Young ocean racer hooked on sailing


To the editor: Although my dad, Rick Higgins, had sailed in the previous two Marion Bermuda Races, participating in the race myself was the last thing I pictured doing. Then, I had a sudden change of heart. After the 2011 race, I asked the owner of Hotspur II, Ron Wisner, if I could join the crew for the next one. He surprised both me and my father, Hotspur’s two-time race cook, by saying yes. I was just 14 at the time.

From that moment on, I was determined to make sure that Ron followed through with his commitment. Every time I saw Ron, I reminded him of his promise to me. My dogged persistence affected him, and he even called the race committee to make sure that I would be counted as an official crewmember at the age of 16. As 2013 came around, all the arrangements were made and I prepared, rather naively, to join the Hotspur II crew.

In the weeks following up to June 14th, I tried not to think of any possible dangers that the Marion Bermuda Race would hold. Instead, I chose the “ignorance is bliss” motto of thinking, reminding myself that the weather would be perfect and that the open ocean would be no more dangerous than driving around in a car on a normal day. Also, I couldn’t help but be intimidated by the fact that I’d be the only girl and only teenager aboard Hotspur II. The other six crewmembers, including my dad, were all male and about 30 years older than me. I am sure that they were probably a bit annoyed that a teenage girl who had never sailed offshore in her life was coming along. The most I could do was try to appear confident, and not get embarrassed when I had to ask what a “bilge” and “halyard” were.

Kenneth van Colen

At the awards  ceremony.

The morning of the race, I felt extremely nervous, especially after my mother told my dad that if I didn’t come back alive, he might as well jump in the ocean himself. I helped the crew load everything onto our Columbia 50 and I tried to seem assured. Sailing around Buzzards Bay waiting for the Class C start signal, I was amazed by all of the yachts around me. I couldn’t help but stare at Spirit of Bermuda, which was the biggest sailboat I’ve ever seen, and I waved at every single person I saw. The atmosphere around me was so optimistic, despite the gray weather, and I felt my apprehension melt away.

The beginning of the race served as a good omen of what was to come for Hotspur II. Our boat was the first of the Founders Division to round the buoy out of Buzzard’s Bay, and all of us high-fived each other as if we had already won the race.

The rest of the first day was spent on deck and filled with small talk. I was stuck with the 0000 to 0400 watch — I could barely keep my eyes open. The first 24 hours seemed like an entire week. By the time my morning watch came at 0800, I was exhausted. The strangest experience had to be waking up on a boat. I had never been offshore or slept on a sailboat before. When I woke up in the middle of the ocean, without any land in sight, I realized what I had gotten myself into. At first, it was unnerving to only see a seemingly endless ocean around me. However, I settled into my first offshore race quite nicely after the first few days.

Within those five days, I became close with most of my fellow crewmembers. I got used to being the only girl on the boat and they were forced to get used to my talkativeness. Nearly five days straight on the same boat with the same seven people and I still tried not to allow for too many silent moments. I talked about every topic I could think of, the list of which became more numerous as we all became more exhausted. The six men aboard were always very accepting of all the conversations, which I appreciated. Although my own dad was on the boat, it felt like I had many more right there with me.

De’Ann McNamara

Kenneth van Colen, Matt Correira, Peter van Colen, Bridget and her father Rick Higgins on the rail.

My experience on Hotspur II was unforgettable. I was able to participate in such an adventure, and the sights were rewarding. First, I got to see the deep blue, almost purple waters of the Gulf Stream. Then, I saw so many Portuguese man-of-wars that they became commonplace. The last day on the boat, there were dolphins swimming alongside of us, which I thought was the coolest thing to have happened. The very same day, most of the crew was sitting on the rail of the boat when we saw a humpback whale breeching a few miles away. The sight was unbelievable. As for the weather, it was near perfect for Ron’s Columbia 50, with winds usually in the teens and almost constant sunshine. I guess you could say that we were all very lucky during this race.

Hotspur II finished second in Class C and second in Founders Division overall. Capt. Ron was most proud of winning first in celestial navigation, which garnered him two trophies. He worked so hard doing the navigation, which I figured was fairly difficult because I didn’t understand a word he was saying when he tried explaining it to me. I am so grateful to have been invited onto Hotspur II and am already excited for the 2015 Marion Bermuda Race. I guess you could say that I am officially hooked on sailing, and have quite the experience to prove it.

—Bridget Higgins lives in Randolph, Mass.

By Ocean Navigator