On the last day of this year's New York Yacht Club Annual Regatta presented by Rolex, held off Newport, Rhode Island, I found myself as a lucky substitute crewmember aboard the Reichel-Pugh 65-footer called Vanquish, owned by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. What a ride! As far as I could tell, the entire boat from bowsprit to transom, masthead to (lead) keel bulb, was built of carbon fiber. Even the mainsail and jib are loaded with carbon (the black stuff in the photo below). Although we sailed in light winds, it didn't surprise me that we could easily hit 12 knots going downwind under the massive spinnaker.
For a while it looked as if I were going to be massively disappointed with the day, thanks to a very flimsy bit of northeast wind and a thick patch of fog that settled over Rhode Island Sound about noon. As a sloppy swell banged under the flat after sections of the boat, it shuddered and the noise was remarkable—and a precursor to the much louder screeching of the sheets being eased on the winches when we finally began sailing.
Fortunately, a dryer, more northerly wind filtered down onto the course after a while, and we ended up sailing a race in 6 to 9 knots of wind, which was a treat for me, as this boat had no trouble getting up and going.
The other funny thing about Sunday was that despite being a crewmember on such an extraordinary boat, when I looked around, I quickly saw that we were the "little" boat in our class. There were four 70-plus footers, including the round-the-world Volvo 70 racer named Puma and a 90-footer called Rambler. The others will also be familiar to sailboat racing followers—Titan, Ran, and Belle Mente—and the latter took home the top silverware for the weekend. You can read the results courtesy of the NYYC—Vanquish finished fifth for the series—but against bigger, faster, and professionally staffed competition, the Vanquish team in my opinion did a very creditable job, scoring as high as third in one race.
The boat was donated to the Merchant Marine Academy only a year after its 2008 debut, and it came with plenty of good sails and equipment. My friend Jamie Hilton and several of his long-time shipmates have chartered the boat for this week's Newport-to-Bermuda Race and enlisted several Midshipmen from the academy in the crew. On Sunday, we had plenty of youth and strength up on the skinny part of the boat, four or five experienced crewmen mixed in between the bow and the traveler, and then in the back there was ample room for the "brain trust"–which in my case is a kind description of someone who isn't strong enough anymore to be of much use forward of the traveler. The best piece of high-tech equipment I found on the whole boat was a well-placed carbon-fiber grab rail that I spent most of the day gripping!
According to Jamie, who is totally focused on Bermuda right now, the boat may not go upwind quite on pace with its rivals, but it can reach with the longer boats, and the good news there is that the south-southeasterly direction of the course to Bermuda often involves reaching. Want to find out what happens? You can follow their progress online next weekend—or that of any other of the nearly 185-plus boats racing—because each boat is equipped with position-tracking devices.
Having sailed to and from Bermuda a few times, I know you'll often be more comfortable at your computer screen than Charlie Shumway (navigator on Vanquish) will be at his. On the other hand, the virtual ride isn't the same as the real thing. And having had a sample of how fast this "little" 65-footer can go, I kind of wish I could be along for the excitement. I'm not sure how my knees would feel after four days, but I'm sure it would be my fastest ride ever to Bermuda.