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The Twin Realities of The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers

There are two schools of thought on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. The first is that its continued success since 1986 speaks for itself. It is profitable. It is worthy of investment. It is worthy of expansion. Even better, its satisfied customers return – many of them year after year. It is the largest (race? rally? cruise?) organized transoceanic sailing event ever staged, with 234 vessels participating in 2007 and nearly 5,000 overall during the intervening 26 years. Nearly 20,000 people have transited the Atlantic to St. Lucia while being shepherded by the ARC, including more than 800 children. Over 12 million nautical miles have been logged. This year alone there are 30 multihulls, making it the largest transoceanic-gathering of sea spiders ever. (Even more interesting, 25% of those multis were built in 2011  – demonstrating just how new and fast-growing this industry is.)

While many of the yachts are brand-spanking-new, a few are not. They are classics, like the 17.6m (58ft) Thalia of Great Britain. She was built in 1889.

Clearly, the ARC provides a major economic boost to both the Canaries and St. Lucia. Over $2m is pumped into Las Palmas, for instance, mostly on marine services, 640 hotel nights, and 1,100 air flights. St. Lucia benefits as well—not only in the international press as a premier tourist destination, but as prestigious marine yachting center. And even more sailors fly out of St. Lucia than fly into the Canaries.

Participating ARC vessels are from 28 different countries, with crews representing more than 40 nations. Entries vary from 28 to around 100ft. Value of the vessels? Who knows? But some of the prior entries might have been purchased for around $10,000, and a few of the current ones might need an additional three zeros tacked onto that number.

The youngest skipper was 14-year-old Oscar Lindahl aboard Sanibel, and the oldest was 78-year-old Aubrey Long on Solitude.

The largest nationality is, in 2011, Great Britain, with 84 vessels, followed by Germany (26) USA (17) Norway (13) France (12) Netherlands (11) Italy (9) etc. The most popular boat manufacturers were Jeanneau, Beneteau, Swan, Hallberg Rassy, Lagoon, Dufour, Bavaria, Oyster, X-yachts, Amel, Catana, Moody, Discovery, Hanse, Ovni, and Privilege in that order. The most popular monohull is a Sun Odyssey 54DS. In the multiclass, Lagoon 560 takes it.

There were 12 female skippers in 2011.

While the accent is clearly on the social side, there is also a safety component. Vessels are required to carry certain safety gear, a satellite transponder, and pass a safety inspection.

One thing that is undeniable is the building enthusiasm—almost frenzied excitement—as the start slowly draws near. There is literally an explosion of last minute buying as SSB radios, water-makers, and solar panels are tossed aboard.

There is plenty to do during the two-week run-up to the event: endless sponsored parties, of course, but educational seminars also. (The author attended the rigging, weather, and emergency management seminars but sadly missed a dozen others—two by his old Caribbean pal Don Street.)

There are even helicopter rescue shows and liferaft demos during which you can dive into the swimming pool and board the raft. (Tip: it isn’t easy clambering into a liferaft and the motion is quite pukable, even in a resort pool!)

Perhaps the most amazing thing, at least from an outsider’s view, is how many ARC participants seem to get addicted. Many return year after year.

Dozens of vessels proudly display dozens of flags from previous years.

Of course, not 100% of the fleet is 100% happy with the administration of the event but there is an astounding level of customer satisfaction. “We’re glad we did it, we made friends to last a lifetime!” is an oft-heard comment.

“It gave us a level of confidence and assurance that we lacked,” is another.

“They took care of all the petty details of clearing in and out, etc, and we were able to concentrate solely on the truly important thing’s like having fun!” is yet another.

Jimmy Cornell – a well-known BBC commentator, yachting journalist, marine author, and circumnavigator – was the original founder of the ARC, with his buddies Don Pedro and Juan Francisco Martin. Jimmy is an extremely active and effective international sailor with tons of energy. The ARC was ‘his baby’ for many years. But he eventually sold it to the World Cruising Club to better concentrate on his web portal noonsite.com and his publishing business.

What is the World Cruising Club? What are its over-all aims, other than to be profitable?

Let’s start by looking at the sailing rallies it currently owns. There is the ARC, of course, and also the ARC Europe (the return west-to-east race), the World ARC for global circumnavigators, Rally Portugal, and the Caribbean 1500 as well. Besides all this, the organization conducts in-depth training in the UK, Germany, and the US to prepare individuals with the skills necessary to take part in such events.

The fact that the ARC and its sister rallies have value is undeniable. However, there’s also a flip side to such events. Not everyone in the marine community considers them a positive development.

For one thing, mariners have been jumping off from the Canaries since before Christopher Columbus. The reason that Jimmy Cornell decided to stage the event from Las Palmas in November is because this is the best location and time to start a transatlantic crossing. But many transatlantic sailors are now feeling as if they have second-class status—that they are being referred to as ‘the ARC crashers’ for wanting to cross the Atlantic at the proper, traditional time.

This isn’t, perhaps, the fault of the ARC organizers who have never taken such a position, publicly or privately. However, there is a building awareness of the impact that such commercial sailing events have within the marine community and not everyone is 100% behind ‘pay to play’.

“Rally participants point to the fact that they have a regular radio net and stand-by to assist each other at any moment without fully realizing that is just how the international cruising community conducts itself. You don’t have to pay some organization to be able to help your fellow yachtsmen that the one concept (helping) should have nothing to do with the other (paying),” remarked a British sailor.

Other naysayers maintain that the mostly newbies taking part honestly believe that, since their shiny vessels have ‘passed’ the ARC safety inspection, they are safe. Approved. Seaworthy.

The rally brochure repeatedly offers them a ‘stress-free’ passage so why should they worry?

Could the huge glass windows or the massive sliding doors on some of these new boats be a hazard in a gale? No, because their boat is ARC approved and it has approved gear, and its skipper is approved even the credit card is approved!

Perhaps the real division here is a psychological one: some rugged individualists think of sailing as the ultimate freedom while others shun the entire man-against-the-sea concept and happily embrace the ‘buddy-boating’ idea.

A few experienced sailors question this ‘safety in numbers’ concept offshore altogether. It certainly didn’t help Phillip Hitchcock of the Formosa 51 Toutazimut to be surrounded by other vessels as he drowned while tethered to his own yacht during the 2002 ARC. (This has been the only ARC fatality. Its overall safety record is undisputedly good.)

The fact that ARC boats carry mandatory transponders could certainly be an advantage in some instances – but how often? When? In what way?

Yes, the SAR helicopter demo was fun-for-the-kiddies – but with an effective range of about a hundred miles, most ARC boats will sail beyond its limited range in the first 24 hours. Has it ever actually rescued anyone in the ARC?

Perhaps what most concerns the offshore traditionalist is this: if everyone applauds the ARC as being ‘safer’ than normal ocean cruising – isn’t normal cruising, by definition, more dangerous? Might not larger user fees to cross oceans save lives? Or limiting offshore vessels to a minimum cost of $250,000? Or a mandatory length of, say, fifty feet LOA? Why not, like they do on many lakes in Germany, just limit yachting to the wealthy?

“These rallies are just figuring out a way to charge for what is free,” said one grumpy old sailor with a scowl, “and, of course, hyping the fear – which is fine, as long as they don’t start claiming that it is safer to cross with 250 inexperienced vessels ramming into each other—than one solitary one which is not.”

So the debate between organizational types and loners continues unabated.

The bottom line is that for-profit races, rallies, and convoys are becoming more common. In the case of the ARC, at least, participants are bringing back positive reports. It is a service. People want to use that service. It comforts them. They vote with their wallets.

Is the ‘freedom of the seas’ concept under stress? Yes. Will it disappear tomorrow? Probably not.

The global marine community, like so many other diverse groups that lack political clout, are experiencing rapid change—for better and for worse.

Special interests are eyeing the playing field, looking for profitable opportunities – and hoping to set up territories and monopolies. The goals of corporations and their customers are not always identical—nor should an informed public expect them to be.

Hence, the dual reality: some Caribbean sailors look at the ARC flag proudly flying from the forestay and think, “Wow! There’s a real sailor!”

Others are more conflicted.

Editor’s note: Capt’n Fatty and Carolyn are currently sailing west across the Atlantic. Checkout Fatty’s latest book:  Buy, Outfit & Sail – a book for the truly frugal sea gypsy.

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon by American Paradise Publishing, Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies, The Collected Fat, All At Sea Yarns and Red Sea Run. For details of Fatty’s books and more, visit fattygoodlander.com

Here’s a collection of some of Cap’n Fatty Goodlander’s Books

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