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Scott and Jennifer Brigham aboard their Valiant 40, Pendragon in the Caribbean 1500
Scott and Jennifer Brigham aboard their Valiant 40, Pendragon in the Caribbean 1500

What is it Really Like in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers

There are two great ways to sail to the Caribbean this fall courtesy of the World Cruising Club (WCC). The newly re-branded ARC Caribbean 1500 sets sail with some 40 boats from a new start point, the Ocean Marine Yacht Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, en route to Nanny Cay Marina in Tortola, BVI, on November 3. The ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) begins in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on November 24, where over 280 boats will finish at IGY’s Rodney Bay Marina in St. Lucia, in mid-December. This is the first time that ARC ralliers will have two routes from which to choose: 50 boats will sail via the Cape Verdes to Saint Lucia, setting off two weeks ahead of the main group taking the direct route.

What is it really like to sail in these rallies? All At Sea asked a sampling of rally participants – some veterans, some newcomers and some passage-makers with children – to share their experiences and their advice.

What did you like best?

The camaraderie before, during and after the event was fantastic, says Great Britain’s Nick Mason-Jones, who sailed last year’s ARC for the first time on his own boat, the Moody 47, Johanem, along with his wife and four friends. “The info and briefings provided by WCC were relevant and helpful, ditto the safety checks.”

Great Britain’s Russell Hawkins who sailed the ARC aboard his Moody S38, Mad Fish, with his wife and sons, Ethan (10) and Oli (8), adds, “We met a good few friends on the way to the start. At the end, be sure to fly your WCC rally flag. We found there was pretty much an ARC boat in every anchorage we visited in the Caribbean so we had a great social network in place, ideal if you need help with a problem or company at sundowners.”

The principal reason why Australia’s Terry Steen and his wife joined the ARC aboard their Lagoon 560, Voahangy, was their two children, Marc (13) and Anne (8). “We liked the fact that it is very social and families get to meet other children,” says Steen. “ARC organizers set up a kids program that not only entertained them but also allowed the parents to concentrate on boat preparations.”

In addition to the camaraderie, Virginia’s Tim Szabo, owner and skipper of the Saga 43, Kinship, enjoys the services that come with sailing in a rally. “The infrastructure of the Caribbean 1500 really helps. You’ve got a slip already assigned when you arrive, fuel arranged, weather predictors there, and customs there to meet you on the other end in Tortola rather than having to take a taxi to the customs office.”

What did you like least?

“The anxiety of waiting for the best weather window prior to departure,” answers Florida’s Paul Geppert, who participated in the Caribbean 1500 with wife Monica and friends aboard the Tayana 42, Moonshadow. “Being delayed and then hoping that crew has enough time off to complete the voyage.”

Minnesota’s Scott Brigham, who, with wife Jennifer, sailed their Valiant 40, Pendragon, on last year’s Caribbean 1500, adds, “We had a very rough Gulf Stream crossing, so if pressed hard, I would say that the rally needs to really help people understand what they can expect with the weather forecasts. I believe it’s about providing realistic expectations.”

The flip side to the benefits of cruising in a group are some strict rules you need to comply with (safety and otherwise), explains Voahangy’s Steen. “There are also massive crowds during social events (it can be fun at the start, but frustrating in the end, when realising that some of the crew behave fairly badly), and a lot of bureaucracy.”

Heading west on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. Courtesy of World Cruising Club
Heading west on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. Courtesy of World Cruising Club

Describe your most memorable moment of the rally?

“Excitement and a feeling of belonging to something big at the race start in Las Palmas is what I remember fondly,” notes Voahangy’s Steen. “We took off with 200-plus other boats. What a sight!”

Rob Beam, his wife Ginny and three daughters, Hannah (15), Mia (12) and Ellie (10), who sailed their Slocum 43 Pilothouse, Helia, in the Caribbean 1500, have vivid memories of crossing the Gulf Stream. “I have never been good at estimating wave height, but suffice it to say that you would look to starboard while steering and see waves next to you the size of a one story building.”

Mason-Jones aboard Johanem says one memory sticks in his mind – literally. “We had a problem mid-Atlantic when one of our crew members got a large rusty fish hook deeply embedded in his forearm. We could not remove it and were at least six days from land. We radioed nearby ARC boats and by chance found that Ostria, only 25 miles away, had a surgeon on board with his medical kit. We rendezvoused. I launched our dinghy and rowed over to collect him and he removed the fish hook. By the time we reached St. Lucia the scar had nearly healed so we did not get much of a sympathy vote for having lost half a day.”

For Switzerland’s Marina Passet, skipper of the Bavaria 39 Via Con Me, the first sight of St. Lucia’s lush green mountains is the most vivid memory. “We knew then that we had made it.”

What would you do differently next time?

Upgrade alternate power sources to keep batteries topped off, says Moonshadow’s Geppert. “We did not have enough alternate power sources and relied on running the main engine to charge batteries.”

Pendragon’s Brigham adds, “I would get my ham license earlier and practice more with the ham radio. Some folks had problems because they just didn’t know how to use it. The ham nets helped numerous boats communicate problems to others in the fleet. There was one major repair that a participant was able to complete that wouldn’t have been possible without the ham net.”

In addition, says Brigham, “We will have more easily prepared cold or hot meal options for the passage.  We had two days where preparation of meals became a real safety issue. Making sandwiches was not possible. Hot coffee, forget it. Nuts, granola bars, and cheese sticks didn’t cut it.”

From your experience, what would you recommend to others who want to join the ARC or ARC Caribbean 1500?

“Plan out your boat for living aboard,” recommends Moonshadow’s Geppert. “Purchase any equipment needed for the voyage well ahead of time.”

Pendragon’s Brigham agrees and adds, “Get all your boat kinks, rigging, electronics and other issues worked out early. The people who had problems during the rally and after arrival in Tortola, were those that had installed new chart plotters, radios, generators, or water-makers right before leaving. Know how to use and repair the gear.”

Choose your crew with care, says Johanem’s Nick Mason-Jones. “Three weeks at sea in a hot rolling boat with little sleep means that tempers get shorter and one’s sense of perspective and humor can run low.”

Finally, arrive to the rally early, advises Via Con Me’s Passet. “This assures you and your crew has enough time for the shopping, events and courses. Also, if you are booking on a participant boat, be sure that the skipper is professional. If it is the first time for you, be aware the Atlantic is not the Med or the Baltic Sea. Skippers and owners: be sure, that you have enough experience and check your boat very well before you start. Once you are in the middle of the Atlantic there is no going back.”

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