Hard Lessons Learned in the North Atlantic
Once again in 2011, the fall migration offshore to the Caribbean provided stern tests—and even brought tragedy—to sailors and vessels alike.
The reports from the fleet, southbound in severe North Atlantic weather last November, say it all.
From Bella Luna, a Swan 48:
“So we hunkered down and waited, while monsters crashed the deck and filled the cockpit, drifting at 4 to 5 knots, surfing sideways down waves. We were 86 nautical miles from Bermuda. After seeing the development of Tropical Storm Sean, on Garmin XM Weather, we knew we couldn’t make Bermuda, so we pulled the drogue and aimed for the coast with storm jib alone.” (Watch a video from Bella Luna here.)
From Il Sogno, an Oyster 56:
“The storm hit us at midnight with winds 35 to 45 knots and seas from the port quarter that rapidly built to 20 feet. Seas continued to build and became sloppy with swell from the previous nor’easter still in the mix.”
And from Jan Anderson, sailing Triple Stars, an Island Packet 380, with her husband, Rob:
“So far, I must say that the weather has been stinky. The past couple of days have been tough, but we’re hove to and resting today. In talking to our weather guru Herb [Hilgenberg] on the SSB, we’re in good shape, and there are a few boats all spread around this region just hanging out, waiting for this storm/low pressure to pass before we can move any closer to Bermuda. It apparently stalled, producing 40- to 50-plus-knot winds. We’re both good, a little bit tired, but we’ll hopefully both get some sleep tonight. Do not worry—we’re doing fine.”
Sadly, that wouldn’t be the case for long. Aboard Triple Stars, tragedy was just days away.
Rally or Not?
For sailors headed south last November, the North Atlantic was a challenging place to be, especially for the boats that left early in the month, including participants in the 2011 North American Rally to the Caribbean. Last fall’s edition of this annual migration south could be described as a tale of two passages, with some crews doing the 635-mile run between Newport, Rhode Island, and Bermuda in record time while other boats experienced days of sustained gale-force winds, with the seas to match. If this story sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is.
Every year, dozens of boats head south from points along the U.S. Northeast Coast bound for the Caribbean, often planning a stopover in Bermuda. Some choose to go it alone, while others join in the camaraderie and perceived safety of a rally. And most years, the weather plays a major role in the outcome.
In 2011, this was especially true as a series of low-pressure systems produced gale-force winds and even a late-season tropical storm that wreaked havoc on the fleet. The NARC numbers alone can tell the story: Out of 21 boats signed up for the event, 13 made it to Bermuda, two were abandoned, three diverted to the coast for repairs, and several either bypassed Bermuda altogether or took a coastal route. And one crewmember, Jan Anderson from the 38-foot cutter Triple Stars, was tragically swept overboard and lost at sea.
After a two-day weather delay, the NARC boats sailed out of Newport, Rhode Island, on Tuesday, November 1, 2011. They had a tight weather window, and the long-range forecast remained tenuous. At lunch the day before their departure, the Andersons said candidly that they were on the fence about leaving. Ultimately, though, they decided to set forth on the rally.
For the first few days, many boats made good time on a southerly course, which was advised by weather router Susan Genett, in order to cross the Gulf Stream at a narrow point. “We had a glorious sail through the Stream,” said Andy Lippman from the Swan 48 Catch 22. “Twenty-five knots behind us, big but manageable seas, and great speed.”
By the weekend, however, the weather worsened. “The low-pressure system forming over the Carolinas was starting to be a concern,” said Craig White of Il Sogno. “We were prepared for strengthening sea and wind conditions, but info from the NARC weather router and other sources was quite vague as to the impending storm’s track.”
As of November 3, many in the fleet were at least halfway to Bermuda. The winds diminished, and Genett recommended that once past the Gulf Stream, the boats make as much easting as possible before the winds started to strengthen to 35 to 40 knots out of the northeast to east. If they didn’t, they could miss Bermuda, as St. George’s Harbour an only be entered from a narrow cut on the island’s northeast side.
The faster boats, including rally organizer Hank Schmitt’s Swan 48, Avocation; Catch 22, also a Swan 48; Namaste, a Jeanneau 54; Calla, a Discovery 55; and Il Sogno made it in over the weekend of November 5 just as the weather was deteriorating.Although they had their share of problems, they were the fortunate ones. “We made the decision to gun the engine and spend diesel to outrun the low to Bermuda,” Lippman said. “Our plan worked. We got into Bermuda in perfect weather, cleared customs, and berthed ourselves near enough to the customs dock so that I could meet everyone who made it in after. An hour later, we got 25 to 30 knots in port that lasted six more days, but we were safe.”
Namaste had a quick three-and-a-half-day trip that was “actually easier than I expected and faster than I’d hoped for,” said skipper Bill Fraser-Harris. “I learned from other boats’ experiences that it’s vital to depart in a weather window that’s appropriate to your boat speed. While a group departure has benefits, it should never outweigh your individual decision process.”
This point was the reason why Bob and Sharon Heckman decided not to head directly to Bermuda aboard their Hylas 46, Shazza, with the rest of the NARC fleet, but instead sail down the coast to Virginia and plan a crossing from there. “Each skipper must evaluate the weather data as it relates to his own capabilities, speed, and comfort level,” remarked Heckman. “These are very unlikely the same as the rally leader. Think about what the decision would be if there were no commitments, not even the destination. Resist making any commitments to deadlines.”