It was a crisp Caribbean morning—bright sun with the trades rolling in early. Nothing seemed too special, aside from the spectacular views of Grenada’s mountains, until I heard a crackling announcement over the VHF: “Jeannius has just crossed her track and has circumnavigated the globe.” I had never even contemplated a 15-month journey around the world, but the transmission gave me goose bumps.
A handful of boats had arrived in the previous days’ rains to finish the last competitive leg of the World ARC cruising rally from Recife, Brazil, to St. Georges, Grenada. Of the 19 boats completing the rally, Jeannius was one of two that had left from Grenada to join the official start in St. Lucia in January 2010 and so was the first now to complete her lap. The rest would have to wait until they sailed up to St. Lucia in a few days for the final awards ceremony.
The sailors on the dock awaiting the arrival of the last four boats that morning beamed with their shared accomplishments, but there was also some tension in the air. Only a few days into the 2,100-mile passage from Recife, the Neumann family aboard the Privilege 445 catamaran, Basia, was run down by a freighter in the night and the boat was dismasted. The rescue and eventual safe arrival of the cat and her crew into Grenada spoke volumes about the concept of crossing oceans in company.
The odd sight of Basia turning into the Port St. Louis marina sans rig was tempered by the cheers of rally sailors in their dinghies guiding her into her berth, complete with party hats and noise-makers. Nonetheless, the galvanizing effect the accident had on the fleet was evident when the entire marina grew silent as dock lines were tossed and Michael Neumann, his wife, Barbara, and daughter Anna were greeted with hugs and tears.
Stepping into this family of sailors in Grenada, I certainly felt like an interloper. The bonds these sailors forged through gales, customs disputes, a wedding and even a dismemberment (a finger), were stronger than I could comprehend. It is hard to answer the question, “Why circumnavigate?” But to these sailors, and particularly the crew of Basia, the answer to the question, “Why circumnavigate in a rally?” was quite evident.
“There were four boats right with Basia,” said Bob Daigle of Maine, who crewed aboard the Sundeer 60 Ocean Jasper. “It was the first time where ‘safety in numbers’ really came into play.” In this case, a coordinated effort by those in close proximity to the stricken boat kept misfortune from turning into disaster.
Circumnavigating in a group, however, is not just useful for sorting out visas and the passage through the Panama Canal, or to have someone there in case you break down or have an accident. I found even the biggest loners in the fleet were praising the rally format.
“We took advantage of the diversity in the group,” said Ocean Jasper’s skipper, Jim Geddes. “It’s not ‘I’m going to hide my route to beat you.’ We learned from the better sailors’ routes.” The experience level in the group of 257 participants was wide-ranging. Some were handier with electronics, others with engines and others with recipes for cooking fresh fish. All information was shared.
Solitude is inevitable on a boat in the ocean. But with the advent of round-the-world rallies—this was the eighth such rally run by the World Cruising Club, and the second under the World ARC name—sailors no longer have to carry the worry of being entirely alone in the great blue sea.
“Jim said he booked the rally, so we quit our jobs and said OK,” said Daigle as he explained how he and his wife, Maggie, signed up to sail aboard Ocean Jasper. He told me, however, that he’d had a different view of bluewater sailing before completing the World ARC.
“I am independent, so I was dubious about doing a circumnavigation in a rally format. I mean, isn’t a circumnavigation about being independent from everything?” asked Daigle, who left the company he founded in 2000 to sail with the group. “But there is a ‘herding cats’ value and social aspect. You show up in far-flung places and you already have buddies. It turns out I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
Even with 19 boats as a support net, the dangers of the ocean still took their toll on the fleet, especially off the treacherous coast of South Africa.
“Off Cape Town the Agulhas Current runs into the Benguela Current at up to 5 knots,” explained Joe Metz, who did the tour with his son, Jared, aboard Brown-Eyed Girl, an Amel 53. “You have to stay close to the 200 meter line and get inside fast if the wind goes southwest. They predicted 35 knots, and we wound up with sustained winds in the 50s.” The hydraulic furler failed and sent a 150 percent genoa flying out of control. When the manual backup broke and the sail tore, they called Cape Town for help.
“The volunteer Sea Rescue service offered to tow us into Hout Bay,” recalled Joe. “I asked, ‘What will it cost?’ Free! So a boat towed us from the front and one was tied to the back to keep us straight. We were towed into Hout Bay and tied to a stone jetty. There were 90-knot gusts that blew off our solar panels.”
Jochem and Jutte Doehne aboard their Irwin 54, Chessie, were also towed into Hout Bay by Sea Rescue. Overpowered, their stainless-steel rudder shaft bent and the rudder pulled free from the skeg. With the rudder jammed, they were helpless and could not maneuver.
Meanwhile, the Neumanns aboard Basia encountered a bizarre whirlpool in the Agulhas Current. “The boat took over and was swirling around,” said Michael, who is in the commercial fishing industry in Nova Scotia. “We made a full circle in 30 seconds, like an amusement park ride. I looked to the right and saw the hole and the walls and didn’t see the bottom. I turned 90 degrees and eventually broke free.”
None of these calamities, however, prepared the Neumanns and the rest of the fleet for what was to come.