This May marks the second year that the ARC Europe event, run by the UK-based World Cruising Club, will depart from Hampton, VA (see article in our VA regional section this issue). At the time of writing, 36 yachts were registered for the event as a whole (a record), which sees the fleet across the Atlantic, stopping in Bermuda and the Azores en route to a finish in Lagos, Portugal in mid-June.
I never used to like cruising rallies, philosophically. But for the past three years I’ve helped with the organizational side of them, sailed in them, and learned to appreciate the camaraderie, safety training and general atmosphere of excitement surrounding them.
At the polar opposite end of the spectrum, May 6 (the day after ARC Europe departs Hampton and Tortola), the Volvo Ocean Race Village officially opens in Miami. The six yachts comprising this years fleet (you can hardly call them yachts anymore), will have arrived from Itajai, in Brazil, with the accompanying pageantry and general craziness. I’ve experienced this part of the industry as well, as a spectator in 2006 during the Annapolis stopover of the 05/06 event.
At the time, I was working as a crewmember aboard the schooner Woodwind. One of our special events that summer was taking the Woodwind out to watch both the in-port race and the restart, when the Volvo boats set forth towards the UK. Both events were insanely ‘spectated’, for lack of a better word. The restart especially. Thousands of boats – sail and power, big and small, commercial and private – were out that day to witness the start and escort the Volvo fleet down the Bay. The start-line itself was restricted with an exclusion zone to allow the competitors a chance for clean air. They crossed the line and sailed north towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, rounded a windward mark and then set their spinnakers, blasting downwind and back towards the spectator fleet, which was now free to roam, the exclusion zone removed.
On the Woodwind, we had our own group of spectators, something like 30-40 passengers onboard to watch the spectacle. It was tense sailing, avoiding the little runabouts and kayakers while at the same time trying to position ourselves close to the fleet. As it turned out, we got ourselves in a little too tight, and had to jibe out of the way of Brasil1 – we could have passed them a beer without stretching too far. And then, not too many minutes later, they were on the horizon and out of sight.
Last fall I met Magnus Olsson, the legendary Swedish sailor who has the distinction of being one of the few people, if not the only person, to have sailed in every edition of the Volvo (and previously the Whitbread), since it’s inception (well, at least until this current edition). He was sailing aboard Triumph, a Baltic 64 which was entered in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), the World Cruising Club’s premier event that sees a fleet of 200+ yachts cross the Atlantic from Las Palmas to St. Lucia. I was a little shocked when I saw his name on the crew list – a cruising rally didn’t exactly seem like his cup of tea – but also delighted when I realized I would probably get to meet him, as I was working shoreside on the event.
Magnus lived up to his reputation as a friendly and fun-loving character, down to earth and genuine.
“I’m too old now to do the high level racing,” he admitted (probably inaccurately). “For me, this was a very good opportunity to do something that I love,” He went on. He was kneeling on the dock helping Vivica, his wife, mend Triumph’s genoa.
“I was asked by a group of eight guys, ‘Magnus, can you help us to arrange a sail across the Atlantic?’ I said ‘well, I can probably do that!’” For the group, who had previously sailed with Magnus and Skip Novak to Antarctica, an Atlantic crossing was on their bucket list.
“My ambition was to teach them a little bit more about ocean racing, ocean sailing,” he said. “I pushed them fairly hard, and they have enjoyed that.”
Enjoy indeed. I caught up with Triumph’s crew at one of the evening cocktail hours, and they couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. Magnus pushed them very hard, particularly in the first part of the 2,800-mile crossing, which was challenging for some of the guys who had rarely even been on a sailboat. But it paid off – Triumph ended up winning the Invitation Cruising class, for yachts 60-feet and up, and would have won the Overall Cruising Division had they been allowed in the category (it’s reserved for the smaller yachts, which represent the majority of the fleet and the spirit of the event).
Magnus was a rare sailor to have participated in both events – the elite Volvo and a cruising rally like the ARC. Admittedly, ARC Europe is decidedly smaller than it’s counterpart, but is still run in the same spirit and by the same organizers – a group jaunt across an ocean with a friendly competitive element thrown in to make it interesting. Both events – the Volvo and the ARC – bring interest and sailors to their respective regions (Miami will be hopping at this year’s stopover, Hampton a little less so with ARC Europe), and with that come needed dollars for a struggling economy.
Interestingly, while the Volvo fleet suffers from piracy threats, exponentially rising budgets and shrinking corporate and public support (thanks in part to the economy, but not entirely) the cruising rally concept seems immune. The flagship ARC event is overbooked every year (they actually raised the limit for next year to 260 yachts). The weak economy seems to, incredibly, bolster participation.
And yet the reason is fairly simple. For rally sailors, the event is usually the culmination of a lifelong dream. In a bad economy, suddenly security in the modern world seems fragile, and people want to get out there and follow-through with their life-goals, damn the economy. Less work also equals more time to pursue hobbies. Priorities are re-arranged – oftentimes ralliers will end up on a smaller boat than they dreamed about, but the experience is still the same, perhaps heightened since they’re truly stepping into the unknown future.
Magnus said it best when I asked him to sum up his thoughts on the rally, versus an event like the Volvo. It is the opposite of major high-level ocean racing, he said, which is “becoming so professional and so expensive, so you get less and less boats in most of the regattas, which is not so good.” Indeed, the ARC doesn’t have that problem.
For me, a decided romantic and 100% behind the idea of getting out there and doing things now, seeing the rally sailors fulfill those goals – and helping out, both at sea and shoreside – is an extraordinarily satisfying experience. People are out there doing it, for fear of an even more uncertain future. That’s admirable.