Steve Black, the Caribbean 1500’s founding father, confirmed after the start of the event that it was the first time in its 23-year history that it actually left the Chesapeake early.
Fall on the US east coast is always a difficult time for weather forecasting, and this year was perhaps the best or worst (depending on your perspective) example of that. The challenge in planning an offshore voyage in the fall is the tight window between hurricane season and the winter weather pattern.
This year gave the Caribbean 1500 a late season hurricane in the form of Sandy. It complicated matters in Hampton because about eight of the yachts were hunkered down on the Chesapeake (mostly in Annapolis), and owners were worried about their houses flooding. Several crews flew out from Hampton to tend to their shore-side homes, only to find they were stranded as far afield as Toronto after numerous flights were canceled. One yacht was safely moored in the Hudson River when the storm hit. They escaped unscathed but they missed the start of the rally thanks to New York Harbor being closed to recreational traffic. The fleet, however, rallied (pun intended) and made it to Hampton by Friday, having only learned that day around noon that it was then T-minus 24-hours to departure.
By Thursday evening it was apparent that another weather system was forming, this time looking more like the typical winter weather pattern. A nor’easter was forecast to brew over Georgia and offshore of South Carolina, move northeast and strengthen significantly. If the fleet left ASAP, they could get out ahead of it. If they missed this window, it looked to be at least five days until another one opened up and, even then, that was just a guess. Had I been delivering a yacht, I’d have left even earlier (and indeed many of my captain friends did just that).
On Friday morning we started speaking privately to a few rally veterans and a few other yachts to gauge the feeling within the fleet. Rally vets Rick and Julie Palm of the Saga 48 Altair, and Miles and Anne Poor from the Tayana 55 Karina agreed that now was the time to go. By noon it was official – we’d give the yachts the option to depart under a ‘rolling start’ as soon as they felt they were ready following the skipper’s briefing, and the issuing of the Yellowbrick GPS trackers. Everyone was enthusiastic. The BVI fleet would hightail it southeast while the ARC Bahamas fleet would sail offshore to Beaufort and there wait out the weather window.
The fleet made good progress but the first low pressure system, just a little blip on the weather map, strengthened beyond anything forecast and gave the fleet a bumpy second night at sea. The Palms, 1500 regulars who had also sailed round the world, said it was the most brilliant electrical storm they’d ever experienced.
“The [first] front was a great deal more aggressive than expected,” they wrote from sea. “We went through one of the most active thunderstorms I’ve ever been in. Extensive lighting, pea-sized hail and rain like the tropics. Not much wind, but from all over the place.”
While uncomfortable, the squalls posed no real threat to the fleet, and no major damage was reported because of them. And they didn’t last. A day later, the Palms reported “we are close reaching in 20 knots and having a great sail!”
Once everyone made their landfall in Tortola, any bad thoughts about the weather quickly faded.
“The best was coming in and seeing Maria Karlsson (co-event manager) on the dock toasting us with drinks!” said Pat Fulmer of the Island Packet Cutter Loose. “Thoughts about the weather absolutely disappeared. It didn’t even matter anymore.”
Rally veteran Miles Poor, referring to the decision to depart early, claimed it was the single best tactical decision the event has ever made.
Martin Lindsey of the Australian flagged JAC agreed. “It was a little bit courageous but dead smart and the right thing to do.”
Andy Schell is a yacht captain, journalist and – along with his wife Maria Karlsson – the co-event manager of the Caribbean 1500. Follow Andy & Mia online at andyandmia.net