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The ARC Goes Platinum

On the 20th-anniversary run of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, Mother Nature issued to the 224-boat fleet a variety of memos emphasizing that she's very much in charge.

June 1, 2006
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Someone must have gone to great lengths to fool Mother Nature. So just in case delightful trade-wind sailing had lulled anyone in the 20th Anniversary of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers into forgetting that she deals the cards at sea, Ma parked a stationary front just to the east of St. Lucia for several days last December and gave arriving sailors one more wallop for good measure before the rum drinks were handed out in Rodney Bay.

From the git-go, weather was the word for last fall’s 2,700-mile Atlantic crossing, which started November 20 in Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands. Those who stuck to the north met up with a pair of late-season tropical storms that blasted damaging winds across their decks for days. Those who headed south along the African coast in search of elusive trade winds had ample time to polish light-air sailhandling skills, as they had to wait 10 days for the fan to be turned on.

For some, it was a mad, 15-day dash to the Caribbean; for others, it was a more leisurely sail (maddeningly so, in some cases) that took 25 days and longer to complete. Along the marina docks, each skipper in the 224-boat fleet had a story to tell, and you could be damn sure wind, rain, lightning, or waves factored into it.

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“Boom, boom, boom!” was how Norwegian Aaje Anderson described the early, closehauled days aboard Euphoria, a Norlin 411 owned by Karl Arne Arnesen. On what was billed to be a milk run, they pounded into wind and seas and had the spinnaker up for just four hours in the first eight days until they finally bagged their northerly route and went in search of better weather at lower latitudes.

On the first night, a crewmember was knocked over, badly bruising his kidneys, and they had to divert to a nearby island to drop him off for medical treatment. With the crew down to four, they pushed on until they finally found the trades, which they got to relish for only four or five days before Mother Nature’s welcome wagon stirred things up again.

“It was wild coming in,” said crewmate Jan Kalsto. One morning he awoke thinking he was in a beer bash, after a case of cheap Spanish suds exploded in the bilge. Still, the food was good, and it revived sagging spirits. And the crew, out of space considerations, developed a unique, if questionable, recycling system: paper to port, metal to starboard, and rubbish over the stern. In the final five days, squalls and blustery 30- to 40-knot winds built up steep, 20-foot seas to the east of St. Lucia, making the traditional dockside welcome of drinks and steel-drum serenade, courtesy of the ARC organizers, all the more appreciated.

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The ARC Matures
As it’s been since 1990, St. Lucia was the endpoint for the 20th-anniversary version of the granddaddy of cruising rallies, first organized by Jimmy Cornell as a way for mostly small, shorthanded sailboats to make a safer Atlantic crossing. Back then, Barbados was the destination, and the average size of the sailboats making the trip was 39 feet. The first year, the last boat in was a 24-foot Dunkers sailed by Dave Shipton. It took him 33 days. The skippers were primarily amateur sailors, many of them crossing an ocean for the first time. The rules were slim: carry a life raft and an EPIRB, and listen to the VHF radio in case an emergency arose.

Twenty years later, the emphasis is still on having fun, with lots of parties and other events on both ends. And safety remains at the forefront, with seminars in Las Palmas and mandatory inspections of each boat before its departure. But the ARC has changed in other ways over the years. Average boat size now looms in the 50-foot range, with the largest in 2005, Kalikobass II, measuring 104 feet. The smallest boat in 2005 was a Vancouver 32 sailed by Mark and Natalya Ricketts of Great Britain. Twenty-nine percent of the boats last year were longer than 56 feet, up from 25 percent a year ago.

And the culture of the ARC has changed as well. Charterers are now welcome, as the rally has become a nautical happening that attracts paying guests. Many of the larger boats rely on paid captain and crew to deliver owners to St. Lucia; from there, the boss may jet home with plans to rejoin his sailboat elsewhere in the Caribbean or perhaps en route to the Pacific.

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Still, as John “Taff” Pearce, the captain and owner of the Bavaria 49 charter boat Om Shanti, was quick to point out, though the ARC takes a bit of the risk out of an Atlantic crossing, it remains a “tough, tough sail.” He should know; he’s made the trip on 27 occasions, several times as an ARC participant.

And while the event has changed, “It’s still all about families and kids, with people experiencing the thrill of a lifetime,” John said.

The 2005 ARC stood out, he said, because the wind at times was quite strong, gusting to 50, giving his crew of paid passengers a good taste of adventurous bluewater sailing.

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His first mate for the 2005 crossing was David Cooke, who said he was chosen for the job because he’d chartered with John before, although not during the ARC.

“John’s boat has taken 50 virgins across over the years,” he joked.

At Sea, At Last
For much of November, the marina at Las Palmas grew increasingly packed as boats arrived from the Mediterranean and points farther north. The 2005 event attracted sailors from 25 countries, but the Brits, Norwegians, French, and Germans dominated the roster.

Om Shanti, like most of the ARC participants headed south from Gran Canaria, following the well-traveled trade-wind route. A moderate breeze astern that sent spinnakers aflying on many boats on the first day gave way to strong head winds, which caused their fair share of broaches and equipment problems as the fleet approached the wind-acceleration zone off Gran Canaria. But it was the light, fluky winds of the following days that made for slow passages and frustrated crews. Some even diverted to Cape Verde in search of fuel and water.

Kevin Seymour, aboard Luskentyre, an Oyster 72, said his crewmates began to talk about making an unscheduled landfall, in part to restock but also because they’d never visited Cape Verde. They mentioned the idea over the radio, he said, and within hours, several more boats chose to do the same, creating a lively-albeit unexpected-social scene along the docks at Mindelo.

And then there were the sailboats that headed off on a more northerly route in search of a different source of winds: tropical storms Delta and Epsilon, two late-season beasts that were churning up the mid-Atlantic, posing a threat to none but those who went looking for trouble.

And among that pack would be Team BLESMA, sailing aboard Spirit of Juno, a Farr 65. Each sailor, all members of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association, was missing a leg. They spent 30 hours in the agitation cycle of Delta, with 40-knot winds on the nose most of the time. As a group, they broke and repaired three artificial legs and used WD-40 at an alarming rate to counteract the salt water that corroded them.

Army Sgt. Wayne Harrod, who’d only started sailing a year earlier, got in three or four weekends of practice before they shoved off. Because of their service background, he said, the crew was well disciplined and used to facing challenges, so they took the weather in stride, even when they were sitting becalmed for two days after their thrashing and listening to the skippers on boats farther south–and farther ahead–reporting that the calm days were over and the trades were filling in.

“You’ve got to be more diligent about where you put your feet,” Wayne said, when asked about taking on hurricane conditions with an artificial limb.

Wayne smashed up his leg in Afghanistan but remained on active duty and got a leave from his unit to participate in the ARC. He said he expected to be posted to Iraq once he returned from the Caribbean. He was the only active-duty serviceman on board.

Spirit of Juno skipper Colin Rouse, a Royal Air Force veteran and offshore Yachtmaster with 50,000 sea miles under his belt, including a stint as BLESMA skipper for the 2001 Fastnet Race, said the crew behaved well. If anyone grumbled, they were ordered to grin–and did. The were plagued by engine problems for much of the trip and lost both refrigerators early on, forcing the crew to adopt an emergency Atkins Diet to consume all the fresh meat before it spoiled.

His ARC shipmate and former Fastnet partner Brendan West said the greatest challenge facing the crew was finding ways to stand watch comfortably while the boat was heeled, because often their artificial limbs might not bend in the right direction.

While on corrected time the BLESMA team finished last in the invitational racing class, the boys won the partying division and were awarded the Arch Marez Memorial Trophy, given in the memory of the builder of the Rodney Bay Marina to the crew that best embraces the shoreside activities.

A Family Outing
Aboard Coconut, a Contest 41 that arrived in Rodney Bay on December 11, Lesley and Trond Åsdam and their children Camilla, 9, and Colin, 6, had a very different sort of crossing. Leslie, a South African, and Trond, a Norwegian, are both veterans of the charter business and had crossed the Atlantic several times before. As a couple, one of their goals had been to return to the Caribbean and give their kids a taste of island life. To make it happen, they rented their house, sold possessions, bought the boat, and left their jobs.

“So we got this boat to show them what’s been important in our lives,” Trond explained one evening, sitting aboard Coconut, which was loaded with visiting kids and parents. Below, the aft cabin of the Contest looked pretty much like any room overtaken by kids and their gear. Topsides, the adults retold tales of fishing, weather, radio chatter, and day-to-day life from the past three weeks at sea.

“We wanted to do the ARC because it would be a social thing. It would normalize the crossing” for the kids, Trond said. Once they were ashore and unwinding, Colin had confessed that he’d been scared about crossing the Atlantic. “Now I don’t have to be scared anymore,” he told his proud dad.

On the day of departure from Las Palmas, the sea was lumpy, and the forecast wasn’t encouraging, so Trond said they returned to port and started 26 hours behind the fleet.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Would we leave today if there wasn’t the ARC?’ We said, ‘No, we wouldn’t.'”

They, too, made a Cape Verde pit stop, but even so, Coconut finished midfleet in her class.

From St. Lucia, Trond said, they planned to explore the Caribbean a bit, then push westward, across the Pacific, intending to arrive in Australia by November. “But we don’t know what year.”

Like the Åsdams, growing kids were the impetus for Dan Gandy and his wife, Susan Holmes, to go cruising.

“We just decided we wanted to take some time with the kids when they’d want to still do it,” Dan said.

So they sold a family cottage and bought an Adams 45, naming her Koshlong, as a reminder of the camp on the lake with the same name near their home in Toronto, Canada. While Susan remained home with Emma, 11, Rachael 9, and Chloe, 7, Dan left in June and sailed the boat up the St. Lawrence River to Halifax, then across to the Azores, a trip that seemed more preferable to him than heading down the East Coast of the United States and waiting out hurricane season before continuing on to the Caribbean.

Now with the whole family aboard, Koshlong sailed to Las Palmas and the ARC starting line.

“You’re wrestling with insanity a bit,” he said of their decision to give up careers in currency markets and banking and to rent out their house to head off. “But the one thing you can’t get back is the time.”

The first four months of the journey were a strain for the kids because they hadn’t met other families. But a watershed moment occurred in Porto Santo, Madeira, where they ran into five or six couples with children, and then met more along the way to the Canaries.

During the mornings in anchorages, signal flags would be hoisted on boats with young students to alert visitors that classes were under way. In one harbor, as the kids were learning about the Battle of Trafalgar, all the adults gathered on one boat and represented the French. It was up to the kids to attack and throw their parents overboard and claim victory for the English.

With a powerful radio aboard Koshlong, Dan did the daily 1400 “Dan Show,” cheerily (according to listeners) relaying weather notes and messages to others sailing nearby. Daughter Emma, meanwhile, organized a net for kids and had friends checking in each day at 1100. It turns out the radio was more than just a pastime for those aboard Koshlong. Their engine conked out shortly into the trip, and they were facing 1,800 miles with no way to charge the batteries. A nearby skipper was able to give Dan advice to get the diesel running again, and it ran until the last day before giving out; they had to be towed to the dock in Rodney Bay.

From Maine to the Main Event
Gust and Jan Stringos, of Skowhegan, Maine, are another couple who took the long route to the ARC, crossing the Atlantic so they could cross the Atlantic. They set sail from Rockland, Maine, in June aboard their Morris 36, Bluebird. After the Azores, they headed on to Madeira, then to Las Palmas. The trip east was colder, but the wind blew harder and the seas ran taller on the way to St. Lucia.

When they decided to take a year off and do an Atlantic circle, Gust said the thought of doing it in the company of others was appealing. The trip west was made with Gust, Jan, and friend Harry Richter on board, and it was fairly uneventful, save for a cracked bolt that required a wedge to hold the alternator in place.

Harry said what he noticed most about the long passage was “how even everything seemed. It seemed kind of boring in a lot of ways. You’d go from total rest to total action for a couple of minutes, then there’d be nothing to do again for long stretches.”

Gust, a family-practice doctor, planned to spend the month of January volunteering in a St. Lucian hospital, where he hoped to learn more about delivering care with limited resources. After that, he and Jan intended to explore the Caribbean before heading north to a Maine landfall in July.

Hell-Bent on Racing
The trip was not so kind to the crew aboard Formidable 3, a Lutra 56 entered in the racing class. Around the docks they were renowned for the carnage they sustained, paying the price for being first to St. Lucia in the racing division. According to ARC safety inspector Andy Dare, they racked up many thousands of dollars in sail damage alone. The crew had to cut away their main, they cooked their engine and generator, and they sliced up their halyards. For their efforts, Formidable 3 was rewarded with a 15th-place finish on corrected time.

Still, they faired better than Oystercatcher XXV, the Oyster 72 belonging to company owner Richard Matthews, which lost its mast while still on the eastern side of the pond and had to retire. The incident provided fodder for extended commentary along the docks.

For the record, three British boats topped the racing fleet. Vega Prima, a Gib’Sea 414, finished first overall, followed by Exabyte 3, an IMX 45, on corrected time. Incisor of Wight came in third with her crew of 13, half of them paid charterers, the others friends and family of owner Derek Saunders, whose company, Windward Sailing, takes people out and teaches them how to race. The crew’s motto: “Stronger, harder, faster,” according to passengers Deidre Hornick and Lisa Castle. For Lisa, the ARC provided quite the shakedown cruise. Having never before sailed, she’d taken a sabbatical from work and was looking for something exciting to do when a coworker mentioned the rally. She found Derek and the opportunity to join the crew online.

Deidre had done some racing before, and she said she was part of the crew that rebelled when the captain suggested early on that they shorten sail and make the going a bit easier in the strong winds they were encountering.

She said it was an odd race in that the racing fleet moved out ahead quickly, only to be left becalmed and waiting for the trades to fill in. Then the racers watched the cruisers motor past.

“It was like a turtle was overtaking us,” Deidre said.

It was Derek’s third ARC. The first he sailed in his Volvo 60, which he described as a poor choice for the Caribbean because of its draft and crew demands. The second he intended to sail in Incisor, a Corby 45, but the delivery crew lost the rig off Cowes, and they had to charter a replacement Beneteau.

In 2005, Incisor was refit and pointed west once again. Five days from the finish, they trailed Exabyte 3 by 250 miles but crossed the line three hours ahead after 17 days at sea. The crew was stoked.

Too-Close Encounters
The boats with the biggest fish stories had to be Annamin, a Hallberg-Rassy 43, and Blase, a Dufour 41 sailed by Brits Paul and Fiona Machell and their children, Emily, 13, and Oliver, 10.

The crew aboard Annamin reported they were hit broadside by a sperm whale, which bent the boat’s prop shaft as it dove under the boat. Skipper Christopher Hill of Finland and crew had to be towed into the marina once they’d cross the finish line.

Blase fared somewhat better, although the boat’s encounter with a sperm whale and calf made for some trying moments. Fearful that the adult whale might attack to protect its young, Paul ran the engine for several minutes in an attempt to frighten the whales away, and soon Blase was back sailing, although with a speedo impeller clogged with blubber.

Tom Pedersen and Anne Brith Ege, sailing aboard Stormsvalen, a Hanse 371 and one of the smaller sailboats in the rally, had some encounters of their own. Off the coast of Africa, they were among the first boats to respond and stand by when a distress call was lodged by the crew of Caliso, a Sweden 42 that was taking on water and eventually left adrift by her owner, who, with his crew, was rescued by a commercial ship. Caliso was later recovered and towed to port by a seagoing tug.

Tom and Anne were also among a group of boats that rendezvoused and sailed together for a couple of days after reports circulated of a possible pirate sighting, again off the coast of Africa. They said they were bolstered by the radio net and the ability to draw support from fellow cruisers, if need be.

Having left Norway two and a half years earlier, Tom and Anne cruised through much of Europe before deciding it was time to head for the Caribbean and the warmth of the tropics. As the miles ticked away, anticipation of their arrival started to build, especially when it came time to reset their watches and ship’s clock to Atlantic Time.

“When there’s four days left and you’re on watch, you start looking over the cabin every few minutes,” Tom said, getting up from his cockpit seat and playfully peeking around the dodger. “And you ask, ‘Can you see anything yet?'”

And then the lush, green islands appear, you’re on the dock, hands are reaching out for lines, and there, surrounded by well-wishers holding trays of punch, stands Adrian Samuel, welcoming you ashore with his colorful steel drum.

Mark Pillsbury is CW’s senior editor.

Ready-or Not?

On the way to the start of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers in the Canary Islands, Tom Bentley pulled into Lanzarote so Second Wind, his 4-year-old Oyster 53, could be hauled and surveyed. A designer who’d worked for Apple Computer and Dell, Tom doesn’t leave details to chance.

On the hard, the floorboards were pulled, the cutless bearing was replaced, the rudder bearings were inspected and resealed, and the rig was gone over, all to the tune of about US$3,000.

Once in Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria, the boat and systems were inspected again, first by ARC safety officers, then by an Oyster support team. Then, even though he and mate Ben Rothwell had sailed many, many miles together, including the trip to the Canaries, Tom hired a seasoned delivery captain to be on hand for the 2,700-mile voyage to St. Lucia. The trip went off without a hitch, and Tom, crew, and boat arrived none the worse for wear.

The damage reports that accompanied the 2005 ARC, however, suggest that others might not have been so fastidious in their preparations. One boat was abandoned. Others made stops to repair leaking stuffing boxes, broken fittings, torn sails, and even delaminating bulkheads-damage that one might accept in an ocean race but not necessarily in a cruising rally. As a result, the question of whether such events as the ARC encourage those ready for the challenge or enable the unprepared and ill-equipped sparked discussion among some of the skippers along the docks of Rodney Bay. The many breakdowns proved once again the value of an active radio net and the company of other cruisers nearby, but they also beg this question: In some cases, were the boats and crews fit to be there?

“Twenty-five or 30 years ago, it was a big deal to do an Atlantic crossing. Yachting now has become a pastime for people who don’t necessarily have the experience,” said Kevin Seymour, the former director and owner of Britain’s Pheon Yachts and Northshore Yachts and a part-time consultant for Bowman Yachts.

Kevin sailed aboard Luskentyre, an Oyster 72, and has logged thousands of shorthanded offshore miles aboard his own Vanguard 32, which Northshore built. He’s also a member of England’s Small Craft Safety Committee, an advisory panel charged with making sailing safer. As the fleet approached the wind-acceleration zone off Gran Canaria, a region notorious for confounding sailors, Kevin said it was evident they were in for a change in wind speed and direction. However, many crews were caught off guard, despite a briefing on conditions before the start, causing several boats to return to port with damaged sails and rigs. This occurred less than 24 hours into a 20-plus-day passage.

John “Taff” Pearce, captain and owner of the charter sailboat Om Shanti and an Atlantic crossing veteran, agreed that the ARC can be both trump card and crutch.

“Sure it’s a safety net,” he said, but he added that it’s still a tough ocean, and even with the radio net, a crew is on its own to make it across. That said, John concedes, “I don’t think people prepare as well as they should. This year proved it in the early days.”

ARC safety officer Andy Dare, like ARC director Andrew Bishop, said he was a bit perplexed by the problems that cropped up in the 2005 rally.

Andy estimates that 80 percent of the boats are ready to go by the time they get to Las Palmas. And the ones that get in early and have their crews aboard a couple of weeks ahead of time tend to be the better prepared for the journey.

In some ways, the ARC encourages people to make the crossing, Andy said, but “at the same time, it’s a major, major adventure to cross the Atlantic. Sure, boats have some problems, but for the sailors, it’s the biggest adventure of their lives. So I say, ‘Go for it.'”

—M.P.

ARC 2006

Registration for the 2006 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, set to sail November 26 from Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria, is under way. Previous ARCs have filled up by late spring and early summer. Information about the Atlantic rally and other World Cruising Club events can be found on the club’s website (www.world cruising.com).

–M.P.

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