You may have seen Steve Black around Nanny Cay on Tortola recently—he’s best recognized as the founder of the Hampton, Virginia-based Cruising Rally Association and Caribbean 1500 Cruising Rally.
However, Black has worn many hats and his accumulated knowledge, skills and accomplishments have given him an incredible outlook on which to plan for the future. He’s one of those lucky people who have forged his love of sailing into a professional and successful career.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Black moved to Michigan where he ran an educational publishing company. He started sailing recreationally in his mid-30s in regattas hosted by the Grand Haven Sailing Club. Black learned the sport from single-handers and has always preferred this aspect of sailing.
“It’s fun to be a generalist,” he says, “a cook, a mechanic, a tactician, a sail trimmer, it’s a challenge.”
Over the years, Black has made three single-handed transatlantic voyages. In the Legend Cup, he set a multi-hull record time of 15 days aboard his Newick 40′ trimaran. Black’s third single-handed transatlantic voyage was in 1992 in the Europe I, where he sailed his 40′ IOR racer, Caribbean. Despite a broken boom some 1,000 miles from the finish, Black completed the race safely.
In the Bermuda 1-2, a race whose first leg is a single-handed voyage from Newport, Rhode Island to Bermuda and whose second leg is a double-handed voyage from Bermuda back to Newport, Black and South African sailor Bertie Reed set the return voyage record at the time of 78 hours and 38 minutes. Back in Grand Haven, Black volunteered to run races and then serve as rules chairman.
“It was a good way to polish my own skills," he says.
Black also undertook volunteer tasks such as founding the Lake Michigan Single-handed Society, where he ran the races and conducted seminars to educate interested sailors. This led to the end of his 15-year publishing career and a three-year stint as executive director of the U.S. Sailing Association, based in Newport, Rhode Island.
"I retired from U.S. Sailing in 1988, but I didn’t retire from sailing," Black says. His next endeavor was to manage the Sailing World NOOD (National Offshore One-Design) Regattas in four regions around the country.
In 1990, Black conceived of the idea for the Caribbean 1500 Cruising Rally and the preparatory Passagemakers’ Seminars, two full days of seminars taught by authorities in all aspects of sailing. The impetus for this event started when Black saw that cruising sailors outnumbered racing sailors, yet there was a near void of organized events for cruisers.
In November 1990, 50 boats set sail from Newport, Rhode Island and Norfolk, Virginia and landed in Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) in the inaugural Caribbean 1500 Cruising Rally. Black himself set sail on that first trip and gave his fellow cruisers confidence via single-side band radio. Today, several hundred vessels have sailed in the rally and the pink and white rally burgee can be seen on vessels in ports from Maine to Venezuela.
Yet, the boats and sailors on those boats have changed over time. “It’s a misnomer that the rally is for sailors cruising offshore for the first time,” says Black. “The vast majority, over 90 percent, have at least one person aboard who has done the rally before. Every year the volunteer pool gets larger. We find newcomers do grab at the chance to have an experienced person on board.”
The boats are getting bigger. “Charter companies push clients to charter boats 50-foot and over, and that means when people buy boats they are buying that size or larger,” says Black. “We’re also seeing people with newer boats. When we started, a boat from the early 80s wasn’t considered that old. Today, people are cruising down on new boats. You might say that they expect the technology will make up for a lack of experience.”
As for the ralliers themselves, Black adds, “the first were more of the gunkholers. Sailors today aren’t learning from their parents or old-timers or necessarily starting as dinghy sailors. Instead, they are learning through yacht club sailing programs and sailing schools. This has led to changes in what we teach in seminars. For example, etiquette in communication with commercial ships is now a topic. Sailors who grew up sailing with their parents knew right-of-way and not to disturb a ship unless there’s a real reason.”
The most satisfying aspects of starting the Caribbean 1500 Rally and other rallies such as the Atlantic Cup and now the Bahamas Cruising Rally, says Black, “are the friendships formed. We had 235 past ralliers meet at a reunion at the Annapolis Boat Show this year.”
On the horizon, Black is excited about the new Bahamas rally.” Sometime this fall I think we’ll see the travel ban to Cuba lifted,” he says. “When it is, the islands of the Bahamas and Cuba will be one big cruising area that will see a lot of demand.”