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Sailing from Marblehead to Provincetown with the moon overhead

Posted by boston.com  July 16, 2013 10:00 AM

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On Friday, July 19, 50 or more boats will begin this year’s Beringer Bowl from Marblehead at about 7 p.m.  Above Boston the moon will be at almost 90 percent illumination.  The Big Dipper and the Orion’s Belt will be some of the constellations in the night’s heaven, as hundreds of sailors work their boats across Massachusetts Bay ending in Provincetown Harbor early Saturday morning.

UnderSail03.jpgOne of Rick Williams’ great passions in life is to race his 38-foot sloop, Chariad, from its home port in Marblehead. When Williams purchased the boat a dozen years ago, he hosted a party of friends to name the sailboat using a flip chart with naming objectives and post-it notes.  The name Chariad emerged, the old Welsh word for love, and underscores Williams’ Welsh heritage and his decades’ long passion for sailing, and for racing.  Two red griffins enliven the bow of the white hulled boat, the mythical animal symbolizing strength and courage, with the body of a lion, but the head and feathered chest of an eagle.  On the water the Chariad is easy to recognize.

Williams has raced in the Beringer Bowl many times.  The race is a favorite of his, “because of the combination of the physical challenge, the beauty of being at sea at night, and Provincetown as a fun summertime destination.”  

The Beringer Bowl is an overnight race from Marblehead to Provincetown on Cape Cod, held on the third Friday in July. Overnight races test both the skill of the crew and their ability to sustain racing level performance over a long period of time and do so at night.

The race has been hosted since 1978 by the Boston Yacht Club (BYC) in Marblehead.   According to Phil DiCarlo, a former BYC commodore, “We used to have a race at night, but it was similar to the day races, going from buoy to marker and then back to port.  Then in the late ‘90s we redesigned the race to go from Marblehead to Provincetown. The purpose of the event was to give people experience sailing in a night race, so that they could qualify for the biennial Marblehead to Halifax Race.” 

From June until mid-September, the prevailing winds in Massachusetts Bay are from the southwest.   If the winds are from the southwest, then the first leg of the Beringer Bowl from Tinker’s Gong off of Marblehead to the Three and One Half Ledge Lighted Buoy off the coast of Hull is an up wind beat, sailing towards the wind.  Once the boats round the mark at Hull, the leg from Hull across Massachusetts Bay to the tip of Cape Cod, is a spinnaker run – and the longest leg of the race.  Whether the sail across the Bay is a warm summer sail under cloudless starlit skies or long slog through a rain filled night, the Beringer sailors will cross the Bay and at race’s end  toast to a race well sailed.

The ocean and the wind cannot be predicted. The sailor can control where the boat is on the water and how it sails in the wind and navigates currents.  Williams explained, “During the daytime you are more visually oriented, you watch the sails, the water, and the electronics.  At night you listen to the sound of the boat as it makes its way through the water, and you sense the wind on your face, on your neck, or on your arms.  You live in two different worlds: the faint red lights of the instruments call out the numerical measurements of the boat’s performance in the wind and where the boat is on the race course, yet at the same time the skipper and crew are feeling the motion and heel of the boat.  The helmsman feels the balance and trim of the sails from the pressure of the wheel. The crew is monitoring the speed of the boat by the sounds of the water, the splash of a wave, and the rush of the wake at the boat’s stern.

“Just making the boat go fast is not the objective in a race. We are usually trying to sail towards a navigation mark that is near to where the wind is coming from or directly away from the wind. In either case the boat will go faster sailing further away from the wind or not sailing directly in line with the wind. Maximizing speed towards the mark is the game, not necessarily maximizing the speed of the boat.”

Last July, Williams and his crew finished at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday after starting at 7:20 p.m. on Friday evening. The wind that summer evening was light from the southeast and so the crew carried a spinnaker for most of the first leg going toward the South Shore of Boston.  “The wind came a little forward and we dropped the spin for the last quarter of the leg. We hardened up going around the mark near Hull and then tacked to get to the left hand side of the course. The wind was projected to gradually go left towards the northeast. Normally, the wind is from the southwest and the leg over to Provincetown is a wonderful spinnaker reach.  On that Friday night, we had a long slow beat to windward in very light wind.”

A 10-person crew is what Williams prefers, composed of both men and women. According to Williams, “Sailing is such a deeply complex and sophisticated sport that it attracts people who want an activity they cannot easily master. Every race is different and unpredictable.  You need a certain amount of athleticism to sail, but understanding the boat is what you need to race competitively.”

Williams’ current crew include:  a professional violinist, a regional housewares distributor, an architect, a head lawyer for a state agency, an inventor, a marine construction manager, and a retired creative director for an advertising company.    The Chariad crew all come from different backgrounds but each member loves the challenge of sailing, the glorious elements of wind, sky and water and the camaraderie of a team sport.   

This past October during Superstorm Sandy, the mighty Chariad suffered a series of terrible blows.  The boat had been prepared for winter storage in Winthrop, the sails stowed at Williams’ home. Yet the storm’s 70 m.p.h. winds took her 60-foot mast, which then came crashing down on the stern, taking out the wheel and parts of the rear pulpit.  The boat was declared a loss, but love, for which the Chariad is named, has a funny way with a devoted sailor’s heart.

The Kevlar sails were specifically made for Chariad just three years before, and Williams’ crew of friends who had logged so many races with the boat, left him discouraged about declaring the boat a total loss.  Williams spent a good amount of time during the winter, working with boat and mast builders and so instead of getting a newer boat the Chariad is being repaired. 

On Saturday morning, most boats will arrive in Provincetown Harbor and enjoy post-race drinks as dawn pinks the sky. Afterward the crew will be off  into  P’town and the regatta party overlooking the harbor on Saturday, to again celebrate the team sport of sailboat racing that blooms in freshening ocean breezes during the long days of summertime, in that elemental world of water, wind, and tide. 

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