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Charleston to Bermuda Race is ON

Stephen Colbert on the rail with Spirit of Juno crew mates. Photo by Suzi DuRant
Stephen Colbert on the rail with Spirit of Juno crew mates. Photo by Suzi DuRant

Charleston and Bermuda are both wonderful destinations, so what could be better than an offshore race between the two? The biennial Charleston to Bermuda Race sets sail May 15-17 covering 777 nautical miles to St. David’s Head in Bermuda. After clearing in, crews head to the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club for the race end festivities.

The event was the brain child of Rick Hennigar and David Browder who both were working at Ross Marine, a boatyard on Johns Island, just south of Charleston. Browder had just finished refitting his 40’ Bill Cook designed sailboat Wahoo and was dying to go racing. Over a few beers, as many good boat events have begun, the two friends kicked around some ideas like the Key West race or the Pineapple Regatta.

“I just wanted to race offshore, not in the harbor,” Browder recalls. After awhile, Hennigar said, “Dave asked how ‘bout Charleston to Bermuda … should be an easy sleigh ride?”  And so the concept was born.

They decided it should be open to anyone with a boat at least 30’ in length and contacted the Charleston Ocean Racing Association to run the logistics. The two financed the first two races themselves with a few sponsors, like Ross Marine. They also contacted the RYBC.  “It wouldn’t have happened without them,” said Browder. “They took us under their wing.”

Hennigar laughs, “We went over there with a logo on an index card … that was it!”

Everyone pulled together and the first race took place in May 1997, but not without a few glitches. Sometimes just getting to Charleston can be a problem. Bob Cummings was sailing his Bavaria 41, At Ease, from Newport, Va., to race.  He and his crew encountered massive waves and 50-knot winds and had to be airlifted off the sinking boat near Cape Hatteras.

And sometimes start logistics don’t go as planned. Dan Machowski, CORA’s historian, was in charge of the cannon firings. The committee boat was the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Key Largo, stern-anchored in the Harbor. Machowski wanted to set the cannon (which he’d fired before so knew what it could do) on the bow but the cutter’s chief and executive officer wanted him amidships. Clearly outranked, he did as they asked. The coasties looked on in amazement as the cannon burned three feet of the deck. Regardless, six boats set sail for Bermuda.

After the first two races, Browder and Hennigar were looking for a way out of race management. They touched base with Hank Hofford and R.E. “Teddy” Turner IV who formed the South Carolina Maritime Foundation with a few others to promote building a tall ship to be used in youth education. “We decided to let them take over,” explained Hennigar. “The Foundation had more resources, plus we wanted to get onboard with the birth of the Spirit of South Carolina – all in the Corinthian spirit.”

“They had more horsepower to grow the race,” Browder added, “and that’s what we wanted – to grow the race.”

In August 2002, Hofford announced that the Foundation was taking over the Charleston to Bermuda Race and that all the proceeds from the race would benefit the building of the tall ship. CORA would continue as the official race managers and the RBYC would continue as a partner and the host in Bermuda. The oganizers were hoping to have 24 boats sign up and had 18 already registered for the 2003 event.

Turner was enthused. He’d heard about the first race but he was living in Jacksonville at the time without a big enough boat. By 1999, he had moved to Charleston and purchased a Condor 40 that he renamed Troika. “I don’t believe in changing a boat’s name,” he said. “But I did such a big refit that I figured a name change was warranted.” He competed in three C2B races on Troika, then two more races on other boats.

The race has never quite achieved the number of participants the organizers would like to see, so Turner, then the chairman of the Foundation’s board, hired OnDeck for the race management in 2011. He thought it would give “the race more ‘professionalism’ from the company’s experience and worldwide reputation. They can do it so much better than we can.  We don’t have the resources and time since we have to focus on the tall ship and its educational programs.”

On Deck made a number of yachts available for charter in the 2011 race, and TV celebrity Stephen Colbert, a Charlestonian himself, decided to take part. The festivities and start were spectacular as the two Shipman 63s and the two Farr 65s engaged in tacking duels through the harbor and out the channel into the ocean.

Unfortunately, OnDeck fell on hard times, so CORA took back managing the race. Randy Draftz, race director, said, “We almost didn’t have it, but enough die-hards wanted to do it so we are.” The plan is to have staggered starts so that most of the racers will arrive in Bermuda closer together.

Potential racers can go online at www.charlestonbermudarace.com for information on the event and to register.

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