Prim-ing for Bermuda
The Sailing Family Neff: Sunny, Mitch and Peter
Ocean racing is a unique sport. It's boat against boat. But it's more than just boat speed: it's boat against time. It's boat against sea. It's man versus the elements. But it's also boat in concert with wind, waves and will. It's use man's tools and technology to utmost advantage. It's tactics and strategy. It can be either a sleigh ride or a drifter. It can be chilly and / or sweaty. It's crew coordinating with skipper; it's teamwork. It's about staying power and endurance. It's man challenging himself. And it's also about skill, luck, exhilaration, exhaustion, brawn and beauty. It's can be total love affair or interminable queasiness. For some it's a spectacle. For others it's part tradition, family affair or rite of passage. It's for some it's a social event waiting to happen. But for most, it's a passage to a paradise.
When I was 28, I received my first taste of what this ocean racing phenomenon was all about. I had the distinct pleasure of crewing aboard "Sunny" Neff's Prim, a 40-foot Owens cutter, on the 1978 Newport to Bermuda Races. And then in 1980, I would have a another completely different crew experience aboard Prim.
Since 1906 up to 250 boats have raced the 633 miles from Newport-Bermuda every other year. Here's a link from the official Newport-Bermuda website that explains Why We Race., The History of the Bermuda Race, 2014 Newport Bermuda Race Info:
Because I had grown up sailing on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I became acquainted with Chestertown's Gibbons-Neff family. I knew the Neffs mostly by reputation and recognition. So when I was invited to sail/race with them, I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. Even though I had virtually no experience with ocean racing my 1976 transatlantic experience on Newbold Smith's Reindeer had apparently opened some doors. If one doesn't count crewing as cook on 76' Safari for one race from Tampa to Miami in 1975, then my competitive ocean racing experience in 1978 had been next to nil. Yes, I had raced small boats competitively since I was 7 and had crewed numerous times on various cruising class boats on the Chesapeake Bay and in the Annapolis area, but I had been told ocean racing was a much different animal, and I clearly knew I was a relative neophyte for this type of experience.
I imagined any ocean racing experience would be extremely tense and grueling. I had heard that this race could take anywhere from 3-8 days of nonstop attention to boat speed, sail trim, tactics and weather with the ultimate goal to reach Bermuda faster than our competition. So, of course, what I imagined, what I was prepared for and what happened would be totally different.
I didn't know all of their backgrounds at the time, but it didn't take me very long to know I was in the presence of a sailing family with a long tradition of racing at sea. Their combined years of experience was incalculable.
"Sunny," Mr. Gibbons-Neff's passion was sailing. He competed in over 20 Bermuda races and three trans-Atlantic races, winning in his class aboard his 40-foot Owens cutter, Prim, in the 1972 race to Spain. He was a member of many sailing clubs, including the Cruising Club of America, Storm Trysail Club, Sailing Club of the Chesapeake, Little Egg Harbor Yacht Club, and the Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia. He also served on the Fales Committee of the U.S. Naval Academy, which advises the academy about its sailing program.
was a world class sailor and participated in multiple transatlantic voyages. He sailed in twenty Newport to Bermuda races, beginning when he was 15 years old. He was a member of the New York Yacht Club, the Noroton Yacht Club, the Cruising Club of America, and the Storm Trysail Club. Long active in the affairs of the Mystic Seaport Museum, Mitch was also an overseer of the SEA Education Association. Beloved by sailors around the world, Mitch was a legend.
Peter Gibbons-Neff had raced in the Newport-to-Bermuda Race 12 times, the Annapolis-to-Newport Race 10 times, and raced trans-Atlantic from Bermuda to Copenhagen. Additionally, he cruised waters stretching from the Caribbean, to the Chesapeake, to Newfoundland. He became a Commodore of The Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia and a Rear Commodore of the Cruising Club of America, Peter's love of sailing was infectious. He will eventually help many young people including the members of the Villanova University sailing team.
Youngest son, Hank Gibbons-Neff has also raced in Newport-to-Bermuda and the Annapolis-to-Newport Races numerous times. He grew up sailing/racing Penguins and other small boats on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
What impressed me even more than the Neff's sailing IQ, was the manner in which father and sons worked together with absolute understanding of the task at hand whether racing or not. While each was as comfortable and skilled at taking the helm, trimming the sheets or talking tactics, each was confident without being conflictual. Sunny set the tone as he would man the winch and trim the jibe or spinnaker as often as he would steer. I was awed by their coordination and camaraderie. There was no yelling or screaming, no petty bickering or machismo; there was simply knowing what had to be done, when it had to be done and just doing it. I wanted some of what they were as a team and a family. It was truly inspiring to witness and be apart of.
When I started this blog entry I did not know that the three oldest men of the family had passed away. I had initially planned to write mostly about my sailing experience on Prim. But when I discovered their passing, I decided to write this entry as a belated tribute to the Gibbons-Neff clan for their giving me so much by just being themselves and consummate sailors. More about this race at another time.
Morton Gibbons-Neff Jr., (Sunny), 94 (March 7, 1913 - December 17, 2007)
Mitchell Gibbons-Neff, 65 (May 4, 1941 - February 4, 2007)
Peter Gibbons-Neff, 67 (1946 - January 20, 2013)
Soon after the start, Sunny at the helm with son Hank on the sheet.
Bermuda Royal Yacht Club, Hamilton, Bermuda
Prim sandwiched between two other competitors away from the crowds.