialoa II, the first to pass St. David's Head, took just over 105 hours to make the passage from Newport (tortoise time compared to the record 70 hours 11 minutes set by Bolero in 1956), and T. Vincent Learson's lively little Cal-40 Thunderbird, the overall winner on corrected time, spent almost 112 hours on the trip.
Thunderbird's victory, the most recent in a long series of spectacular wins for this California-built class, was determined by a computer in New York long after Learson had snugged down his boat and headed for his Westchester County home by air. This year, instead of assigning a specific time allowance to each boat according to its Cruising Club of America rating before the race began, the committee decided to try a new trick of electronic handicapping.
As each boat crossed the finish line, its elapsed time was fed into the computer by Telex along with its rating and speed-made-good along the course. When 75% of the fleet was in, the wheels began whirring in New York to construct an average performance curve. Then the actual performance of each boat was measured against this curve to determine its handicap and thus the winner of the race.
Before the final results were in a number of boats were touted to win, but the wise money was on Thunderbird long before she came into sight. Under the smart handling of a crew that numbered among its members her designer, Bill Lapworth, and Olympic Sailor Lowell North, Thunderbird shot from wave crest to wave crest at such a pace that Lapworth at one point "thought we'd sailed off the edge of the world."
When the frustrating race was over, practically every sailor vowed he would never be caught dead on that particular run again. This is the way of ocean sailors and it leads to the question: Why do they do it? What carries sensible men into the empty blue? Why do more and more people want to race on the ocean? From Hamilton, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Staff Writer Hugh Whall, a veteran of more than a score of distance races, attempted an answer: "The things that drive a man to ocean sailing," he wrote, "must be pretty much the same as those that drive him to drink. For of all sports, this is the most habit-forming, the most expensive, the most exasperating, the most exciting, the most soothing, the most strenuous, the most uncomfortable and the most fun. No other sport demands such consistent teamwork of its votaries or imposes such irritating intimacy. Ocean crews must learn to live and work together in damp discomfort, straining muscles that have had no time to rest at the barked command of a skipper who may or may not know what he's up to. When the wind is howling like a banshee and darkness turns the horizon into a jagged menace, land can seem very far away, and there is no honest sailor who would not admit to a sense of loneliness and desolation, particularly if he suffers, as I do, from seasickness. Yet as surely as the new day banishes the night, a brisk breeze in the morning under a warm sun and the reassuring scent of bacon crisping in the galley will set the night's terrors scurrying and raise a sailor's spirits again. So always, though you thank God a race is over, you jump at the chance to sign on for the next one."
That is how one sailor feels about ocean racing. It is a feeling doubtless shared by most of the 550-odd heading for Denmark this week. The next 14 pages provide a sample of the beauty they will see on the way, a discussion of the kind of boat that wins for them and a taste of the Nordic hospitality that will greet them when the long race is over.