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Sail Away With A2B

May 28, 2013 10:53PM ● By Anonymous

Every two years, on what they can only hope will be a warm, clear June day, sailors gather near the Tolly Point Shoal at the junction of the Severn River and the Chesapeake Bay, prepared to embark on a 753-mile journey to St. George’s, Bermuda.

For some, it’s a check off the bucket list. For many, it’s a fiercely competitive fight to the finish. And for even more, it’s an opportunity for renewed camaraderie.


In 1979, seven boats raced from Annapolis to St. George’s, sparking what has become a world renowned race of both inshore and offshore sailing. In that first year, Manny Sousa led Nazira to win what was a purely informal race. But after recognizing the popular interest, organizers made it official in 1980, and the biennial Bermuda Ocean Race was born. By 1992, there were 54 boats in competition across five classes. Today, entries are capped at 50, making it among the smaller ocean races—Newport’s Bermuda race hosts more than three times as many boats.


The weeklong journey ends in cheers and rum. But to get there, sailors must navigate 125 miles of Chesapeake Bay coastal waters, before 628 miles of open ocean.

“It’s among the more challenging ocean races since it features a race down the length of the Chesapeake Bay, and a Gulf Stream crossing,” says Tracy Leonard, a chairman for the Annapolis Bermuda Race Committee. “The race is designed to challenge sailors with a unique combination of conditions: a tactically challenging leg down the Chesapeake Bay, shipping traffic along busy coastal waters, crossing eddies of current spun off from the Gulf Stream, invisible competition, and navigation around the reefs encircling Bermuda.” A2B welcomes racers of all backgrounds, including—and maybe even especially, Leonard says—first-time racers.

“There’s a widely-held spirit of more experienced sailors helping newcomers,” Leonard says. But there is plenty of competition to go around, and the fleet is eclectic. Typically, she says, there are teams from the Naval Academy, and a troop of Sea Scouts. Last year, one family reportedly used A2B as their first leg of a year of cruising to and within the Mediterranean.


Whether the intention is mostly for cruising or competition, participation takes serious planning. “It’s a great deal of work,” says Norm Dawley of Lusby, who’s raced Pursuit to Bermuda four times. “First of all you have to have a boat that’s capable, and a crew that you can rely on and get along with at sea. Then there’s a very substantial list of requirements that the boat has to meet…It’s probably six months to a year of effort to get the boat and crew ready.”

Racers may practice with shorter races—two Leonard says are particularly popular are the DelMarVa Rally and the Virginia Cruising Cup. Crews also participate in a variety of seminars and safety trainings. The race organization itself hosts a series of free educational seminars beginning 18 months out, designed to help crews prepare. All racers are required to take certain safety courses and meet International Sailing Federation (ISAF) requirements.

First, you’ve got to get the crew used to standing watch, changing watches, and learning when to call for help, Dawley says. By race time, everyone on board needs to know the boat like the back of their hand. “You need to learn where things are because it’s dark and it’s probably wet and unpleasant, and the boat’s keeling over. (Whatever it is you’re doing), water’s probably a major factor, either from the sky or the ocean.”

Among sailors, there’s a saying that goes something like: “Ocean racing is like sitting in a cold shower with your clothes on tearing up $100 bills.”


“For that week you eat, sleep, and race the boat,” Dawley says. “It’s a different rhythm from normal life.”

“Dining” along the way covers the full spectrum. On some boats, freeze-dried meals are all that are on the menu in an effort to keep the weight as low as possible. Other boats—including Dawleys’s—bring along a cook and include such racing delicacies as hot breakfasts, fresh sandwiches for lunch, and multi-course meals for dinner.

Most crews, Leonard says, bring easy-to-grab foods like energy bars and peanut butter sandwiches in case conditions get too rough for cooking.

“A normal day for us includes eggs and bacon or sausage for breakfast…dinner is typically a casserole or lasagna, with salad, rolls, a vegetable, and dessert. It’s a lot of work, but it keeps the crew coming back,” Dawley laughs. They even pack along a “captain’s dinner” of fi let mignon roast and celebratory champagne. Their menu is surprising, considering Pursuit finished first in Division 2 in 2012 in 108 hours, 55 minutes, and 49 seconds. Then again, Sjambok—who reached Bermuda in 77 hours, 18 minutes, and three seconds, tallied the second-fastest elapsed time on record, and came in first in overall in 2012—also features an impressive menu that has included such items as scrambled eggs and bacon, chicken gumbo, and beef stew. Perhaps well-fed sailors are the most efficient.

Keeping drinks cool presents another challenge—so the beverage list is typically short. And there are no pantries, so crews get clever with storage.

With only 50 boats in the fleet, there are times along the course when you can’t see the competition. For Dawley, that’s part of what makes the experience so rich. “I like having long stretches of time where you’re just focusing on making your boat go,” he says. “You may not see other boats…you’re just enjoying the people you’re with. It’s just spectacularly beautiful.”

But, he cautions, getting in the rhythm quickly is a major challenge. Most boats reach Bermuda in five to seven days—just barely enough time, Dawley says, to get used to the sleeping arrangements.

Sleeping arrangements are yet another issue. Racers typically sleep on what’s basically a piece of canvas, strapped in to avoid flying about when the boat heels. “You don’t get into the rhythm of the sea until you get accustomed to the watch system,” he says. “Someone wakes you up for the midnight to 4 a.m. shift, and that’s the last thing you want to do.”

Still, racers continue to do it, year after year, race after race, so the experience must surely outweigh the sleep deprivation.

“It can be just absolutely spectacular and fun. It’s an experience you don’t have anywhere else. Out several hundred miles and if it’s a clear night, the stars are unbelievable,” Dawley says.

The Rules:

• To participate boats must be at least 28 feet,
• should have a Chesapeake PHRF rating,
• must have logged more than 500 miles racing or cruising,
• and should have a minimum crew of three sailors and a skipper.