Bermuda race stalwarts

Keith Taylor looks at the Newport-Bermuda race's most competitive class - the J/44

Friday June 14th 2002, Author: Keith Taylor, Location: United States
They are some of the oldest production boats, the most comfortable, the group that claims to have the most fun, and the most intensely competitive class in the record fleet of 184 boats that sets sail today on the Newport to Bermuda Race. They are the J/44 One Design Class.

For the fifth consecutive time, J/44 one-design cruiser-racers will have their own start in the 635-mile blue water classic from Newport, RI, across the rough and unpredictable waters of the Gulf Stream to the island of Bermuda. The biennial race is staged by the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.

Binding the J/44 group together is a common love for round-the-buoys inshore competition in closely-matched boats - the kind only found in one-design classes - plus ocean racing and cruising to distant shores.

The philosophy of the class is summed up by its founder and president, Jim Bishop, of Jamestown, RI, and West Palm Beach, FL. Says Bishop: "I won't race a boat I can't take to Bermuda!"

This year, the class has a record entry of 13 boats in the Bermuda Race. In an era when other more recent one-design classes are shrinking, the J/44s, which were named Sailing World magazine's Boat of the Year upon their introduction in 1989, are continuing to slowly grow in strength.

Skippers in the class credit its longevity to their boats' seaworthiness, their solid construction, their cruising comforts and tightly-maintained owner governance of one-design features.

This week, the J/44s will compete in 'ocean racing' configuration - that is, with their own choice of sail inventory and in dual mode as one-designs and as boats handicapped under the International Measurement System [IMS] governing other Bermuda-bound entries.

When they race next month in their North American Championships during the New York Yacht Club's Race Week in Newport, they'll be back in their strict one-design mode, sharing a common, pooled inventory of racing sails owned by the class. At each regatta, owners draw for these sails, which are maintained by the class director, Tom Castiglione, and regularly updated in bulk purchases of 16 identical units.

The defending class champion for the race to Bermuda is Stampede sailed by Jim Sundstrom, of Rye, NY. After winning the class on the last two runs to Bermuda, Sundstrom is looking to make it three in a row this year. With two North American Championships for two successive years amongst his other victories, Stampede should be a formidable competitor.

Like others, Sundstrom credits Bishop with bringing him into the class. "I'd been racing International One-Design keelboats against him for the better part of a decade before he convinced me in 1992 to buy Stampede," Sundstrom recalls. "He has been a terrific influence on the class."

Sundstrom describes racing one-design to Bermuda as "chess on a much larger scale." Unlike straight handicap racing where skippers are primarily concerned with getting to Bermuda just as fast as possible, J/44 competition calls for a more tactical approach to cover the class competition, he says.

"It changes the dynamics of the race entirely to concentrate on winning against the class instead of winning the Lighthouse Trophy," says Sundstrom. "You begin to think more about how you might leverage yourself against the others."

Recalling the 2000, race, Sundstrom says he broke away from the class only to find the green hull of Bishop's Gold Digger in his wake on the final approach to Bermuda. "It was a tacking duel for the last six hours. We finished five minutes ahead and the first four boats were 20 minutes apart. It doesn't get any better than

Lennie Sitar of Holmdel, NJ is one of the class veterans, owning his boat Vamp for 12 years and racing every Bermuda Race in that time, claiming a third and fourth place. Altogether he has sailed to Bermuda ten times.

"It's a lot of fun. The boats are so well matched and speeds are so similar," Sitar says. "The last two times, there has been mandatory position reporting, and after plotting the positions on the chart you can cover all the J/44s with a quarter. That represents a total of about 15 miles."

Bob Scribner, Charleston, SC, skipper of Resolute, starting on his third Bermuda Race, agrees. "Everything is pretty much leveled-up, so it comes down to how good can you navigate, how good can you sail, how good is your crew work? For me, that makes it a lot more interesting. I'm not a big fan of handicap racing."

After the finish two years ago, Scribner overheard a conversation in the bar at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. "There were four other guys, boat owners, saying: 'Those J/44s are like gnats, all around, all the time. You can't get rid of them. They're so fast and they're all good sailors.' It kinda made me feel pretty good!"

Six members of the Glenn family headed up by co-skippers Anne and Larry Glen from Locust Valley, NY, will form half of the 12-man crew of Runaway on its third Bermuda Race. For Glen it is his 12th Bermuda Race.

"These are best middle-ground boats of all. They are great cruiser/racers and great racing boats. It's fun. There is a great gang of people in the class," Glenn says. "In one-design racing you know where you are in relation to other boats in the class, and you can see much more clearly how you improve or don't improve against others. It's much more intense and much more challenging than handicap racing. You sharpen your skills so much better."

Scott Dinhofer of Chappaqua, NY and his crew are the current North American champions. He has owned Brown Eyed Girl for three seasons and this is his first race to Bermuda. He and his crew moved up to the J/44 after campaigning in another class.

"It has been a joy," Dinhofer says. "If you set up the boat right, you are fast. In three seasons and in every race but one, we have finished in the money. I bought this boat with Bermuda specifically in mind. With this boat, I can do excellent round-the-buoys racing, and I can take it offshore. The fact that this is the only
one-design class going to Bermuda is a nice bonus."

J/Boat ownership has been a natural progression for Norman Schulman, of New York, NY, skipper of Charlie V. "I had a J/24, a J/30, a J/35," he recalls. "A J/44 was a natural evolution. I always had a fantasy that I would one day own one. When I saw that that the class had a nice, controlled sailing program that was
amateur run, with boats using identical sails, it became a very attractive and affordable program."

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