“Sailing is a sport for men – real men,” wrote Thomas Fleming Day, the creator of the Newport Bermuda Race, in 1906 in his magazine, The Rudder. While he was immovable on gender, Day believed the sport of offshore sailing needed to welcome sailors of all income and ability, not just rich pros. A 635-nautucal-mile offshore jaunt, thought Day, would prove that.
Three boats entered the first iteration of the Newport Bermuda Race that year. The smallest, the 28-foot Gauntlet, was remarkable for its size and its crew. It included 20-year-old Thora Lund Robinson. While her boat didn’t win, both Robinson and the Newport Bermuda race would go down in history as being tough, unconventional, and ground-breaking.
The 2022 Newport Bermuda Race launched from Newport on June 17. And while Robinson wouldn’t get a second glance loading provisions onto her boat today, one crew of the 188 competing, Team Bitter End, sure would. Not only was the team the first all-female crew to participate in this iconic race, but it was also the youngest. Seven students from the Lincoln School in Providence – Milla Clarke, Sophia Comiskey, Callie Dawson, Gigi Fischer, Elizabeth Gardner, Phoebe Lee, Olivia Vincent – along with 20-year-old Portsmouth High School grad Sarah Wilme and four female coaches were ready to go. In about four days they were due at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.
Nearby on the lawn at Castle Hill, parents and families gathered in sight of the starting buoy in support of the young women; the air was frenetic. “We were petrified,” recalls Cara Lane, mom to Milla Clarke. “I mean, it’s a storied and iconic race. But to watch them be so bold and courageous, especially after COVID – it filled me with a lot of joy.”
Each of the women came to sailing in their own ways. Fischer was a baby when her family started sailing offshore. Clarke and Comiskey learned around the age of eight and both loved it. “It’s where I’m most confident and happiest,” Clarke says. Dawson, from the Edgewood section of Cranston, spent a few summers in sailing camp in Miami but hated it. “I always felt so out of control,” she remembers. When her father Chris bought a boat, Dawson started to spend more time on the water. But Dawson’s father was still surprised when she chose to join the sailing team at Lincoln. “I think she just didn’t want to play lacrosse,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t think she’d love it as much as she does now.”
Sailing coach Richard Feeny first met the team when they signed up for the Collegiate Offshore Sailing Program in Bristol. They were disappointed when a Martha’s Vineyard race they had entered was canceled. Over pizza, Feeny coyly suggested they start prepping for Newport Bermuda, ten months out. “I purposely planted the seed,” admits Feeny, thinking maybe in the next ten years some of them might consider it. “They absolutely latched onto it.”
Feeny worked with the team, as did other coaches, to get them ready. He encouraged trust and hard work. “They were amazing,” he says. “They didn’t understand the magnitude of it at first. But they put in the work and never waivered.”
And so Team Bitter End was quickly born. Cara Lane heard through an old friend that the world-renowned Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands wanted to sponsor the women. The team found their way to Oakcliff, a New York-based sailing program that furnished them with training and a 40-foot boat. They connected with coaching staff led by professional sailor and meteorologist Libby Greenhalgh, who competed in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race. “She is an absolute rockstar in the world of sailing,” says Dawson’s mom Maureen. “I felt better knowing she had them.”
While Greenhalgh’s expertise allayed some of the parents’ concerns, there were tense moments on the water. Their start time from Castle Hill was delayed due to weather conditions, and when the women finally set sail, cold rain dampened their spirit…momentarily. “On that first night I thought, ‘Ugh, I’m wet and cold and am going to be this way until Sunday,’” recalls Fischer. “But then as we got closer, I didn’t want it to end.”
Other concerns, including equipment problems and lots of near-capsizing, were short-lived as well. “There was one time when we breached for about the tenth time,” says Comiskey, noting that this time felt like the boat might actually capsize. “But then we spotted a rainbow and the feeling was gone.” All of the women talk about the enormous amount of trust they placed in each other. “It was everything,” says Clarke.
Four days later, Team Bitter End arrived at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club to learn they had finished an astonishing 27th out of 188 boats. In true Thomas Fleming Day fashion, many of the male competitors on the dock that day weren’t so welcoming to this young female team. But the women’s spirits weren’t dampened. They had done themselves, their coaches, and their families – as well as Thora Lund Robinson – incredibly proud.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here