The 39th biennial Marblehead-to-Halifax race featured a spectacular start with brightly colored spinnaker sails outside Marblehead Harbor on July 9. Up to 600 sailors on 70 boats in 11 fleets sailed downwind and made a turn off Tinker’s Island, setting course for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
A large spectator fleet on land at Castle Rock and offshore in a flotilla of boats got a chance to see some very close racing from the starting gun, and sailors in every fleet talked about the excitement and desire to return to the competitive and challenging 363-nautical-mile course.
The fleet included Naval midshipmen, cadets and young sailors from up and down the Eastern seaboard and Canada, as well as veteran teams who joined to do one of their favorite ocean races. Sailors from as far away as Europe and Australia competed.
As of press time, in the ORR (Offshore Racing Rule) 1 class, the Reichel Pugh 66 Kodiak, with the Naval Academy at Annapolis, was in first place ahead of Wahoo, the Kerr 50 also operated by midshipmen from the academy. Sailed by undergraduates ranging in age from 18 to 20, the race serves to train midshipmen to overcome challenges, adapt and gain experience. It is also a great way to learn about ocean racing. Each team is accompanied by one older adult coach.
Kodiak helmsman Javier Jimenez Kane noted that his crew of 16 undergraduate young men and women included five seniors, six juniors and five freshmen.
“Being young we do very well sailing at night because we have a lot of energy and we are used to staying up late studying, but my main hope is to set a tone where we are cool, calm and collected as we face the challenges of this race,” Kane explained.
The officers feel that part of the experience of sailing to Halifax is to build decision-making knowledge at a time when everything is compressed, which helps midshipmen become better leaders.
“If everything goes smoothly, then we are not really learning but we have to adapt and overcome situations,” said John Tihansky, the older safety officer on the boat. “Being here offers a lot of perspective while we also are trying to race hard and get into the competitive side of things as we learn.”
Second place Wahoo, a Kerr 50, is helmed by midshipman Madelyn Ploch. Her teammate Jesse Wedlock said, “We do major crew work preparing for this race, but so far in our experience we have not had a heavy air race. However, we are super dedicated, and we want to do well.”
Prior to the start of the race, Blue Skies owner William Gunther of Essex, Connecticut, introduced his team, which includes Frank Bohlen, whose first Marblehead-to-Halifax race was in 1979.
Bohlen is best known for his understanding of the Gulf Stream, and he offers and helps sailors develop many winning Newport Bermuda race strategies. As an oceanographer, he knows the challenges of the Marblehead-to-Halifax race as do the other veterans on Blue Skies, including Ty Sweeter who has done four or five Halifax races, and Al Burnet whose first race was in the early 1970s.
“Our strategy will be to play the wind conditions versus the tide conditions at Cape Sable as there is always the risk that you might be barreling along, then the tide changes and the wind goes to zero,” Gunther said. “I do love this race, and we have many people on our team who keep returning to it.”
Despite the currents, tides and ongoing challenges of this ocean race, what draws people back to it is the friendships and comradery that are part of the experience.
“Ocean racing is a very collegial sport, and it has to be introduced consistently to younger people. Once people have done it, they want to come back and do it again,” said Steve Sarazan, vice commodore of the Boston Yacht Club and chairman of the event.
Commodore of the Boston Yacht Club Bruce Baker agreed.
“Distance racing is still considered a high-end event for sailors today,” he said. “We are the oldest offshore race to date between two countries, and we feel so lucky that there was so much interest in the race this year after a four-year wait.”
Marblehead competitor and America’s Cup yacht designer J.B. Braun noted that the idea of having a big ocean adventure right in our backyard is so unique. Braun is competing this year double-handed with his son, Ryan, on board their boat Taylor 38 Eos. This is his fourth Marblehead-to-Halifax race.
Marblehead sailor Doug Halsted, who will be racing with Seamus Hourihan on board the Gunboat 55 catamaran, Thirst, agreed that he, too, is drawn to the challenge of ocean racing.
“This particular race looks like it will have a lot of upwind, light air sailing and that is hard work,” he said. ”However, there is a lot of camraderie and tradition, and I believe I have done this race 12 times.”
Braun added that winning or sailing well is important at some level to almost everyone racing, and it is always an unknown with variables throughout the course.
“You never know what will happen, and you put your boat in the right place at the right time and you can do quite well,” Braun said.
At press time, J.B and Ryan Braun were in second place in their division.
Marblehead sailor Rick Williams, on board his J130, Chariad, noted, “Our team has trained, and we have prepared the boat. We have really been focusing our efforts and are fully prepared. We will be in an upwind race with upwind strategies. This means light wind will require a very high level of concentration for the helmsman. They must really focus.”
This will be Williams’ third Marblehead-to-Halifax race.
“Doing well in the Marblehead-to-Halifax race has a certain cache,” said Martin Lentsch of Canada, who is racing aboard his Graves 37, Sassy, designed by Jim Taylor and built in Marblehead by Graves Yacht Yard. Lentsch’s first Halifax race was in 1987.
“We are very happy to be here and this race means a lot to me,” he said.
Yachting enthusiasts can follow the progress of the race at marbleheadtohalifax.com. Each competitor is equipped with a GPS transponder. The progress of each yacht can be tracked on the MHOR website, and you can replay the racing sequence during and after the race ends.