Hank Schmitt is a true renaissance man of the seas. This Long Island Sound native has sailed since he was nine-years-old. He ran yacht club launches as a teenager, crewed in the SORC right out of high school, and then worked several years on drill ships, semi-submersibles and jack-up rigs in the offshore oil industry. When that business went bust, he began commercial fishing out of Montauk during the ‘Perfect Storm’ fall and later off Florida where the catch of a 734-pound blue fin tuna earned him $15,000. In 1992 he cast off solo for nearly a year to sail in the ‘America 500’, a rally that traced Christopher Columbus’ route. Eight years later, he founded the crew network service OPO (Offshore Passage Opportunities), and then started the now famous North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC). With this incredible ‘re-sea-me’ behind him and with the restlessness of a true sailor, Schmitt continues to make waves with two new additions to the NARC – a first-ever association with the St. Maarten Yacht Club (SMYC) and inaugural ‘Yachtie Appreciation Week’ in Dominica.
“Ten months away in the ‘America 500’, a lot of it solo, gave me time to think. I remembered a lot of people walked the docks almost begging to be taken aboard as crew when we waited to depart in the Canary Islands. I figured there had to be a better way. That’s what led me to start Offshore Passage Opportunities (OPO),” Schmitt explains.
He says starting the NARC Rally seemed like a natural progression. After all, he was already moving the Swan charter fleet between Newport and St. Maarten at the time.
“I had ten boats to hire skippers and sign on paying crew. In 2000, it was easy to ask other boats making the same passage to join us since everyone departs the East Coast of the US about the same time each year,” he says.
In past years as many as half of the NARC boats have been Swans, the other half progressively bigger yachts with hardly any entrants now under 42ft. For the first decade there was a fee to join the rally and then, starting in 2010, it was free with everyone paying their own dockage and meals. There is still no entry fee, but Schmitt this year is collecting $100 per person, which includes three dinners (at Benjamin’s in Newport, Fish Fry at the Dinghy Club in Bermuda and Final Party at SMYC) and a T-shirt for all skippers and crew. He expects 20 to 25 boats; all manned by either veteran offshore sailors or professionally crewed, and would like to see 35 to 40 entrants in the future.
New, the SMYC, organizer of the annual St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, has signed on as a NARC sponsor. The SMYC will host a final party for NARC participants in the fall and offer a discount for early registration for its March 3rd to 6th 2016, regatta. In addition, the SMYC is orchestrating a rally/race to get boats that participate in the first annual ‘Yachtie Appreciation Week’ in Dominica, Feb 14th to 21st, to St. Maarten in time for the Heineken Regatta.
“The other major rallies go to popular islands like the BVI and St. Lucia. I’ve stopped in Dominica several years while cruising. It’s a beautiful island but without any marinas. So, we’ve made a philanthropic move to buy and ship materials needed for a mooring field in Portsmouth,” says Schmitt. “What Tropical Storm Erika did was provide me with a second opportunity to send OPO members an Email request for donations shorty after sending out the pre-Erika request a few days before. Two weeks afterwards, we had just over half of the moorings pledged or paid for. We ordered the materials right after the Newport Boat Show so they’d arrive in hurricane season and could be rigged up in December for use in early 2016. A mooring field will make it much easier for cruising yachts to visit Dominica.”
For more information, visit www.sailopo.com/NARC_Rally_NARC_Rally_Overview.aspx
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.