The return is always worse

In one of these shots I’m in the Gulf Stream, and in the other I’ve recently seen dolphins. Can you tell which is which? Photos by Bob Muggleston

In the early 2000s I was lucky enough to race to Bermuda not once, but twice, with Jim Mertz, the “Iron Man of the Onion Patch,” who participated in 30 Newport Bermuda Races between 1936 and 2004 – a record that probably won’t be topped anytime soon.

Jim is gone now, but when he was still alive I asked him if he remembered which race had been the roughest. “None of them,” Jim replied. “We always saw the worst weather on the returns.”

He was referring to the trip back to his home in Rye, N.Y., after most of his race crew had scattered and friends and family assumed their roles. Minus the pressure of racing, returns – in theory – should have been relaxing.

Not so much, Jim said.

Now I know what he meant.

The boat we were to deliver back from Bermuda this past June was a good one, a tricked-out 38-foot C&C 115 named Moon Dog out of Barrington, R.I. Moon Dog had had a fairly uneventful race characterized by light air.

The return crew of five was salty enough, several of the guys with Navy and Coast Guard experience, and two captain’s licenses among us. We left Bermuda on Monday, June 25, with a favorable forecast from a weather-router, his caveat being that we stay west of the rhumb line to avoid the worst of an advancing cold front. One fairly innocuous line, referring to the Gulf Stream: “One of the changes worth noting is that the cold eddy has shifted a bit farther west, which may provide a greater chance of encountering a bit of adverse current along the route.”

More on that later.

Day 1 was an inshore sailor’s dream – blue water as far as the eye could see, and breeze in the high teens. Days 2 and 3 the breeze built into the mid-20s, with waves on the quarter. It was lumpy, but still a classic offshore experience, and for the most part we were still having fun.

At 3 a.m. Wednesday morning we passed through the cold front, which, from a distance, looked horrifying, but was nothing more than heat lightning. One bullet dodged, one bullet to go.

Thursday morning water temps jumped to about 83. We were finally in it – the Stream. Two of us tethered in the cockpit watched wind speeds climb through the 20s and level out around 30. It was time to strike the double-reefed main. With a scrap of jib and the motor running (mostly to power the Autohelm) we hurtled down the track on a broad reach, and watched as wind speeds climbed further still.

Huge, breaking seas developed. Which was baffling, because the wind was out of the southwest. Wind and tide together, right? One clue was our SOG, which hovered (when we weren’t doing 10 knots surfing down a wave) at around 5 or 6 knots. About halfway through the Stream we suddenly accelerated to a 7- or 8-knot average. Doh! That cold-water eddy!

For a while a crew member from Chicago, Barry, and I sat clipped-in topside, marveling at the show. We tried to accurately assess wave heights. Neither of us could remember how. My best, amateurish guess? Twenty feet. It was surreal to watch a monster approach the open stern, convinced it would board us, and then watch as the vessel was hoisted up the wave’s face. Suddenly the chaos was way below. You could survey the ocean as though from a platform. Then down the monster’s back into the trough – where we’d wait for the next elevator to arrive.

It was fun . . . initially. After about four hours it wasn’t. That is, it became too much. Winds maxed at 37 knots. The sea was ugly. Not just the sea-state, but the visual itself (sorry, Mother Nature). I was cold despite my rain gear and ski hat, and despite sea and air temps in the mid-80s.

Barry and I installed the rough-weather hatch boards and joined the crew below, where it was like being in a washing machine. Water seeped in around the mast boot and in several other places, dripping on crewmembers in their pipe berths. We sat and stared at each other, saying nothing, listening to noises that, topside, sounded far less ominous. Eventually, bored and exhausted, I crawled into my bunk. Amazing how it’s possible to sleep amid chaos.

Fast-forward 24 hours and the trip is once again an inshore-sailor’s dream: Pods of dolphins have visited, and whales, too. In fact, one whale swam directly at us before diving under the boat 10 feet away. We had 16 knots of breeze and flat water. Heavenly. Look at the second photo – do I seem happy? I am. It nearly made me forget the roughly nine hours we spent in the Gulf Stream. But not quite.

The roughest Newport Bermuda Race passages?

Jim Mertz was right: They’re always on the return.