Threatened with a possible delay by the menacing presence of tropical storm Arlene near Bermuda, the 103 cruising boats in this year’s Marion, Mass., to Bermuda Race managed to depart on time when Arlene dissipated prior to the race start. The fleet finished its 645-mile crossing between June 21 through 24. Compared to the 35-mile beat at the start of the 1997 race, the departure from Buzzard’s Bay was all downwind. However, the wind and weather proved to be anything but consistent. The boats encountered two giant wind holes (outside of Buzzard’s Bay and south of the Gulf Stream), as well as frequent squalls and wind shifts until the last leg, when the breeze defied most weather predictions and consistently blew out of the southwest for more than 12 hours.
This year, for the first time in the 22-year history of the biennial race, organizers split the competitors into two navigation classes: celestial and electronic. This year’s starting fleet was the biggest in six years, and out of 103 boats 54 used electronic GPS systems and 49 went for celestial methods. Of the 88 boats finished, 45 were electronically navigated and 43 were celestially guided.
Ocean Navigator’s Andy Howe awarded this year’s navigator’s trophy to Midshipman Greg Mitchell of the Navy sloop Flirt, the first celestial boat to finish on corrected time. Flirt finished 5th overall, followed by Ron Noonan’s Wildflower, Fred Bauerschmidt’s Scaramouche, and 1997’s race winner Majek, owned by Abbot Fletcher. Celestial boats performed well against their electronic competition, taking 13 of the top 25 spots.
“Navigationally, this was the most exciting race since 1989 because of this year’s Gulf Stream meander,” said Alex Agnew, celestial navigator and publisher of this magazine. “The Gulf Stream took a sharp right, going south for 110 miles right along the rhumb line to Bermuda, which gave us an extra three knots of boat speed in the direction we were trying to go. In our case, aboard Firefly, it was 35 miles of free ride. Max Fletcher told me he got 40 while going six and a half knots the whole way. To make things even more exciting, we weren’t exactly sure where the meander was because it was moving east seven miles a day and we were trying to find it just using the stars. I can’t tell you how great it was when the thermometer hit 82° and we knew we were finally in it.”
Most of the navigators consistently used the sun, moon, Venus, and Vega sights throughout the race and found their way to the Gulf Stream, but the name of the game was flexibility. “You cannot have a dogmatic strategy for this race,” said Ron Noonan of Wildflower. “Most people had a strategy going in, then adjusted it to fit the weather conditions,” explained Andy Howe, the navigator aboard Dove. “Once they got out of the Gulf Stream and the wind changed, they had to adjust to keep the boat moving toward the finish. The people who adapted were the ones who did well.”