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A long distance well travelled

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Canute "Tutor" Lambert won the inaugural Long Distance Comet Race in 1944 on board Sea Hawk

On June 17, the West End Sailboat Club celebrates 80 years of competitive sailing. The prestigious Edward “Jack” Cross Memorial Cup is the cherished prize. This club has survived to continue a tradition of sailing performed by generations of Black Bermudian sailors.

Kenneth E. Robinson wrote in his book, Heritage, that “between 1834 and 1859, the vast majority of Bermuda’s pilots were men of colour who tutored their own successors through long periods of apprenticeship and practised them in the art of manoeuvring vessels through the intricate and dangerous channels. They nurtured the Black Bermudians’ piloting and boating heritage, and maintained their leadership in the service. Their skills and prowess remained unimpaired by the advent of the steamer”.

In 1844, the Bermuda Native Yacht club was founded by Black Bermudians and often competed against the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, which was formed in that same year. It is known that Esau Simmons, born in 1807 during slavery, was one of its founding members. He is described as a free man who lived in Salt Kettle Ferry House, owned several boats, operated the Salt Kettle Ferry in 1855 and sailed in several regattas. It is out of this sailing environment that the West End Sailboat Club was born.

In the 1930s, it was common to have Sunday dinghy racing either in the waters off the West Side and Ely’s Harbour in Somerset or in the Great Sound, depending on wind conditions. Most dinghies were kept in Scaur, described at that time as “Big Bay”. Gladwin Lambert recalled that when the boats were kept in this area, they would open Somerset Bridge so that they could race in the Great Sound. This was later changed to the West Side.

By the 1940s, comet sailboats were introduced and comet racing became popular among the younger dinghy sailors and crew. Many enjoyed both sailing and boat building. They particularly enjoyed “runt punts”, which were eight-foot punts with blunt bows and matching sterns.

A comet is a single-handed, one-design dinghy with three separate riggings that can be raced competitively alongside each other.

An optimist is a single-handed sailing dinghy intended for use by young people up to the age of 15.

In about 1937, one of the first comets was owned by Elliott “Nick” Swan; however, it was not until about 1940 that the original boats were built at the Tin Top carpenter shop opposite Allen Temple AME Church in Somerset. Craftsmen Alfie Cann, Edward “Jack” Cross, Sinclair Lambert, brothers Canute and Leon Lambert, Ansby Perinchief, Arnold “Midnight” Knights, Maxwell Robinson and Lumley Burt built their own boats.

The first comet design appeared in the American Yachting Magazine of 1932. These men read about comets and ordered plans. The first boats they built tended to be heavy, as they used six-foot planks of white pine and caulked the joints. They had cedar sterns and bows that were varnished, adding a certain decorative finish. The sails were made by Helena Philpott-Simons from flour bags or bedsheets.

Gladwin Lambert has been involved in the club for more than 65 years. At 75, he is the oldest skipper still racing. He began crewing boats from the age of 11, but when he was 17 he sailed his first long-distance race. His boat had a white pine frame, and plywood sides and bottom. The sides were painted grey and the deck was varnished. The bottom was painted white and the waterline black. It had a galvanised drop keel, a rudder for steering, as well as a jib and main sail. Mr Lambert believes that sailing helps to build character, and that a good sailor must have patience. He recalled completing a race in six hours on a day with little to no wind,

These Sunday races attracted many spectators and, eventually, in 1941 the sailors decided to form the West End Sailboat Club.

The first meeting was held under the shade of a grove of Pride of India trees bordering the shoreline at West Side near Bascome’s Farm in Daniel’s Head. These founding members — Albert “Nervy” Simons, Alfie Cann, Edward Cross, Bernard Manders Sr and Osrola Philpott — formed the West End Sailboat Club. Mr Philpott was elected as the first commodore and meetings were held at his carpentry shop opposite the methodist church on Long Bay Lane. The treasurer was Eugene “Potsie” Philpott and the secretary was Mr Manders. So many young men became involved in sailing that they moved to the more spacious Victoria and Albert Odd Fellows Lodge, and later to the Somerset Cricket Club. Many times they met at the home of cedar craftsman John Davis, who was the commodore from 1957 to 1959 and later from 1966 to 1973.

In the formative years, young men particularly in the Scaur Hill area became so interested that comets were built every two months. Skippers had no difficulty in selecting suitable crew until the 1950s, when motorbikes became popular. Interest in sailing then began to wane.

In 1944, these founding members decided to hold a comet race from Somerset to St George’s.

Roderick Pearman was an eight-year-old boy on that spring day in May 1944, when the inaugural race took place. From the veranda of his home in Somerset, he watched as the race commenced. He recalled that it was a terrible day: the skies were grey and there was heavy rainfall. The wind was ferocious and there were high waves with lots of white caps. Nevertheless, the historic race began. Documented reports remain sketchy, but it is known that 12 comets set out from Somerset Bridge, but only four arrived in St George’s. It is also known that the tender Wilhelmina had been chartered for spectators to enjoy the occasion.

Comets were outfitted with wire for stays, metal fittings and hardware such as turnbuckles, shackles and fans or centreboards made in Dockyard by Earl “Spike” Hayward. Sails were made by Gwendolyn Cann and Elmo Wingood, who had also perfected his craft as a sailmaker at Dockyard.

The race of 1945 presented another challenge: 11 boats were at the start line on Sunday, May 20, but only five completed the race. Of those remaining, some were sunk and towed to shelter in Bailey’s Bay. One ran aground, was towed ashore and later beached.

The club had chartered the Coralita for spectators to view the race, but also to rescue any boats requiring assistance. The first boat across the finish line off St George’s at 12.43pm was the Sea Hawk with Canute “Tutor” Lambert at the helm and his cousins, Maxwell and Kenneth Philpott, as crew. He had left Somerset Bridge at 11.30am, making this a remarkable run considering the weather conditions.

At 12.53pm, Salt Spray sailed in with Ainsley Perinchief at the tiller. He was followed at 1.10pm by Blue Heaven, skippered by Allen Butterfield. At 2.05pm, Mystery with Henry Ball at the helm followed. The fifth and final finisher was Eric Outerbridge, in charge of Sea Gull. He arrived at 2.50pm.

The Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily of May 21, 1945 commended the performance of the Sea Gull because during the race the mast broke and repairs had to be made. Evidently, the sailing of the boat was so good that she was able to complete the race. The report went on to add that there had been a nasty northwesterly wind which sent heavy seas before it. This made the race one of seamanship and endurance rather than racing skill. The boats had to be constantly bailed throughout the race. The report went on to add that less hardy seamen would have called off the contest, but Bermudian skippers take the bad weather with the good as a matter of course, and showed their sailing ability under extremely adverse conditions.

The racing committee at the finish line on board The Playmate were Charles “Warbaby” Fox, Redvers Caisey and H. Zimmerman.

It was for this race in 1945 that Edward Cross donated the cedar trophy he had skilfully made. Mr Cross was a cedar craftsman who learnt his trade as a Dockyard apprentice. Although he was skilled in many areas of carpentry, he preferred making souvenirs. Lady Martonmere, wife of Lord Martonmere, Governor of Bermuda from 1964 to 1972, made pictures from shells as a hobby and enlisted Mr Cross to provide the cedar frames. He also made the cedar flower stands for St James Church in Somerset and was awarded the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour in 1999.

In 1971, the club finally found a permanent home. A derelict building called “Tipnor Cottage” on Watford Island was leased from the West End Development Corporation.

The first mention of Tipnor appears in 1904. It had served many purposes, including as a laboratory until it was converted to a residence and named “Tipnor Cottage” in 1938 — presumably after the Tipner area near the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in England.

Over time, there were numerous fundraisers and weekend work rallies involving wives and children. The building was rebuilt and today enjoys one of the most picturesque settings in Bermuda. Added to this, its restaurant, managed for many years by Gloria Smith, serves Bermuda’s best fish sandwiches.

Towards the end of the 1960s, comet sailors from America were sailing in the Great Sound when they saw a fleet of West End Sailboat Club comets. They were curious and made inquiries. As a result, they contacted the WESC, thus beginning a fortuitous relationship that resulted in their affiliation with the Comet Class Yacht Racing Association. In 1972, Albert “Nervy” Symonds, of WESC, and Colin Clarke, of the East End Mini Yacht Club, were made honorary members.

Women have always formed an integral part of the club. Many will remember Ismay Lambert Bean, Marguerite Manders, Helene Lambert and Eleanor Simmons. Audrey Todd, sailing with Alton Millett in Kitty Hawk, was the first woman to take part in the long-distance race. Her father, Jack Burrows, was responsible for officiating the races in his boat, Grasspree.

The family tradition of sailing has passed on from her father to her son, the retired senior tugboat captain Kenneth Todd.

In 1976, Stevie Dickinson won the first of his 22 victories. He was followed by Alton Millett with ten wins. Mr Millett also won the race four consecutive times from 1960 to 1963. Rudy Bailey was victorious on 11 occasions. In 1986, he won his first race in a time of 4hr 13min. It was the longest time anyone had taken to complete the race, but this was entirely because of the weather conditions.

The race of 2011 has been described as a disaster. When the 14 comets left Somerset Bridge, the winds were blowing at 20-25kts, but as the race progressed it increased to 35kts. The comets sailed along North Shore straight down to Ferry Reach. Some sank, some broke masts, some broke rudders, and one ended up in Spanish Point. Rockal Evans, grandson of legendary Bermudian sailor Howard Lee, won with 11-year-old Benn Smith as crew. They were the only competitors to complete the race — an amazing feat, especially since their boat capsized at least six times before reaching St George’s.

Rockal’s grandfather, Howard Lee, began sailing comets out of the West End Sailboat Club at the age of 13 as crew for Gates Smith and Sparky Lightbourne. He was the fourth skipper to win back-to-back titles in his boat, High Yella. He became the first Black Bermudian to represent the island in sailing when he participated in the Montreal Olympic Games of 1976. After his death in 2012, Rockal donated his grandfather’s Olympic dinghy to the National Museum of Bermuda.

In 1986, shortly after he retired from the Bermuda Police Service, Hilton Wingood was asked to assume the role of treasurer. It was a financially difficult time for the club and he recalled the many challenges, including a decline in membership. Under his financial leadership, the club once again became a viable organisation. Howard Simmons is remembered for serving for more than 25 years as commodore and Gladwin Lambert as vice-commodore for nine. These men and many others worked to improve the management of the club and its relationships with other sailing organisations.

In the early years of the race to St George’s, many WESC sailors slept on their boats tied opposite the White Horse Pub & Restaurant. Some sailed back the next day while others were towed back by Grasspree, captained by Jack Burrows. Bill Anderson remembered the year Charles “Warbaby” Fox invited them for dinner at The Blue Marlin Restaurant in St David’s. He collected everyone in his 20-foot boat and they assumed he was hosting the occasion until the club received a rather hefty bill that no one could afford to pay!

Today the West End Sailboat Club, under the leadership of commodore Wornell Steede and vice-commodore Rajae Woods, continues to attract young people to become involved in sailing.

The vision of the club founders has grown from strength to strength, and Edward “Jack” Cross would be proud to know that the cup he crafted continues to be awarded to another generation of sailors.

In closing, I wish to thank Norbert Simmons and Maxine Esdaille, of the West End Sailboat Club, for selecting me to write this part of their history.

Cecille Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of The Bermuda Cookbook

Cecille Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, historian, writer and author of The Bermuda Cookbook. Thanks to Madree Musson, Roderick Pearman, Bill Anderson, Gladwin Lambert, Alphonso Cross, Kenneth Todd, Harold Millett and Jane Downing for their invaluable assistance


Heritage (Kenneth E. Robinson, PhD, 1979)

Bermuda National Trust Architectural Series - Paget (2010)

National Museum of Bermuda re: Tipnor Cottage

The Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily (May 20, 1945)

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Published April 04, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated April 03, 2024 at 7:32 pm)

A long distance well travelled

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