Bert Darrell was regarded as one of Bermuda’s finest sailors and among the Island’s most accomplished boat builders and shipwrights.
A six-time winner of the King Edward VII Gold Cup match-racing championship as well as numerous titles across several classes of boats, he also represented Bermuda at the 1960 Olympic Games. Such was his reputation as a master craftsman that yachtsmen from all over the world sought his advice, including both the British and Australian America’s Cup teams during their campaigns in the 1970s.
Darrell was credited with keeping the International One Design (IOD) Class alive and was responsible for its post-war revival that produced world-class champions in Peter Bromby and Eugene “Penny” Simmons. He was a formidable competitor himself in his own IOD, Teaser.
Albert Darrell was the youngest of Alexander William McKay Darrell and Ella
Lightbourn’s nine children. His brothers were Alfred, Wilfred, Clifford, Reginald and Robert “Victor” Darrell, and his sisters were Edith, Elizabeth and Gladys.
His father, who passed on his own love of sailing to his sons, was an overseer at St. Brendan’s Hospital. Albert was born at Saltcoats, the family homestead overlooking the Darrell Brothers Boat Works on Harbour Road, Warwick, a business started by Bert’s brother Alfred and Henry C. Masters. Watercolours, the home of Bermuda artist Carole Holding, now stands on the site.
Young Bert followed in the family tradition, building his first punt when he was 15, and calling it I’ll Settle It, after his brothers had named an earlier boat Argument. He learned to sail by crewing in fitted dinghies, six-metre boats and brother Alfred’s famous racing yacht, Dainty.
In 1926, after serving an apprenticeship at the blacksmith’s shop Alfred had established on East Broadway, Bert joined his brother Reggie working at the boatyard where he remained for the next 50 years, earning a reputation as a skilled marine mechanic, metalworker and carpenter, as well as an expert sail rigger and performance tuner of boats.
Already a highly respected racing yachtsman, Darrell cemented his reputation as a master craftsman and helmsman with his rebuilding of the six-metre boat, Achilles. Badly damaged in Hamilton Harbour during the 1936 hurricane, Achilles had been written of as a wreck by insurers, but Darrell bought her for £65, replaced the damaged frames and planking and fitted her with a mast discarded by another six-metre.
Achilles was relaunched in 1939, just two days before the Prince of Wales team race against a strong US team. Despite having had little time to tune up, Darrell beat Eldon Trimingham (later Sir Eldon) to finish top Bermuda boat and earn the right to sail against Goose, skippered by America’s Cup skipper Cornelius Shields, in the King Edward VII Gold Cup, an annual match race between selected boats from Bermuda and Long Island Sound. Against the odds, Darrell and Achilles triumphed 2-1, giving him the first of his six Gold Cup titles.
With international sailing suspended during the war, Darrell had to wait until 1952 before winning his second Gold Cup, but he made up for lost time by winning three in a row from 1952 to 1954, adding fifth and sixth titles in 1956 (the first time it was sailed in IODs) and 1959. His record of six wins stood until 2004 when New Zealand America’s Cup skipper Russell Coutts secured a seventh triumph. [The event was reorganised as an international regatta in 1985.]
One of Darrell’s most famous sailing exploits occurred in 1950 when, as skipper of the Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club’s fitted dinghy HDC II, he pulled off a remarkable win in the Jubilee Cup against the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club’s Victory II, designed and helmed by Sir Eldon Trimingham, one of the Island’s leading sailors of that era.
A late change to the strict rules just days before the race meant that the dinghies could be measured from the outside of the keel instead of the inside. As a newly designed boat, Victory II was therefore lighter and faster than HDC II. Darrell declined Trimingham’s offer to postpone the race and with his crew Leslie Hooper, Tommy Vesey Jr., Frank “Buck” Rogers and Bleucher Fox, worked feverishly for two days to cut down HDC II to the correct measurements, completing their work barely an hour before the race. HDC II only hoisted sail for the first time on the way out to the racecourse, but despite giving away a 44-second handicap, she won by 90 seconds.
Darrell regarded it as his most satisfying victory after the 1939 Gold Cup triumph and Sir Eldon remarked: “She [HDC II] had no more right to win than I have to beat Joe Louis [the world heavyweight boxing champion].”
Darrell went on to build the Eldon Trimingham-designed fitted dinghy Contest II, and HDC II’s successor, Elizabeth. Both boats went on to win numerous cups and titles.
Darrell’s natural ability and fiercely competitive nature made him one of the Island’s finest all-round sailors, equally at home at the helm of his beloved IOD Teaser, a fitted dinghy, or Alfred’s legendary Dainty, in which he sailed his first Newport-Bermuda Race in 1932. Darrell twice rebuilt the 38-foot Dainty, designed by Henry C. Masters in the 1890s and built mostly of Bermuda cedar.
Alfred had bought her in 1920 and used her as a fishing boat before entering the 1923 race, in which she finished second. Bert Darrell sailed numerous Newport-Bermuda Races until 1966, including two on board the English yacht Latifa (1938 and 1946) and several post-war races on Enchanta.
In 1960, he represented Bermuda at the Olympic Games in Rome, although the sailing events were actually sailed in the Bay of Naples. Darrell, and crew Walter and Norman Jones, placed 12th in the 5.5-metre class, sailing Stanhope Joel’s Luder-designed Bermudes, which Darrell skippered to victory the following year in the Prince of Wales and Kenneth Trimingham International Cups.
Darrell was known as a perfectionist off the water and a demanding skipper on it. According to those who knew him, Darrell considered few pieces of equipment on a boat beyond criticism and improvement, and every manoeuvre by the crew could be improved upon with practice. He was frequently sought out for his views and advice on all aspects of sailing, which earned him the nicknames “Deacon” and “the Boat Bishop of Bermuda”.
According to the May 1955 issue of The Bermudian, the nicknames came about through the Sunday morning “bull sessions” he would conduct at his Warwick boatyard with sailing friends like Roddie Williams, Kenneth Trimingham, Leon Barnes and Jimmy Goldring. On her way to church one Sunday, Bert’s wife Joan passed many of his friends going in the opposite direction. “Going to church?” she joked, and the phrase “going to church at Bert’s” for his Sunday morning “sermon” stuck.
Darrell met Joan Mangold (June 30, 1907-May 12, 1997), from Vancouver, Canada, through his brothers Reggie and Robert. They had become close friends with Joan’s brother Aurel during the First World War while billeted together in England with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps. They later sailed together in Bermuda and Larchmont, New York, and Joan would later crew regularly with Bert.
A professional corps de ballet dancer who had been a child prodigy, Joan was of French-Welsh descent and her father had been a Yukon gold prospector. The family later moved to New York where she went to school with comedian Milton Berle and composer George Gershwin’s sister Frances.
Joan and Bert were married at St Malachy’s Churchknown as the Actors’ Chapelin Greenwich Village, New York, on September 16, 1935. They had three daughtersToni Moutray (born January 30, 1940), Jennifer Darrell (born February 22, 1944) and Deborah MacKenzie (born July 20, 1945). Toni, a secretary, and Jennifer, a teacher and town planner, both settled in Ontario, Canada, while Debbie, an interior designer, remained in Bermuda, living at Hove-To, the house built by her father in the 1930s just up the hill from Saltcoats on Keith Hall Lane.
Hove-To features numerous examples of Darrell’s superb carpentry. Much of itlike the curving stairwayis made from Bermuda cedar. The teak floor in the lounge was salvaged and hand-milled by Darrell from the deck of an old sailing ship in Falls River, Massachusetts.
During the Second World War, Darrell was responsible for security at the flying boat station on Darrell’s Island, which became a wartime base for flying boats of the Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and US Army Air Force.
Darrell was a member of both the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and the Royal Hamilton Amateur Dinghy Club (RHADC), and was made an honorary patron of the latter. He was made an honorary member of Sandys Rotary Club in 1976 in recognition of his “dignity in vocation” at a ceremonial dinner in his honour at The Princess Hotel.
Only former Premier Edward Richards had previously received the honour. The event was attended by the Premier Sir John Sharpe and the guest speaker was Owen Aisher, a former Admiral of the Royal Ocean Club and president of the Royal Sailing Association.
The high esteem in which Darrell was held in the wider sailing world was illustrated by a Christmas gift he received in 1954 from Ward Wheelock, a Philadelphia financier who had become a good friend after the Darrell brothers had repaired Wheelock’s boat following a storm off Bermuda in 1948.
Wheelock presented Darrell with a clock engraved with the signatures of some of the world’s most famous sailors and yacht designers, including Sherman Hoyt, Herbert L. Stone, and Olin and Rod Stephens. The plaque on the clock, which can still be seen at the RHADC, reads simply: “Bert Darrell: Good Sailor, Good Shipmate, Good Friend, Good Father, Good Citizen. Gentleman.”