Boating: Sailing of a Century

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodly

Standing before a podium in the Model Room of the New York Yacht Club, historian John Rousmaniere, having memorized the information as a child, performed a recitation in the rote cadence reserved for prayers: “12 days, 4 hours, 1 minute, 19 seconds.” The series of numbers and chronological measurements is equally familiar to many who were in the audience of 160 sailing enthusiasts, for it refers to the sport’s oldest surviving record. Charlie Barr established the mark when he skippered the 185-foot schooner Atlantic from New York to Cornwall, England, faster than the rest of the fleet to win the New York Yacht Club’s Great Ocean Race of 1905—an age before GPS, radar, and radio. The favorite to win that year’s race, the Hamburg, a 158-foot vessel that Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II built especially for the contest, finished 22 hours after Atlantic.

Barr’s victory involved some luck, as do most sports victories; had the winds and the weather been less favorable, he could not have completed the course so swiftly. Luck also insulated his performance from a century’s worth of challenges. In Barr’s day, professional sailors ruled the waves, but soon after the Atlantic’s triumph, the sport was embraced by a new generation of amateurs, who, lacking the wealth of the sponsors who entered vessels in the 1905 race, preferred smaller boats, which could not deliver the speed of the larger ones that Barr and his colleagues steered. The record was threatened only after the superyacht emerged in the 1990s.

On May 21, the New York Yacht Club will stage a repeat of the 1905 race, the second-ever Rolex Transatlantic Challenge, during which a vessel and its crew could finally break Barr’s century-old record. Rousmaniere, who headlined a February lecture at the NYYC’s Manhattan clubhouse to promote the race, said afterward that he thinks the Mari-Cha IV will glide past the Atlantic’s place in sailing history. It is not the boldest of predictions. In 2003, the 140-foot vessel owned by Robert Miller, a 70-year-old Briton who cofounded a lucrative chain of duty-free shops, completed an Atlantic crossing in less than a week, though the feat did not occur during a scheduled race, when crews have to compete under whatever weather conditions Mother Nature presents. “If the wind is anywhere near favorable,” said Rousmaniere, “[Mari-Cha IV] will do it in eight or nine days, maybe faster.”

A. Robert Towbin, chairman of the 2005 race and the captain of Sumurun, his 1914 ketch that will compete in the classic division, concurs with Rousmaniere. Although Sumurun won the first Rolex Transatlantic Challenge in 1997 (a planned 2002 edition was canceled following the September 11, 2001, attacks), Towbin expects the Mari-Cha IV to prevail this year, provided everything goes swimmingly. “If the Mari-Cha IV does not hit a disastrous weather pattern, and it continues to go the way it’s been going, it will break the record without a doubt,” he says. “But as any sailor will tell you, anything can go wrong. In 1905, nobody thought the Atlantic could win.”

New York Yacht Club, 212.382.1000, www.nyyc.org

Photo by Jim Fets
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