Sailing the North Atlantic is always a trial but never as much as in November when the weather is brutally fast and unforgiving. Unlike a pure race, where you head south when the race committee so dictates, a rally such as the NARC waits for the best weather window possible. The goal is a safe and instructive passage for both the experienced and the novice learners. But the weather doesn’t necessarily cooperate. This time it was a learning experience for all.
We started in fine weather out of Newport on November 1, planned the passage across the Gulf Stream, and then headed into expected southerlies from 38 north into Bermuda. But it was not to be. A surprise low spawned from South Carolina headed straight south of Bermuda and carried a front that gave a gale-force Nor-easter more reminiscent of New England than mid-ocean. Worse yet, it stalled just south of the island and presented three days of 20-foot seas and 40-knot winds. Even the harbor was no respite.
Five boats made it in ahead of the storm, including Catch 22, Calla, Apsara, Avocation and Namaste. More slogged in through the tough stuff over the weekend, but as of Sunday night, seven boats are still out at sea heaving to, by passing Bermuda, or pressing on.
There is no better medicine for a hard time at sea than a link with friends, nearby boats, and shore support. That’s where there is real safety in numbers. A weather router is great, but friends on scene and in the same situation is a different matter entirely. On the NARC, we checked in twice a day and left plenty of time for boat-to-boat contacts. The simple knowledge that one of the group is always standing by and ready to help with words and deeds can make the difference between despair and perseverance. And it doesn’t end when boats reach shore.
In our case, Bermuda Radio was tuned in to the rally plan from the start and they did yeoman’s work helping maintain the contact. They know the roster and relay weather and messages. Their high-power radio cuts through where the vessel-born units go limp. A case in point: One boat, Patriot, stopped their SPOT locator transmissions, and their home-support team called the U.S. Coast Guard. They, in turn contacted Bermuda, and between us and Bermuda Radio, we kept after Patriot until we were assured they were safely under way.
Almost all boats have something go awry when they are pressed by winds and seas. Even the best prepared have sea stories of dramatic repairs and heroic gestures. Knowing that you are being tracked and talked to is of immeasurable help both physically and for morale. And as we all know, morale is the most important resource to keep intact at sea.
People often ask me what my next “Sailing adventure” will be. I usually tell them that “adventure” is what happens when you screw up. Sailing isn’t supposed to be an adventure, it’s supposed to be beautiful, trying, and a pleasure. We don’t go to sea to test ourselves, we go to enjoy our own special form of wilderness. One populated with whales and dolphins, spectacular sunrises, sunsets, and breezes. We like to be alone, but we don’t want to be beyond help when the sea takes over.
Numbers count, and numbers that are friends count double. In port and far offshore, being alone together is what it’s all about.