By Kimball Livingston
Imagine sailing into a foreign port and finding it packed full of your best friends. That's the dream—and sometimes the reality—of a long distance rally.
I know the dream can be real. I've seen it. But let's agree up front that rallies work for some people, and not for others. If for you the purpose of voyaging is to wander aimlessly (as aimlessly as changing seasons and prevailing winds allow) and to keep going for as long as it works out, then you must go your own way, and fair winds to you, my friend.
There are others for whom the structure of a rally—that it has a beginning and an end, that it has specific expectations and specific compromises, that it builds its own support group—is the very thing that makes it work. Twenty months going around with the Blue Water Rally won't open up as much of the world as five years going around on your own. That's arithmetic. But 20 months can be a circumnavigation. It's more than most people get, and it will take you to places where they don't charge extra for free-range chicken. If a rally is your enabler, then fair winds to you, my friend.
I met up in the South Pacific in 2004 with the circumnavigating sailors of the Blue Water Rally—currently the only round-the-world rally—to share a leg through a few of Fiji's 300 islands. The voyage from Savusavu to Malolo LaiLai is not a great distance, about 200 miles, depending on your route. But this is a region of boat-hungry reefs, so we sailed during daylight only and made a three-day, two-stop passage of it aboard Aragorn, a J/46 owned by Americans Dick and Leslie York. Of 16 rally boats, 3 were from the U.S. All 3 joined their European counterparts in the Caribbean, following the Atlantic leg from Gibraltar.
They were a seasoned lot by the time we set out dodging reefs through Fiji's Bligh Water (after being put off the Bounty, Bligh sailed through here on his longboat, recording soundings for the Admiralty even as his men struggled to outpace the local war canoes). We anchored for our first night in company with Guido and Lies van Daele of Holland and dined on the catch of the day aboard their Garcia Passoa 50, Elise. Guido observed, "No one is experienced enough to sail around the world when they start. But the truth is that it's not difficult to sail around the world. What's difficult is keeping your boat ready to sail around the world."
The Blue Water Rally is a mix of tight and loose organization. There are major stopovers where the organizers meet the boats to smooth out paperwork and transit issues, haul in replacement parts, offer entertainment and tours, and distribute intelligence about the next passage. In between, you get to make it up. Gibraltar to Gibraltar takes 20 months including transiting the Panama Canal, touring the Galapagos and Milk Running through the South Pacific, then exploring Australia and Asia and stopping over at stunning but little-touristed Djibouti, which occupies a strategic spot (yes, there is strife) at the mouth of the Red Sea. Then it's the Suez Canal and the Med.
Organizing partner Peter Seymour of Blue Water Rallies Limited (yachtrallies.co.uk) said that in any rally, boats drop out and others drop in. Some people know ahead of time that they want to stick with the group only as far as, say, Tahiti; others get that far and rethink. The rally is a success, however, when it develops a life and a spirit of its own. More than 70 people showed up in Scotland this year for a reunion of 1998-2000 veterans; they still sail together, some of them.
In the moment the experience is consuming. Sue Goldsmith of the British Nicholson 40 ketch, St. Barbara of Mersea, said, "It's difficult for our friends back home to come out to join us as far afield as the South Pacific, and even then, unless they're avid sailors, there may not be much to talk about after the second day. For a year now the rally has been our world and our family.
"When you first set out on something like this," Goldsmith said, "there are people in the group that you're sure will drive you bonkers, but you adjust the way you would in any family. Then there are the cruisers who have been in Fiji for months and think that rally people are odd to go through in a few weeks. They have a point, but we've also seen 'cruisers' who have given up traveling and are growing into the landscape. One thing about the rally, it keeps you going. Peter and I were tempted to linger in the South Pacific, but we feel a loyalty to these guys. We've made a commitment that we're going to be with them."
Savusavu offered a day of Optimist racing that went well for Dick York (he shoehorned into the shoebox and won) and local juniors ($1,000 raised for junior sailing). Briton Alistair Roberts went strolling down the street and bumped into Tom Waqabaca, a buddy from his army regiment that he hadn't seen in 30 years. And a song and dance troupe performed at the ceremony in which the rally fleet was received by the high chief, Ratu Suliano Naulu, while savories baked in the ground for the evening lovo, and the slightly narcotic local drink, kava, made the rounds with traditional ceremony.
David Reynolds, a veteran of the 1995-96 rally, dropped in to talk old times with Peter and Annette Seymour, rally reps for this stop. To me, Reynolds said, "While I was going around I met people who were stuck in harbors for weeks or months waiting for parts to replace a broken this or that. But on our first leg in the South Pacific one of the lower shrouds started unraveling. We jury-rigged a replacement and another boat sailed with us all the way to port. Then, less than 15 minutes after we made land, rally-support was on board with a replacement. It matters that you can sail into a new place and you don't have to wonder where's check-in, where's the laundry. You have people on your side." (Among the legends of the organizers is the time they passed Galapagos customs with a replacement gearbox in carry-on luggage. James Bond, eat your heart out.)
The next day was briefing day, with locals providing safe routes and waypoints for the coming leg through that difficult water between the large islands of Vanua Levu (where Savusavu is tucked into a protected bay) and Viti Levu, which hosts the international airport on its western face at Nadi (pronounced Nandi—Fijians have no hard-D sound). Our goal was cruiser-friendly Musket Cove Resort on the tiny island of Malolo LaiLai, about 10 miles across from Nadi. The voyage through Bligh Water led us to the anchorage rendezvous that I mentioned before and after that to a second overnight, much like the first. Some boats went south-around Viti Levu while we transited to the north. All of us would meet again in Musket Cove for the wedding …
My skipper for the trip, Dick York, is a Bermuda racing veteran who chose a J/46 as his fast passagemaker. Not to hurry up and get it over with, but because a fast passagemaker is a boat that will keep sailing in light air—far more common than storms—when others resort to the motor. And it just plain feels good. "Otto" the autopilot did his job, but there were times when we hand-steered for the sheer pleasure of it—halfway around the world from home—and that can't be wrong.
Oh, the wedding. Benno Schneider and Margrit Eggli were traveling under the Swiss flag on the Amel Super Maramu, Doctor Bird, and they realized the time had come. What better place to get married than under the tradewinds of Fiji, in the company of their newest best friends? And the spirit was catching. David Lewis and Claire Milner of the J/160 Condor accompanied the lovebirds into Nadi to take care of paperwork, and while they were there "We just decided to get married," Claire said. "We kept it low-key, because Benno and Margrit had big plans and we didn't want to take anything away." So there were two weddings, not one, to celebrate, and when David Rucker's American-flagged Cal 46, Scaramouche, arrived just in time from a south-around, the moment proved one thing: it takes a village to stern-tie a boat.
With Benno and Margrit doing the deed island-style, the men attended the wedding in traditional Fijian sulus and their best interpretations of Island Formal. The result was almost colorful enough to match the entrance of the bride herself, preceded by a grim warrior with an axe and a more cheerful soul sounding a ceremonial horn.
The weddings were a high point, but the very next day life was back to normal: working on boats and talking about boats. The uninitiated might imagine cruising as endless Sundays, but it's better understood as hard-puttering Sundays. Almost everybody spends time working on somebody else's boat and welcoming help in return.
Aragorn had no issues, but Dick was busy elsewhere and as near as I could tell, he was loving it. There are many ways to leave the rat race, but when executive-length socks become shock insulators for Cabernet bottles rather than a dress requirement, you're clear. Dick and Leslie, however, might not have made Fiji at all without the rally. They're like many couples in which both enjoy boats and sailing, but one is more enthusiastic than the other about long distance voyaging. They already knew their boat—they had taken Aragorn three times to the Caribbean from their home in Rowayton, Connecticut—but the framework of the rally and access to insurance were enablers for the circumnavigation. Since 1997 the rally has worked with GH Insurance Services, and there is enough history to support the often-unavailable underwriting of policies on hulls, travel (for health, or as the result of an incident) and trip cancellation.
Insurance was a factor for Ed and Helen Muesch as well, sailing their American-flagged Hans Christian 43, Tahlequah, in spite of Ed's limps and gimps (he needs hip surgery) and thanks to the insight of his friendly M.D., a man of balanced priorities. The doctor told Ed, "Go sailing; we'll fix the hip later." Now, that's a doc.
And sometimes what matters most is the lightweight stuff. I giggled my way through the great Hobie Cat Intergalactics, crewing for Guido on the Elise team, and despite the magnificence of our efforts (we sort-of survived) we ran second to David (The Fierce) Lewis of Condor and Jill (The Stalwart) Newton of New Crusader. A kayak race and other events advertised for our Sports Extravaganza never quite came off, and during our afterglow, Andy Oliver of the Oyster 55, Mizu Baby, got to ragging on the rally team for shorting us; others toned him down because "we" had simply failed to sign up soon enough to support the event. This went on for a while, but we had had our laughs, and the point of writing about such a thing is that during my time in Fiji, more than one of the skippers went out of his way to tell me, don't go off and write a sugar-coated report. I promised I wouldn't have to. Blue water sailing, no matter how much support you get, will always include disappointments (minor, like this one, or not) and stress. Almost like real life.
Ours, ultimately, was a scene that could have taken place in any tropical kickback. Gripes about an abbreviated Sports Extravaganza soon dissolved into a re-appreciation of boats and racing and who's worse at sailing aged-out Hobie Cats and just, basically, sitting in the sunshine bantering about the good fortune of being "out here". Eventually Mizu Baby Andy swept a hand across the blueness of the water and the clarity of the sky and asked, "Do you ever want to pinch yourself and say, Hey baby, it's Monday?" And St. Barbara Peter answered. "Not today; it's Tuesday." And I wasn't sure who was right.