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Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

Smashing records, making history and proving a point in Boating's Bermuda Challenge.

December 8, 2012
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Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

Fabio Buzzi and crew power toward a new Bermuda Challenge record.

Forget about the pink sand, turquoise water and tax-free banking; what first attracted me to Bermuda was that it’s in the middle of nowhere — literally.

It’s a tiny speck of an archipelago — four miles wide by 16 miles long — sitting alone in the Atlantic Ocean almost a third of the way to Europe, 780 miles from New York on the other side of the rough and unpredictable Gulf Stream. Bermuda’s islands are so low that you could miss them on a hazy day, and a ring of nasty coral reefs protects them. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s description of Bermuda, you cannot arrive at paradise but by way of purgatory. It was perfect.

Back in 1994 I was looking for a remote destination, a far-off goal to make a point. I wanted to show that modern powerboats were so well made, so inherently seaworthy, that with proper seamanship almost anyone is capable of doing what once seemed impossible — to reach that far-off island. The result was the Bermuda Challenge.

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To make it fair I set up two classes, one for sterndrives and one for outboards. I figured I’d give the little kickers a chance since I assumed that the sterndrive go-fast crowd would be all over this. But none of them, some with legendary names, had the cajones to even try.

To my surprise it was the outboards that got there first, and kept coming. Then, after 18 years, an average-guy boater did what the “kings of offshore” were afraid to do. This past summer a diesel-powered Statement Marine 37 SUV became the first sterndrive to reach Bermuda, beating the outboards in both speed and efficiency. Then, to pound the message in even further, eight weeks later another diesel boat trashed the record again — this one with surface drives.

Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

Are the days of offshore outboard dominance over? Are we entering the age of the high-speed diesel? Based on these world-beating boats, it sure looks that way.

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Lion Country The ocean-racing crowd ain’t what it used to be. Back when offshore racing started — in the days of Don Aronow, Dick Bertram and Jim Wynne — it meant going out no matter what and not being afraid to lose sight of land.

In 1972 one of the last of this breed, Robert A. Nordskog, took part in the only running of Michael Hennessy’s Bermuda Race. None of the boats that started from Long Island made it, but Nordskog came the closest. With only 28 miles to go, his boat sank. If nothing else, he showed that it might be possible. So now, with today’s boats, you’d think there’d be no reason not to give it a go. Yet no one tried. That is, until 1996 when it came from an unlikely branch of boating’s evolutionary tree — a catamaran. And not a racing cat either.

The first of this new breed was a 26-foot Glacier Bay powered by two diminutive 90 hp Hondas. Taking 37 hours, it wasn’t fast but it proved that the Challenge was possible. Soon, more outboard cats followed, with the last, a Renaissance Marine Prowler 302, bringing the time down to 22 hours 23 minutes.

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So it was that these boats ruled the seas between New York and Bermuda. At least until I got a call from this modest-sounding fellow, Chris Fertig, who told me he was mounting an attempt, this time in a monohull with diesels. After so many years it was finally going to happen. But it wasn’t going to be easy.

Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

Chris Fertig and Fabio Buzzi each set impressive Bermuda Challenge records.

Average Joes Fertig is in his early 30s. He grew up boating on the Ohio River, went to the Coast Guard Academy and, when he graduated, gave up his 27-foot Mako to pilot an orange Zodiac 733 to go after the bad guys. Now he has a desk job as a designer with the shipping giant Maersk, but he missed being out there. “I needed an adventure,” Fertig said, “so going to Bermuda sounded like a good idea.”

It took him more than two years of gathering gear, constant sea trials and lots of begging for sponsors. When I first met him at a marina near the starting point, back in September 2011, his boat looked like something out of NASCAR with logos everywhere. “You either pay for it yourself, which I couldn’t do,” Fertig told me, “or you get help.” Under the decals was a Statement Marine 37 SUV, whose most outstanding feature was the deck’s air-suspension system (see “Gee Forces“). Power was from twin 350 hp Mercury Diesel TDI 4.2-liter diesels. Besides the usual electronics, Fertig had FLIR night vision and Faria’s WatchDog satellite-based vessel monitoring system. There were spares for everything, even extra electronic control modules for the engines.

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Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

Fertig’s Statement Marine 37 SUV is powered by twin 350 hp Mercury Diesel TDI 4.2-liter diesels.

Fertig’s most important accessory, however, was his link to one of the world’s best weather-routing services at Maersk. For these commercial shippers, weather means big money, so they take it seriously. But even they can get it wrong.

When Fertig left on his first attempt at 9:35 a.m. Sept. 20, 2011, the predictions were for calm seas, and for the first seven hours he flew at 40 mph in two- to three-foot waves. But a warm front, which was supposed to stay put, began moving east. At the 300-mile point, a squall that was predicted to have four-foot seas exploded into a full gale. Those watching the SPOT tracking map at boatingmag.com saw the boat slow to a crawl. By night the winds were at a steady 35 mph with stronger gusts and waves breaking higher than the T-top. “At 9 p.m., almost halfway there, we had to make a decision,” Fertig said, “continue through deteriorating conditions or head back. We chose safety over pride to have a chance at breaking the record another day.”

Over but Not Done On the following Aug. 4, after another winter of sea trials and more work on the boat, Fertig took off once again, looking small and vulnerable against the New York skyline. He headed upriver for a half-mile, turned back and slowly started getting the fuel-heavy (almost 5,000 extra pounds) boat on plane so as not to stress the engines. At 9:30 a.m. he passed the start line and within 20 minutes was gone.

The weather wasn’t ideal, but at least it wasn’t a game changer. Naturally, the Gulf Stream took its toll and slowed him down, but the run almost ended way before that.

Just off Sandy Hook an engine-hatch ram came loose and shorted out a starter cable, igniting an electrical fire that destroyed batteries, melted wires and trashed a selector switch. “I could still see New York, we’re dead in the water, and I’m sitting on 680 gallons of fuel,” a crushed Fertig said. “Luckily, Tyson [Garvin, Fertig’s lone crew mate] can fix anything. It took him 40 minutes of inhaling smoke and burning fingers, but he MacGyvered us back into the race.”

After 21 hours and 39 minutes, Fertig and Garvin crossed the line in Bermuda. They had the first sterndrive to reach the island and had beaten the outboard record by 44 minutes. “I’ve committed three years of my life to this,” said an exhausted and emotional Fertig. “But I did it! I finally did it!” No one ever deserved it more.

To do this, his diesels burned just 35 gallons more than the last outboard-record run. And that’s for an extra 250 horses, pushing a much larger boat at a higher speed.

Enter the Pros While the “offshore” classes here in the United States make ovals off the beach, in Europe they still chase endurance records, such as the 1,313-mile race between Monte Carlo, Monaco, and Venice, Italy. One of their big names in racing is Italian designer Fabio Buzzi, who held the record for that passage in a boat powered by twin 1,300 hp diesels. Then, in 2011, another boat of his design, and about the same size, beat the record using only twin 650 hp diesels — this time with newer technology, consuming almost half the fuel. Which is why Buzzi believes in diesels, and why a short sprint to Bermuda seemed like a good idea. Note that these European races are almost entirely coastwise, whereas the run from New York to Bermuda is all open sea.

Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

Buzzi’s crew finished their Bermuda Challenge record run in 17 hours and 6 minutes.

Buzzi decided to try it using one of his company’s 39-foot-9-inch military boats. The single-step hull is all-composite with injected structural foam. It’s tough and rigid and can’t sink. It’s no lightweight — and has a galley, head and air conditioning — so it needs the push of twin 650 hp Fiat 9.0-liter diesels through ZF Trimax surface drives with ZF two-speed gears. Fully loaded and with a crew of five, maximum speed is 52 mph — an estimated 61 mph when light.

Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

Buzzi’s Bermuda Challenge vessel is powered by twin 650 hp Fiat 9.0-liter diesels.

Just before Fertig took off in August 2012, Buzzi’s boat arrived at the same marina and sat under covers waiting for calm weather. On Sept. 25, with only a slight hope for decent conditions, Buzzi and his crew flew in from Italy. On Sept. 27 his three weather services (yes, three!) agreed on a brief window of moderately good weather. “All are giving a yellow light, not green,” Buzzi told me. It was going to be go at 4 p.m. or go home. So at 3:30 p.m. Buzzi started Col Moschin’s (named for the Italian special forces) engines and gathered everyone on board. “I might be back in a few hours,” he said to me. “We’ll have dinner.” The next I heard from him, he was looking for a place to have lunch in Bermuda.

Conquering the Bermuda Challenge

A Tale of Two Races
Fertig(blue numbers) went first. Then Buzzi(green numbers) beat him. But that doesn’t diminish Fertig’s accomplishment aboard his Statement center-console: the first challenger to set the mark using diesel engines and sterndrives. That said, Buzzi’s mark looks hard to beat. Take a look at how each contestant made the 780-mile run to set a new world record, one after the other. 1. Departs New York City 0930 hours EDT, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012
2. Fertig and Garvin fight a fire and suppress it.
3. Fertig bucks steep, five-foot head seas.
4. Fertig pours it on, throttling to 35 knots.
5. Fans on Facebook cheer Fertig as new record appears to be in reach.
6. Arrives in Bermuda in 21 hours, 39 minutes
7. Departs New York City 1356 hours EDT, Friday, Sept. 28, 2012
8. Buzzi’s team outruns a weather front.
9. Buzzi averages 40 knots in six- to eight-foot seas.
10. Barring a breakdown, Buzzi’s on track to an even faster record.
11. Arrives in Bermuda in 17 hours, six minutes

I timed him out in New York at 3:56 p.m., and he crossed the line 17 hours and 6 minutes later, shattering Fertig’s record by four hours, 29 minutes. He averaged a blistering 46 mph. As predicted, the weather wasn’t ideal. On the dock, after it was all over, he summed it up: “We were expecting waves from one to four feet but began to suspect the forecast was in meters!” He added, “I think you have found the most expensive and complicated way to reach this beautiful island.”

Hey, if it were easy, it wouldn’t be a Challenge.

Who’s Next? The Bermuda Challenge is no longer just about reaching the island. We’ve proved that our boats are up to that. Now it’s a race. The next team to try in either class will have to keep its throttles seriously pinned. And that’s when bad things start happening to good boaters. So, before contacting us about giving it a try, think seriously about what you’ll be getting into.

Those who do win the Challenge over the coming years will further prove my point: Today’s boats are remarkable achievements of design and construction and, with good seamanship, can do impressive things. Even if you don’t head off for Bermuda, try pushing the limits. Go farther and explore more. There are no stop signs on the water.

Gee Forces Ask anyone who runs offshore: Your spleen and kidneys are going to trade places, and your spine will become a Slinky long before your boat comes apart. And when getting battered, you can’t think straight.

Fertig fitted his Statement 37 SUV with a shock-mitigation system. The deck floats on air bags and shock absorbers that adjust to accommodate conditions. He reported not even feeling vibrations from the twin Mercury diesels.

The chart shows his boat at 40 mph in four-foot seas with an average G-force reduction of 55 percent.

Buzzi’s boat subdued the G’s with shock-absorbing Techno G12 seats with four-point harnesses. He could choose any position from seated to standing. Some crew even got some shut-eye in these.

Up for a Challenge? The purpose of the Bermuda Challenge is to encourage the improvement of offshore boats and to inspire a higher level of seamanship, setting an example of what well-prepared boats and crews can do.

The Rules The Challenge is open to production boats of 40 feet and under, with two classes: outboards and inboards (including sterndrives, surface drives, pods, etc.)

The run is from the Hudson River, just off the entrance to Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey at buoy C1, to Bermuda off Gates Fort on the Town Cut Channel to St. George. Boating is the only official timer. Besides this, there are no other rules.

The Trophy One for each class, being re­issued as the record is broken in each class.

From Our Lawyers “The Bermuda Challenge is a promotional event for which Boating provides only timing and judging. All logistics for a Bermuda Challenge attempt, including timing, publicity, liability coverage, safety and crew support are the sole responsibility of the entrant. Bermuda Challenge attempts are conducted at the entrant’s own risk. Boating recommends that all entrants file a float plan with the appropriate authorities in the U.S. and Bermuda.”

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