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    Wednesday, February 21, 2024

    Local sailing crew savors every moment of journey to Bermuda

    Crew members of the MudRatz sailing program in Mystic posed for a group photo at St. David's Lighthouse in Bermuda last month after winning the Class 5 Division of the 51st Newport to Bermuda Race. (Photo courtesy of Julia Cronin)

    After spending nearly five grueling — yet exhilarating — days sailing aboard Dreamcatcher in the Atlantic Ocean last month, Niantic's O.J. O'Connell and other crew members relaxed at St. David's Lighthouse in Bermuda, and reflected on an amazing journey that began roughly 635 miles away in Newport, R.I.

    "The only thing we wanted was to cross the finish line and have everyone safe and happy," said O'Connell, who served as navigator of the crew. "Turns out we did that and a lot more ... we surpassed expectations."

    They sure did.

    Three hours after arriving in Bermuda to complete the 51st Newport to Bermuda Race, O'Connell and the rest of the crew learned they had finished first in the Class 5 Division, a group comprised primarily of sailors ages 14-23.

    "We couldn't believe we'd just won the race," said O'Connell, who like many aboard the 48-foot S&S Swan yacht are members of Mystic's MudRatz sailing program and were competing in the event for the first time. "The boat started to roar. They got so excited. You wouldn't even know they just sailed four days."

    The Newport to Bermuda race is the oldest regularly-scheduled ocean race. It was first run in 1906 and gives amateur sailors, according to its website, an opportunity "to become proficient in the art of navigation."

    What also makes the race unique is that it is run primarily without land sightings, meaning the only things in sight during the 4-5 day ocean journey are the sails of fellow competitors. The 2018 race also had the luxury of being contested in favorable weather from start to finish.

    In the months leading up to the race, which always begins on the third Friday each June (June 15 this year), two events helped prepare the MudRatz crew for its success in the Bermuda: acquiring the Dreamcatcher and getting an experienced captain on board.

    "There's a lot of coaching done for these kids in the months prior," O'Connell said. "It took a village to get these guys up to par. One of the biggest factors to our success was having Taylor Walker join our program."

    Walker was the captain for Dreamcatcher, and his experience helped ensure the relatively inexperienced MudRatz crew got up to speed for the voyage.

    "Walker had done three Bermuda races before," said Brandon Flack, founder of the MudRatz program five years ago. "He stepped in, and we went from not being sure where they'd be able to go, to providing everything they needed to win.

    Flack, who refers to himself as "Chief Executive Rat," said the acquisition of Dreamcatcher, which was donated to the program, allowed the crew to compete at the highest level.

    "We thrive off boat donations," he said. "That really changed the program."

    The donation was referred to on the MudRatz Facebook page as a "life changing (moment)," one that would allow those in the program the opportunity to compete in a major race.

    "MudRatz was designed to give young kids in the area the opportunity to race at a more competitive level," said Ann Wilkinson, the MudRatz Offshore Coordinator. "A lot of kids don't get the opportunity to sail on big boats these days because a lot of families don't have access to them."

    In addition to O'Connell, the ship's crew included of several other sailors from the region, including Annie Longo and Lindsay Gimple of Mystic, Fritz Finkenauer of Groton, Sarah Wilkinson of Noank and Peter Cronin of Ledyard.

    The MudRatz will continue to race throughout the summer, and are hopeful the win will give the program a boost. Said O'Connell: "I hope the victory can "get as many kids interested as possible in sailing and hopefully grow into a big program."

    Dreamcatcher, a 48-foot S&S Swan yacht sailed by the MudRatz sailing program of Mystic, sets sail in the Atlantic Ocean during the grueling 635-mile Newport to Bermuda Race last month. The team made up of predominately local sailors won the Class 5 Division. (Photo courtesy of Julia Cronin)

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