Every year since 1986, a group of around 200 cruising boats has gathered in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, ready to set forth across the Atlantic Ocean—their destination, the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean’s beautiful Windward Isles.
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is now one of 11 sailing rallies organized by the UK organization World Cruising Club (WCC). Based in the Isle of Wight, the WCC has played a major role in encouraging, overseeing and nurturing the crews of these intrepid yachts, many of whom have never crossed an ocean before under sail. This past December I had the opportunity to get a first-hand look at exactly how the fleet goes about preparing for what, by any measure, is a major undertaking.
Arrival in Gran Canaria
The fleet arrives in dribs and drabs over the two weeks prior to the start, but ideally, participants should aim to check in a week beforehand, so that WCC officials will have time to process things like comms contacts, crew numbers, IDs and boat papers. Arriving early also allows crews and skippers to make the most of the numerous free seminars available in the week prior to their departure.
Cruisers come from all over the world, with some even setting out from Northern Europe a full five-six weeks in advance. Most, though, enjoy a summer of cruising in the Mediterranean before leaving from the Balearics or Gibraltar for the Canaries. Many U.S. entrants will have also come across from the States or the Caribbean a year or two beforehand in order to cruise Europe so that by the time they complete their Atlantic circuit via the ARC they are already fairly experienced.
Often the journey to Las Palmas is more eventful than crossing the Atlantic itself. The weather and sea conditions in the Western Med and Bay of Biscay, in particular, can frequently make for some pretty tough sailing from mid-September to late November, giving both yachts and crews a thorough shakedown.
When the ARC first started in 1986 a 45ft sailboat was considered pretty big, and the majority of the boats were between 30-40ft, with many below today’s limit of 32ft LOA. However, in 2016 the average length was around 55ft, with quite a number over 65ft.
Today there’s also a thriving racing contingent, with 33 yachts this past year vying to beat the course record of 8 days, 7 hours, and 39 minutes achieved by the VO65 Team Brunel in 2015, with the U.S.-flagged Rambler 88 one of the most likely contestants to take line honors (see A Record-Breaking ARC below).
Owned by George David, the former CEO of UTC, Rambler is an 88ft Juan Koujoumdjian-designed canting keel maxi with a massive beam, full-length chines and deep daggerboards. She has an enviable record of successes in pretty much all the major regattas worldwide since her launch in 2014, including winning and setting a new record in the Volvo Round Ireland Race in 2016, winning the Triple Crown in the Volcano Race, honors in Les Voile de St Barths in 2015 and a fourth overall in the Rolex Transatlantic Race in 2015, to name but a few. Hard on her heels at the time of writing were the VOR70s, Trifork and Sanya, and the Swan 90, Woodpeckercube.
Unlike the cruising division, the race fleet is not allowed to use engine power for propulsion.
Routes and Prizes
A few years ago it was also decided by popular demand to run a second cruising division of the ARC, the ARC+, which departs Las Palmas a couple of weeks earlier than the main ARC and includes a stopover at the mountainous island of Sao Vicente in the Cape Verdes, some 850 miles south of Gran Canaria.
This year 72 yachts set off on the ARC+, of which five—Allende, Boysterous, Kristina, Sirena and Unconditional—were American. The stopover includes a short stay in the busy capital city, Mindelo, where life is similar to that of a large European town. The city has grown up around the large harbor with its bustling fish market, while a cheerful strain of Afro/Caribbean-style music and singing drifts out of the many lively bars and cafes. The island has some stunning scenery and vast, almost unpopulated beaches on which to stretch your legs. It is, however, pretty dry, making the mountainous backdrop mostly a dark reddish hue.
From Sao Vicente, it is approximately 2,150 miles to St. Lucia, a small saving on the 2,700 miles from Las Palmas, but most participants say it’s a worthwhile detour.
No matter what the route, all boats must undertake a full safety check by WCC staff before being allowed to take part in the rally. In addition, these days all ARC yachts must carry a Yellow Brick (YB) tracking device (rental units available), which will enable them to be followed on the WCC’s website Fleetviewer, or on the YB app. Competitors must also carry an EPIRB for distress calling and a fixed DSC VHF radio.
Despite some of the racing crews taking it a little seriously, the ARC is still at its heart a sociable event, and camaraderie is generally the name of the game. Several yachts have young children aboard, and over the decades a good many long-term friendships have been forged.
At the finish in St. Lucia, not only is each crewmember given a serious tot of rum and a bowl of local fruit from the St Lucia Tourist Board, but the WCC awards a variety of prizes and trophies for performance (speed and/or handicap) as well as those for the best family performance, the oldest boat, the last arrival and more. Apparently, one year a prize was even awarded to the most troublesome skipper!
Not unusually, the weather promised to be a little tricky at the start of the 2016 rally, thanks to a large low-pressure zone in the mid-Atlantic, which was forcing the boats to choose between going south to pick up the trades or take the rhumb line to make the most of the stronger initial winds. The latter was looking to be the tougher route at first and probably a faster sail. But there was also the possibility it would prove frustrating as the winds died away around the halfway mark.
No matter, at noon local time in glorious sunshine and with a perfect 12-knot breeze from the northeast, the horn on the Spanish naval ship Tornado signaled the start of the multihull and open divisions, and the rally was off and running.
It was a typically competitive start for the 33 boats in the racing division, with the VOR70, Trifork and the Swan 46, Aphrodite, over the line early, earning them a three-hour penalty. Half an hour after that the remaining 152 yachts set off, and with the northeasterly giving them an ideal beam reach off the start line, a good number of asymmetric spinnakers were hoisted as soon as they crossed it.
As is typically the case, the 2016 ARC fleet included a number of boats from the United States, all experienced skippers having already crossed the Pond to get to the start of the rally. Among them were the following yachts.
Aphrodite (Swan 46)
The 1989-launched Nautor’s Swan 46 Aphrodite has raced around the world, including the Newport to Bermuda America’s Cup Jubilee, the Transat 2015, the Marblehead-Halifax Race and the Swan Cup series in Porto Cervo. In addition, she has cruised New England, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, including Turkey, Greece, Sicily, France, Spain, the Balearics, Malta and Corsica, and participated in three previous ARCs.
Owner Christopher Otorowski lives in Seattle but joins his boat whenever he can. For skipper Valerio Bardi, this was to be his 11th ARC, and the second one aboard Aphrodite. Valerio also owns a Swan 46, and so has bags of experience with this model of yacht. His crew for this ARC, Maurizio Ricchiuto, Fiorenzo Saggese, Jorge Fernandez, and Mike and Sue Jostrom, represented a wide variety of European sailors.
I found Aphrodite in the boatyard just three days prior to the start, where she had been having her rudder bearings replaced. During her passage from Corfu to Las Palmas, she had developed a leak and some rather worrying clunking noises had begun to emanate from her stern. Valerio, however, insisted that all was well in hand. And, indeed, the yard team not only managed to obtain the necessary parts from Nautor’s Swan in Finland in record time but also installed them with some additional epoxy reinforcement “just in case.”
Albatross (Solaris 42)
Albatross was newly launched in April 2016. Fernando Assens collected her personally from the Solaris yard in Italy and then cruised back through the Med, stopping finally at Gibraltar before the long passage to Las Palmas. Although they are regular production boats, Solaris yachts are soundly built using a monocoque construction method, so all the loads from the rig and deck are distributed evenly around the hull to avoid the creation of any concentrated stress areas and their associated vulnerability to failure. It would be hard to imagine a better design for safely and quickly crossing “The Pond.”
Spanish-born Fernando Assens had taken a four-month sabbatical from his management consultancy business in his hometown Chicago to complete the trip, and he was very much looking forward to the crossing. Having owned six previous yachts, including four from French builder Dufour, he had added very little to the standard S42—merely an Iridium satellite phone for comms and weather, the required Yellow Brick tracker and an extra house battery. In addition to the B&G Zeus MFD for chart navigation, he also planned to use iNav-X on his iPad as a backup and the Commander service for weather routing.
Before the start, Fernando said he had total confidence in Albatross’s ability to perform swiftly and safely, even in the high seas and constantly varying wind conditions of the Atlantic. “At home,” he added, “she’ll mainly be used on Lake Michigan, so I don’t want her loaded down with heavy gear such as watermakers, generators, etc.” That said, he had equipped her with Quantum Dacron cruising sails, cut specifically for trade wind conditions and a large asymmetric spinnaker to be flown off the boat’s bowsprit.
Albatross was to be crewed by some of Fernando’s regular sailing mates, Chuck Kuehn, James Benjamin, Billy William, Kevin Foote and Lolo Cabialle, using a four-hour-on, eight-off paired watch system. Although Fernando’s wife, Magdalene, prefers skiing, she also enjoys sailing with him on the lakes inclement conditions.
Wings (Hylas 54)
After selling his Nautic 44, English-born Howard Champion bought Wings, a Hylas 54, from an air force commander in 2004, when she was a year old. Hylas’s semi-custom, center-cockpit displacement cruising yachts exude quality and solidity throughout, and every boat is built to take ocean passages in its stride. Keen sailors Howard and his son Mike completed the Caribbean 1500 in 2014 and the Annapolis-Bermuda race last year, before continuing across the North Atlantic to Europe via the Azores.
Another WCC event, the ARC Caribbean 1500 fleet sails from Portsmouth, Virginia, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, to Nanny Cay on Tortola, British Virgin Islands, in early November. The 750-mile Annapolis-Bermuda race sets off in early September.
Howard had recently replaced all his rigging and sheets, several items of deck gear, the generator and thesailing instrumentation (now B&G’s latest) in advance of the return Atlantic crossing. He uses a KVH SatCom system for communications and weather and has a watermaker onboard. He has also extended his stern rail along the quarters and fabricated a stainless steel jerry can rack along each side, which enables him to carry 50gal of additional diesel. When not in use, the racks drop down, clearing the side decks.
Owing to her need to be on call for her 99-year-old mother, Howard’s wife, Pat, wasn’t able to make the trip, despite it apparently having been her suggestion. After the boat’s return, however, they are planning a similar circuit again; only this time they’ll be stopping over in Bermuda for the America’s Cup. Prior to that Wings will be kept in Tortola, a short flight down from Annapolis where they live.
Far (Garcia Malibu 54)
Garcia Yachts are built in Normandy, in Northwest France, and are an excellent example of the French sailor’s affection for aluminum yachts. The Garcia yard has been constructing its custom-built range of rugged 45ft to 115ft ocean-cruising yachts for the past 40 years and recently took over a similar French alloy boatbuilder, Allures Yachting. The yard was also the choice of the ARC’s founder and world-renowned circumnavigator, Jimmy Cornell, who along with designer Olivier Racoupeau helped create Garcia’s latest Expedition range of go-anywhere bluewater cruising yachts when he commissioned them to build his latest boat, Aventura IV. The design brief was that she should be perfectly at home sailing in the tropics, while at the same time being equally capable of taking him through the notoriously difficult Northwest Passage.
Owners Philip and Lorraine Streat bought their 26-year-old Garcia Malibu, Far, 10 years ago in Greece, where they totally refitted her before setting off to cruise the Mediterranean and visit the UK’s south coast. Philip is UK-born but went to live in Maine in 1984 after meeting and falling in love with American, Lorraine. Since buying Far they have worked in the EU between cruises, running a hotel barge in the European canal system. On arrival in St Lucia, they planned to cruise the Caribbean at a gentle pace before heading back home to Maine. They had two crew for the ARC, Mike Seargent (Australian) and Holger Bordasch (German), both experienced yachtsmen.
Black Lion (Oyster 625)
One of a total of 26 Oyster yachts entering this year’s ARC, Black Lion is owned and sailed regularly by keen yacht racer and Chicago Lions Rugby Football Club supporter (hence her name), Ed Rumble. Ed bought her in April 2016 and his English delivery skipper, Rory Gillard, brought her to Las Palmas from his hometown Palma, Majorca, after a season cruising in the Med. Rory also planned to accompany the boat across the Atlantic, along with Ed, Ed’s 15-year-old son, Adam, and several friends. After their arrival in the Caribbean, Ed planned to cruise slowly north, up along the Eastern Seaboard, before heading back to the Med.
Being an Oyster, Black Lion is kitted out with most of the usual bluewater equipment as standard, although Ed added a Sailor T&T SatCom system for weather and communications. Rory had also purchased a Nimble Navstick (chartplotter/GPS USB stick) as a backup system for use on his laptop. Black Lion had a carbon spectra mainsail and three asymmetric spinnakers in its wardrobe for the crossing. Oddly, Rory reported having problems with the boat’s AIS receiver and wondered if the carbon in her sails could be adversely affecting reception as the system exhibited no problems when it was tested on the dock.
A Record-Breaking ARC
George David’s super-maxi Rambler 88 fulfilled expectations and then some in 2016 by completing the 2,700-mile passage from Gran Canaria to St. Lucia in a miserly 8 days, 6 hours 29 minutes and 15 seconds, beating out the previous record by just over an hour.
In 2015, previous record holder Team Brunel sailed a total distance of 3,343 miles in good pressure at an average speed of 16.8 knots. However, while the winds were lighter in 2016, Rambler 88 was able to take advantage of a small depression that was followed by a fast reach down to Saint Lucia. Overall, the team also sailed a course that was approximately 270 miles shorter.
Rambler 88’s victory marks the fourth consecutive year in which the course record has been broken, Team Brunel having snatched the title from the Farr 100 Leopard, which in turn, broke the previous record set by the Knierim 65 Caro in 2013.
“Once we set off, we were confident we could make the crossing in eight days,” owner George David said afterward. “But the record was less certain, right up until we crossed the finish line, really. Two squalls came across us in the morning bringing torrential downpours but no wind, so that slowed us down even more. Given the challenges this year, we are thrilled to have broken the record!”
Of course, how long this latest record is going to stand is anyone’s guess. But given the recent history of this sailing rally, it likely won’t be for long.—Adam Cort
World Cruising Club: worldcruising.com
ARC Official Entry list worldcruising.com/arc
ARC Crew Blogs: worldcruising.com/arc/dailylogs.aspx