Bernida: A Win for the Ages

Historic Mackinac Race winner restored, now part of maritime museum and open for sailing.
Bernida Boat
Bernida Boat // Photography courtesy of Michigan Maritime Museum

In 1925,  the Bayview Yacht Club in Detroit held the inaugural Port Huron-to-Mackinac sailboat race. A 32-foot R-Class wooden sloop named Bernida sailed to victory over 12 boats with a crew skippered by owner Russ Pouliot, a Detroit businessman and sailboat racing veteran. Two years later, Bernida won the epic race up the coast of Lake Huron again and gained notoriety with multiple sailing victories on the East Coast. She was designed by MIT Naval Architecture Professor George Owen and built in 1921 by the George S. Lawley and Sons Shipbuilding Company in Neponset, Massachusetts.

But 85 years would pass before Bernida again would approach the start line off the shores of Port Huron for the race to Mackinac. Her decades-long journey nearly led to the scrap pile before resurrection and a third Port Huron-to-Mackinac victory in 2012 and a new home at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.

It was a dream fulfilled for classic boat restorer Emory Barnwell, of Mackinac Island, and Bernida’s new owner, Al Declercq, who runs a Detroit-area sail making company and has won 27 Mackinac races. Bernida’s journey of renewal and triumph began in 2005, after she was discovered rotting and neglected in an old warehouse in Arcadia. The much-decorated craft would not float, let alone withstand the rigors of a 200-mile race to Mackinac Island.

Bernida Compass
Photography courtesy of Al Declercq

Barnwell led the restoration over several years with the assistance of many volunteers and funding from the Mackinac Boating Heritage Foundation. “When Emory began the restoration, the deck was entirely gone, and nearly a third of the hull planks were missing or rotted,” Declercq said.

Bernida was ready to sail again in 2010. Declercq then spent two years tuning the boat to be race-ready. He enlisted two lifelong sailing friends and their three teenage sons to crew the 2012 entry. Forty-seven hours after the starting gun, Bernida crossed the finish line to victory, taking first-place honors within her class and the overall shore course championship. It was her third Mackinac win and eight decades since her last.

Declercq donated Bernida to the Michigan Maritime Museum, where she goes on display this summer and is available for educational day sails with Captain Jim Spurr, a Kalamazoo-area businessman and sailing enthusiast who leads Bernida’s ongoing restoration and programming. Museum Executive Director Patti Montgomery Reinert called Bernida “the next great addition to the museum’s many ‘hands-on’ educational opportunities for people of all ages.”

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