“I was kind of tired when I got there, but it was enough. It wasn’t like I was at the end of my rope,” Hammitt said.
That he got there at all is actually a tale of plans altered and twisted — as so many are these days — by COVID-19.
In 2018, Hammitt’s wife, Susie Klein — an avid sailor and former racer herself — suggested that he enter their boat, a 36-year-old, 41-foot sloop named Reveille, in one of the oldest and most prestigious East Coast races, the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. She suggested he enter in the double-handed division and race with an old friend, John Paulling. Hammitt agreed, and with an eye on the 2020 starting line, the couple began making the safety and modernization upgrades to the Reveille that were required before embarking on a voyage almost entirely out of sight of land.
When the pandemic struck, the Newport Bermuda Race was an early casualty. Its cancellation sent a wave of disappointment through its 200 entrants, including Hammitt, who began looking for another opportunity. The Bermuda One-Two is much smaller — fewer than 30 boats entered — and it had the advantage of not only involving fewer participants, but also running a year later, in June 2021, during a vaccine-fueled spurt of pandemic optimism before the delta variant darkened the COVID outlook again.
Hammitt, co-director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, said the race was his first attempt at competing solo. He’d long admired feats of singlehanded sailors like fellow Harvard alum Richard Wilson, who had twice sailed a grueling, singlehanded circumnavigation called the Vendée Globe. But Hammitt said he was put off by the danger lone sailors face because of their inability to keep a lookout while asleep. In recent years, however, the development and widespread adoption of the Automatic Identification System, which automatically broadcasts a boat’s position and speed to surrounding vessels, lessened the risk and made him willing to take on the challenge.
Race day, June 4, dawned “pea soup” foggy off Newport. Hammitt, alone on the Reveille, found the starting line and stuck nearby, afraid he’d lose it in the fog. After the start, he headed south in winds that would remain relatively steady, between about 15 and 30 mph, for the next 400 miles. Hammitt said those early winds allowed him to sail fast without being overpowered, which would have forced him to tackle the cumbersome task of changing the large jib called the genoa to a smaller jib that would make the boat easier to control, but possibly at the expense of speed. When the wind picked up more than he was comfortable with, he was able to reduce sail by reefing the main.