Over the past few months, the crew have been sailing Crossfire and getting her fitted out to become a "stripped down, racing machine" capable of completing a demanding offshore race.
Over the past few months, the crew have been sailing Crossfire and getting her fitted out to become a "stripped down, racing machine" capable of completing a demanding offshore race.

Crossfire will be making her debut ocean race in this year’s Newport Bermuda.

Owner and skipper Brian Hillier and his team have spent the last 14 months fitting out the carbon-fibre hull for this first, and iconic, ocean race for the boat.

Along with getting her race-ready with a rebuilt rudder and new navigational gear, the boat also needs to meet certain specifications for the Newport Bermuda race committee, which includes safety gear.

As the underdog in the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse Division, the J125, which is 41 feet in length, will be up against some stiff competition in this racing division where the big boats tend to be manned by a professional sailing crew.

“We’re at the bottom of the Gibbs Hill division from a rating standpoint and not as fast as the other boats in our division, so it will be a real uphill battle. But it gives us an opportunity to really sail the boat against strong competition, so that’s really exciting,” explains Butch Agnew, Crossfire’s navigator, who has had offshore experience, but this will be his inaugural Newport Bermuda race.

But while the Crossfire crew are considered amateur there is little doubt that there will be plenty of maritime knowledge on the boat.

Hillier, who also owns Mills Creek Marine, is a familiar face on the local sailing circuit, both in racing Crossfire in BOCA (Bermuda Offshore Cruising Association) races year-round, as well as fitted dinghy racing out of St George’s Dinghy Club. He has also sailed the Newport Bermuda race seven times.

Also on board will be Will Thompson, Jeremy Brasier and Ken Lamb, and rounding out the rest of the crew are former Olympic sailors Glenn Astwood and Eddie Bardgett, all of whom have done the Newport Bermuda, and other ocean races, on several occasions.

“Even though we are essentially considered an amateur crew, it’s all a really solid group of sailors. Really the best of Bermuda in the sailing community and as individuals,” explains Agnew.

While this will be the first crossing for the boat, it will also be the first time the team has come together for an ocean crossing.

Minimally fitted

However, over the past six months they have been sailing Crossfire and getting her fitted out to become a “stripped down, racing machine” capable of completing a demanding offshore race. The boat will be as minimally fitted as possible in order to keep the weight down and maximize the boat’s performance.

“The goal is for us to keep it fast and push the boat to get the most out of it. We will be pushing it to the edge the whole time.”

The team must also plan for emergencies such as man overboard, losing any rigging or having to abandon ship, as well as stocking the boat with food and enough water to meet safety requirements.

“It is a lot of fun but it can be dangerous,” says Agnew. “We have prepared for the worst-case scenarios and we have made sure that everyone is familiar with what we need to do if something does go wrong. We need to work together as one unit to be very competitive but also to be very safe.”

Over the past few weeks, the team has been getting comfortable with the weather patterns and the variability of the Gulf Stream.

The team will be pulling on all of their maritime understanding to put together the best sail plan.

The boat has been fitted with the most robust navigational gear, explains Agnew, as well as optimization software that will help them to better understand the weather while they are out on the water.

“Ocean racing has changed in that the technology has become a larger part of the racing. We have a lot more tools at our disposal to help us figure out the quickest route based on the weather and the boat’s design. It can help us anticipate what is going to happen, and to get the best performance from the boat as possible.

“The weather will dictate the way we configure the boat, what sails we will use, so we are always trying to stay that one step ahead of the conditions.

“But there will always be a lot of info flow with the crew. We will be making a judgment call, taking into account the conditions, but also what the experience has been before. These are guys with a rich mariner history that we need to take into account, which no computer model can replace.”

For most sailors the Newport Bermuda race is one to tick off the bucket list, says Agnew.

“It’s a huge rush, sailing something that is so steeped in tradition and a part of Bermudian nautical history,” he says.