Easton sailor captures Newport-Bermuda race

ON BOATING

Boating

July 06, 2000|By Gilbert Lewthwaite

It may not be unprecedented. But it is most unusual.

A 35-year-old boat taking overall honors from a fleet of 175 newer, faster racing yachts says two things: the handicap system is working, and the skipper is either lucky or good.

Easton's Eric Crawford was both when he won one of the East Coast's most prestigious ocean races - the 42nd biennial Newport-to-Bermuda - on a boat he bought from his father-in-law as a family cruiser in 1987.

He returned to his home berth at the Tred Avon Yacht Club Saturday after taking a leisurely five days to sail Restless back from the island that he reached 93 hours, 15 minutes from the starting gun in Newport, R.I.

This was Crawford's fourth Newport-Bermuda, the third on his own 41-foot Pearson Rhodes, a classic beauty that his father-in-law, Harold Bower, retired pathologist at Easton Memorial Hospital, had sailed for a decade.

Crawford's first Newport-Bermuda race came in 1994, when he navigated aboard Nicole, a Cal-40 entered by Tad duPont, his employer at Higgins Yacht Yard in St. Michael's. They were fourth in their class and overall.

Two years later, he and duPont decided to race against each other. Crawford won his class, with Nicole again fourth. It was the year George Coumanteros' Boomerang set the race record of 57 hours, 31 minutes, 50 seconds.

In 1998, lack of wind forced Crawford, who was using a new set of sails, to abandon the race 200 miles short of Bermuda. But he had the consolation of racing well in the Onion Patch series of races in both Newport and Bermuda before and after the ocean run.

This year, he won his class and overall honors after a race in which he made the elusive, right judgment calls on wind and currents.

The Bermuda race involves crossing the Gulf Stream, which meanders up the East Coast and across the Atlantic. To the north and south of it are eddies - circular currents. Using them to sling-shot your boat across the Gulf Stream is crucial to victory in the Bermuda race.`The eddies are tracked now," said Crawford, taking a break from sprucing up Restless after her voyage. "Back in the old days, they didn't know much about them. It was a black art. Now there is a lot of science."

Racers start with the same, basic information from the weather service and forecasters. How they interpret and use it is key to their success. Entering the eddies too soon or too late can land you in an adverse current, but at the correct angle, they provide a fair current.

Studying the charts, Crawford detected two significant eddies and a meander on the route to Bermuda.

"Getting a boost from the eddies and getting across the Gulf Stream to get most help from that - that was our strategy," said Crawford, who decided to go 25 miles east of the most direct route to gain maximum advantage from the currents.

The forecast was for fairly strong winds from the southwest, with a high-pressure zone sitting over Bermuda. The breeze of 16 to 25 knots sped the maxi-boats on their way at record-breaking pace.

After two days of sailing, Jim Dolan's Sagamore was 200 miles ahead of Restless. But the handicappers gave Crawford's boat 40 hours more than Sagamore to finish the 635-mile race. That roughly translated into 200 miles.

It meant that the two boats, on handicap, were in contact with each other on paper, if not on the water. Then the lead boats ran into a calm, all but stalling and ending hopes for a new course record.

Behind them, Crawford and the smaller boats were catching up. On the third day, Sagamore did 75 miles, according to Crawford's calculations; Restless covered 175.

"We were sailing faster than an 80-footer," said Crawford, a project manager at Higgins Yacht Yard. "We were catching up. At that time, we had pretty much dealt with the Gulf Stream stuff.

"Now, we had to decide how to deal with this light air up ahead of us. We had to see which way the high was moving over Bermuda."

As skipper and navigator on board Restless, Crawford was not involved in the Swedish-style watch system - two six-hour watches during the day, three four-hour watches at night. Between catnaps, he was free to analyze the weather patterns and call the course.

Tracking other boats, he noticed that most went east. Tuning into the Bermuda weather forecast, he decided the wind would shift south. Then, running into the same light air that had stalled the fleet, he put up his light sails. But as the wind started to fill in, as he had predicted, he switched back to his No. 1 genoa, a large foresail, and started to sail at 5 or 6 knots.

He checked the third day's position reports. Only a few boats in his class were ahead - to the east, forcing them to beat into the wind to the finish line while he reached home from the west.

The maxi-boats, after taking a frustrating 16 hours to cover the last 120 miles, crossed the line first, with Sagamore taking line honors. But, on handicap, Crawford was ahead of the fleet.

"We finished ahead of a lot of the bigger, faster boats in our class," he said, "so we outsmarted them. The older boats tend to reach very well. They don't go to windward as well."

Crawford beat some of the fastest boats and best crews on the international racing circuit. Against a virtual "who's who" of yachting, he sailed with his son Edward, 15, brother-in-law Mike Keene, grade-school friend Mike Rajacich, and three other local crew - Eric Hummel, Mike Marshall, and Leo Newberg.

Not only did they win, they got to port in time to celebrate the birthday of Crawford's wife, Ellen, who had flown to meet them.

"It's a very nice feeling," he said. "You have to get lucky and make the right guesses."

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