Tripping the ARC Fantastic

Editor’s Note: The 2011 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is set to start on November 20 from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands and will conclude in the West Indies at Rodney Bay on St. Lucia. This year 254 boats have signed up to join. of 32 are multihulls, a record for the event. The World Cruising Club, which runs the ARC, claims this year’s rally will be the “largest transoceanic cruising catamaran event in the world.” To give you an idea of what it’s like running the ARC in a cat, we thought we’d republish this story from the April 2003 issue of SAIL.

Look for coverage of this year’s ARC in a future issue of SAIL and here online.

Jimmy Cornell, history tells us, is the man who invented the ARC. In reality, it was probably the ARC that invented him. After all, he never lured all those cruisers to the Canary Islands; he simply found them there. His was a brilliant, but fairly obvious idea: take this vast river of more than 1,000 yachts that flows across the Atlantic each year from the Canaries to the West Indies and channel it into an organized event with parties, drinking, trophies, etc.

It was clear from the beginning that Cornell had tapped into something big. In its first year, 1986, the ARC enlisted 204 yachts from 24 nations on its entry list and was instantly enshrined in the record books as the largest transoceanic race ever held. It remains so to this day. Every year since, the event has attracted well over 200 boats, its entry list fills up many months in advance of the start, and the waiting list grows longer and longer.

I first visited Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, from whence the ARC departs, in 1992. I had sailed to Europe that summer on a large Alden schooner, Constellation, that had joined the TransARC, an eastbound transatlantic rally also run by Cornell. We planned to return that fall in the America 500, a special quincentennial rally from Spain to the Bahamas via the Canaries that Cornell had organized to commemorate Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. Constellation unfortunately sank in a river in Spain, but I managed to make my way to the Canaries on another America 500 boat and so got to experience the very special buzz that is Las Palmas in November.

To say that the America 500 transformed most of its participants is hardly an exaggeration. To this day, the strong sense of family created during that rally endures. This was in spite of, but also because of, Cornell’s very authoritarian manner. In a very real sense, “bitching about Jimmy” was an important part of what galvanized us.

In fairness to Cornell, however, 1992 was a very stressful year for him, for he had by then vastly overextended himself. In addition to running the TransARC and the 500, he also ran the annual ARC rally, which departed Las Palmas only a few weeks after the 500, and also launched his first Europa round-the-world rally. Since then, the wave of enthusiasm for rallies that followed the ARC’s intital success has subsided a bit. Cornell pulled in his horns, sold out to Chay Blyth in 1999, and has since resumed cruising himself. Meanwhile, no one has ever succeeded in putting together aregular cruising rally as vast and momentous as the ARC.

On being asked to once again sail out of Las Palmas in November 2002, 10 years after my first departure, I was curious, of course, to see what had become of this famous cruising crossroad and the great rally it spawned. And again, it seems, the tables have turned. Just as the rally invented Cornell, so has it reinvented Las Palmas. Or one large corner of the harbor, at any rate. The whole southern portion, formerly mostly anchorage, is now mostly marina, and that marina, more than double the size it was back in ’92, is exclusive ARC territory in the fall right after hurricane season. Independent transient sailors passing through the Canaries this time of year now have to go to harbors on the other side of Gran Canaria, or to Tenerife, Gomera, or Lanzarote, where new marinas have been erected in the past decade.

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