Four ‘crazy’ sailors go on rescue mission

  • Rescue team on deck: Andy Williams, left, Rod Johnstone, Clay Burkhalter and owner Jean de Fontenay help to get Baraka back to the US after being stranded in Bermuda

    Rescue team on deck: Andy Williams, left, Rod Johnstone, Clay Burkhalter and owner Jean de Fontenay help to get Baraka back to the US after being stranded in Bermuda

  • Sailing mission: the J/99 alongside the larger Baraka in St George's Harbour (Photograph supplied)

    Sailing mission: the J/99 alongside the larger Baraka in St George's Harbour (Photograph supplied)


Four sailors launched an unusual rescue mission from the US to retrieve a sailboat stranded in Bermuda.

They did so in a 33ft boat, a choice that made some people declare they were “crazy” to attempt such a trip.

However, this was no ordinary quartet of sailors, for among them was boat designer Rod Johnstone, an iconic figure in the sailing world. The other three also had extensive sailing credentials.

Their goal was to reunite Jean de Fontenay with his 67ft sailboat Baraka. It was moored in St George’s Harbour for the winter, but Mr de Fontenay had been in the US when travel restrictions were put in place because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and he had not been able to return to collect it before the start of the hurricane season on June 1.

With no commercial flights to the island, he searched for another way to reach Bermuda and retrieve Baraka.

One of his friends, Clay Burkhalter, said: “I know Jean well. He called and asked if I knew anyone who could sail him to Bermuda. I asked around but could not find anyone.

“Finally it dawned on me, my uncle, who is a designer of J-Boats — a whole series of sailboats produced over 45 years — had a new design J-99 that he had just taken delivery of. We’d planned to do the Newport Bermuda Race in it, but the race was cancelled.”

He called his uncle, Mr Johnstone, and asked if he wanted to do the trip to Bermuda anyway, taking Mr de Fontenay and another friend to collect Baraka.

“I said we can’t go on land, we can tie up and rest and then turn around and leave. He said yes, let’s do it,” Mr Burkhalter said.

Before embarking on the trip they checked with the authorities in the US and Bermuda to make sure they could do the trip without being required to go into quarantine. They took Covid-19 tests before leaving the US, and were all negative.

It took them 4½ days to sail from Connecticut to Bermuda.

Arriving in St George’s Harbour, they tied up against Baraka and cleared Customs. They had to remain on the two boats at all times.

Food supplies were placed in Baraka’s dinghy, which was on land. It was towed out to the boats by Steve Hollis, of Ocean Sails, in St George’s.

He said: “Jean’s been a customer of ours for a long time.”

After a day and night of rest, the crew, whose ages range from 62 to 83, split with Mr de Fontenay and Alan Williams on Baraka for the return trip, and Mr Burkhalter and his uncle on the J-99.

Mr Burkhalter said: “This rescue mission for Jean’s 67-footer was pretty unusual.

“Most people at home thought we were crazy. What! You are doing that in a 33-footer? But when we got going we had a tracking link so friends and family could see where we were. Once we got going everyone was enthusiastic.”

Mr Hollis said: “You’re rescuing your boat, you can’t fly there, so you have to sail there to get it — what a great adventure to do that.”

He added that many people bring their boats to Bermuda in the winter and stay for a few months, putting money into the local economy while here. He believes it is something that Bermuda could expand on.

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Published Jun 17, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jun 17, 2020 at 10:08 am)

Four ‘crazy’ sailors go on rescue mission

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