“So, what did you do over the summer?”

Typical fodder for small talk. Most answers to this conversation starter involve tales of travel, summer internships, or periods of rest and relaxation. Not too many students return to campus for a new academic year with Virginia Tech graduate student Hugh Dougherty’s answer: He participated in one of Europe’s most famous and revered events in offshore yachting.

Dougherty, who is working toward a master’s degree in ocean engineering, recently arrived on campus after participating in the 49th edition of Rolex Fastnet Race, a yacht race that takes place every two years and is considered to be one of the greatest challenges in sports. First held in 1925, the demanding offshore classic is organized by the Royal Ocean Racing Club, and requires the very best in skill, determination, and teamwork to succeed. 

Dreams become reality at sea

Doughtery, a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been sailing for over 20 years. Gradually, he progressed to racing more competitive boats and fleets, and transitioned to team racing through weekly competitive fleets out of the MIT Sailing Pavilion. 

Through a  friend — a competitive MIT female sailor — Dougherty was introduced to the world of Oakcliff Sailing in Oyster Bay, New York, leading to new opportunities in match racing and offshore sailing. While a trainee at Oakcliff Sailing, he competed in the 2018 Newport Bermuda race and then captained Temptation, a 50-foot race boat, back to Newport, Rhode Island, with a skeleton crew in heavy seas and stormy weather.

This past summer, as Dougherty was working as the boat captain of Temptation, he happened to meet the skipper of the Volvo Open 70 Hypr Ocean Racing. Hypr, formerly known as Camper, was designed for and finished second in the 2011-2012 Volvo Ocean Race, and the crew had a short stay in Newport as they prepped the boat for a transatlantic delivery. Dougherty got to know the crew and asked the skipper to keep him in mind should they ever need more crew members. 

“On August 1, I got a call asking if I could hop on a plane and be in the U.K. in a few days to do the Fastnet Race with Hypr,” said Dougherty. “I booked my flight and flew out Wednesday, landed in the U.K. on Thursday, and the race started on Sunday, August 8. One of the key things that allowed me to do this was that the U.K. lifted their mandatory quarantine period for vaccinated people coming in from the U.S.”

The 2021 race was composed of around 450 yachts ranging from 30 feet to 125 feet and featured more than 2,000 sailors from 31 countries. Divided into seven starting groups, the competitors were a mix of professional and amateur, experienced and newcomers, young and old. The Hypr crew was made up of 12 international professional and semi-pro sailors.

The race started in The Solent, a strait just off of Cowes in the U.K. Yachts raced out through the English Channel past the Needles, across the Celtic Sea to round Fastnet Rock, just off the southwest coast of Ireland. The crews faced a new twist in the near 100-year-old challenge this year, and headed to a new finish line at the breakwater in Cherbourg, France, which extended the race to 695 nautical miles. 

During the start and maneuvers throughout the race, Dougherty’s role was to act as an offside trimmer, which involved releasing the old working sheet of headsails and assisting on the bow when needed. 

Over the course of the race, the 12-person Hypr crew was split up into three watches with three to four people on each watch. This system allowed them all to get a bit of sleep and be semi-rested for their next watch. According to Dougherty, the crew turned out to be a very competitive and cohesive team because of each member’s high level of skilled proficiency, despite never having previously sailed together.

“The race from the start to Fastnet Rock saw very rough sea conditions, as is classic,” said Dougherty. “We saw the current going with us to the west and the wind blowing the opposite direction to the east making for tall, steep waves in a short period. The wind on average was mid 20 knots with gusts seen up to low- to mid-40 knots.”

Dougherty and the crew of the Hypr
Inset, Hugh Dougherty; the 12-man crew aboard Hypr Volvo Open 70 during the 2021 Rolex Fastnet Race. Fastnet Rock can be seen directly ahead of the yacht on the horizon. Photos courtesy of Hugh Dougherty.

Hypr finished 14th in the IRC Z class, out of a total of 24 vessels. “We would have been far more competitive if it wasn’t for the starboard daggerboard breaking on our practice day prior to the start,” said Dougherty. “We were training out in the Solent just outside of Portsmouth Harbor when we hit an unidentified object. It was suspected to be an old chain, a remnant from World War II, when chains were set in place to prevent the movement of submarines and other vessels. For boats to hit objects like this is supposedly a common occurrence.”

Navigating to graduate school at Virginia Tech

Dougherty completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 2021. While Virginia Tech was not initially on his radar when applying for graduate schools, a friend, who is also a U.S. Navy commander, recommended he give Virginia Tech a look. 

“I was looking for a naval architecture program and I had thought only two or three such programs existed in the country,” Dougherty said. “With Virginia Tech being so far inland, it never occured to me that they would offer such a naval architecture program with great professors working on projects that interested me. I packed my bags and trailered my Moth sailboat, arriving at Virginia Tech in late August.”

Dougherty will be studying under Stefano Brizzolara, associate professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. He will have the opportunity to work on recently funded research projects related to hovercraft and hydrofoils, similar to those seen in the recent America's Cup, Sail GP, and on Moth sailboats. After building up practical knowledge and experience in sailing over the years, Dougherty brings a unique perspective and an innate ability to relate it to the department’s various ongoing research projects.

After graduate school, Dougherty hopes to get involved with an Ocean Race team as a sailor and/or support for the 2022-23 Ocean Race, and will later possibly try to sail at a high level while working on a design team for an America's Cup syndicate. 

“In the world of sailing at the level of the Ocean Race, Vendee Globe, and America's Cup, high-level technical degrees are becoming more and more necessary,” said Dougherty. “I may even end up back at Virginia Tech for a Ph.D.” 

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