The very first Bermuda Race was an act of rebellion. In 1906, the Establishment believed it would be insane for amateur sailors to race offshore in boats under 80 feet. Thomas Fleming Day, the feisty editor of The Rudder magazine, vehemently disagreed, insisting, “The danger of the sea for generations has been preached by the ignorant.” Certain that an ocean race would be enjoyable and safe – and develop better sailors and boats – Day founded one on his own. The Brooklyn Yacht Club started the race in New York Bay, and down on the island paradise, the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club finished it off at St. David’s Head.
Critics predicted disaster. It was rumoured that funeral wreaths were delivered to the three boats (all under 40 feet) so the sailors would be prepared to make a decent burial at sea. The smallest entry then (and in Bermuda Race history) was the 28-foot sloop, Gauntlet. She was notorious for her size and crew because it included a woman, 20-year-old Thora Lund Robinson.
Having outpaced Gauntlet and another boat which dropped out, the winner was the 38-foot yawl, Tamerlane, with Thomas Fleming Day as sailing master.
When he reached the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club quay under tow, 4,000 of the island’s 14,000 residents were there to greet her (the club’s officers apologized for the small turnout; this was, after all, a Sunday). The yacht club provided a special anchorage off White’s Island for the race boats, set aside rooms for the skippers and navigators in the clubhouse (which was then on Front Street), and laid on many parties culminating with a traditional turtle dinner at the prize banquet, where His Excellency the Governor-General and Tom Day vied for the honour of giving the most colourful speech.
There were four more races before the sailors decided it was too much to ask that the race be held annually.
After World War I, Royal Bermuda Yacht Club (RBYC) Vice-Commodore Eldon Trimingham went to New York to stir up a racing revival and found many American sailors who agreed. After 22 boats started in 1923 at New London, Conn., there was hard going in the Gulf Stream (“The next time I come to Bermuda, it will be in a submarine,” one soggy sailor announced in Bermuda), but every boat finished. Three years later, the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club teamed up to host the race. Even today, the task of inspecting boats, arranging for trophies, the starting and finishing lines, and maintaining the race’s emphasis on safe seamanship falls on volunteer members of both clubs. In 45 races over a century, only two boats have been lost, one on Bermuda’s reef and the other in a deadly fire in 1932 that also claimed the Bermuda Race’s only loss of life.
The race takes some credit for the formation of the Fastnet Race and accelerating the career of famed designer Olin Stephens, and developing new rating rules.
In the first week of March 2020, Toronto sailor Bob Medland was elected Commodore of the prestigious virtual yacht club, the Cruising Club of America (CCA), which boasts 1400 members cruising the Seven Seas. On its 2020 schedule, the CCA had the 635-mile Newport Bermuda Race co-sponsored with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, several safety-at-sea seminars, and a members’ cruise in Majorca.
Within a month, Commodore Medland in consultation with the Fleet Surgeon, Dr Jeffery Wisch, and the CCA Governing Board, cancelled all of that and would subsequently move Club meetings planned for Seattle and New York to a virtual format online.
Medland, a retired corporate financial officer who sails with his wife Sally out of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club on their Niagara 35 Aphrodite, has done thousands of ocean miles aboard friends’ boats, including the ARC transatlantic and China Sea races.