For many people, sailing across the Atlantic falls into the same category as climbing Mt. Everest. Even among serious sailors, a transatlantic crossing is not something to be taken lightly. Not only is it logistically challenging, it’s weather-sensitive, resource-dependent and more than a little intimidating.
And yet, here in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, the nearly 1,300 sailors preparing to cross the Atlantic as part of the World Cruising Club’s 2012 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers all seem strangely calm.
Six days to the start
Strolling the marina, I find a scene that’s nothing like what I expected. Instead of anxious skippers obsessing over provision lists and departure schedules, I walk by deeply tanned cruisers snoozing on sailbags, white-blond cruising kids pattering barefoot between boats, and an army of yellow-shirt-clad WCC folks assiduously, yet casually, organizing the troops.
From a distance, the marina is a sea of ARC flags adorning a menagerie of boats, no two of which are quite the same. There are 85 different brands and builders here: a 32-foot monohull and a 92-foot megayacht, 2012-vintage catamarans and 1936-vintage sloops. There are flags from 25 nations and sailors from 32, including Russia, Turkey, Columbia and Hungary. There are 40 children under the age of 16, and another 235 kids over the age of 60.
An orchestra of languages fills the air. At one point, I walk behind two girls, no older than 10, skipping hand-in-hand. In a sing-song British accent, the taller one tells the shorter one, “I know you can’t understand me, but that’s okay—we’re going to be very good friends on this adventure!”
Five days to the start
“I always wanted to cross the Atlantic; I just thought it would be on the Q.E. II,” says Mark Herzog over lunch in the cockpit of Matilda, a Trintella 47 out of Madison, Wisconsin. Mark is sailing with his brother, Paul, their nephew, Robin, and a friend, Wendell. Robin, 34, is originally from Santa Fe and fell in love with sailing as a teenager on a Caribbean charter with his uncle Paul. Following a career as a professional skier-cum-bass player, Robin is taking some time off to see the world. He’s never sailed long distance or overnight, but he seems completely enamored by the idea of it, comfortable on board and ready to embrace the unknown.
Wendell is a lake sailor from Wisconsin and has the friendly demeanor of a Midwesterner to prove it. Not only does he have experience racing overnight, he has experience racing overnight with a keg in the V-berth. An airline pilot by day, Wendell’s flexible schedule, sailing experience and pleasant disposition make him an ideal ocean-crossing crew.
Paul Herzog and his wife, Janet, have lived aboard Matilda since they purchased her in 2002. As Paul gives his crew a bow-to-stern tutorial, stopping at each line to describe its function, it’s evident the skipper is taking this all in stride. After all, Matilda has been home for a decade, and the Atlantic is merely another body of water to sweep under her keel. Janet, being an intelligent woman, is helping the boys prepare, then will race them across the ocean in an airplane.
For the Herzogs, the ARC offers a great excuse to upgrade safety equipment, because the WCC requires each boat to pass a thorough safety inspection. According to ARC participant Sheryl Shard, “The safety check is worth the entry fee. It’s not just ticking boxes, it’s talking about what’s on board and being sure everyone knows how to use it. Although it’s a test, you don’t feel like you’re under exam. It’s done with a supportive tone, and it encourages you to learn about the latest in safety gear.” In accordance with WCC protocol, Paul and Janet replaced their lifejackets with ones with crotch straps and hoods. They also swapped out their old liferaft for an ISO-approved one, and purchased a drogue anchor because, as Paul says, “I love my crew and want them to love this.”
One dock over, the crew of another American-flagged cruiser sits in their cockpit intently discussing provisions. No one in the ARC Village is too busy to hang with a stranger, so skipper Tim Szabo and crew Teresa Carey welcome me aboard. They and their shipmates aboard the Saga 43 Kinship comprise one of the most experienced crews I’ll meet. Tim has lived on board for 12 years and is midway through an Atlantic circle with the WCC, meaning he sailed east in the spring and spent the summer in Europe, prior to his imminent departure for the Caribbean. He’s an exceedingly friendly guy who’s always subtly grinning behind white whiskers. He’s thoroughly acclimatized to the cruising lifestyle and doesn’t seem concerned with leaving in a hurry or arriving on time. He’s just happy to be on his boat.
Teresa met Tim through a network of cruising friends. Though she’s lived on her own boat for years she’s never sailed across the ocean, and she seems both nervous and excited about the trip ahead.
Also on board Kinship are Rick and Julie Palm, both longtime leaders of the Caribbean 1500, the Virginia-to-Tortola rally the WCC orchestrates each fall. Rick and Julie have been cruising together for decades and bring with them a hefty supply of both experience and sea tales.
As dusk falls, the crews of Matilda and Kinship prepare for dinner. Matilda’s people are attending a WCC-run crew dinner, while Kinship is eating at Sailor’s Bar—a dockside restaurant that has been crawling with cruisers since they began arriving in Las Palmas in September. As I leave the marina, I pass boats from Sweden, Holland, Norway, Poland, Britain and Germany. I see a Duo-Generator on the transom of a Hong-Kong flagged boat and a bicycle strapped to the bow of a French one. Everywhere, sailors are chatting about the voyage ahead.
Four days to the start
Though the majority of the ARC fleet lines docks A through Z, the catamarans are sequestered in an adjacent arena, which affords them a bit more room. Nineteen cats ranging from the Jersey Channel Islands-flagged Lagoon 400 Buba Cat to the Italian Privilege 65 Sagittarius make up their own subculture, where owners like Brian Fitzpatrick of Fair Play, California, subscribe to the belief that “I didn’t want half a boat—I wanted the whole thing!”
Brian first started talking about crossing the ocean six years ago, when it occurred to him that sailing could complement his other passion: winemaking. Brian and his wife, Diana, run the Fitzpatrick Winery and Lodge, which Brian started in 1975 as one of the state’s first organic farms. In time, the farm expanded into a winery and then a lodge. Brian’s hope is that his guests will be as excited by his Lagoon 450 INNcredible Sea Lodge as he is. A weekend at a winery coupled with a charter with the winemaker? Sign me up!
To get his new boat from the Lagoon factory in France back to California, Brian enlisted the help of Andrew, a trusted winery employee with no previous sailing experience. The two flew to France in June to pick up the boat, spent seven weeks sailing to Lisbon, flew home for the harvest, and returned in October to sail from Portugal to Las Palmas, experiencing some harrowing seas along the way. “The great thing about starting in Gran Canaria is that the boats have to be able to get here,” says WCC president Andrew Bishop. “In some instances, the weather they experience getting here will be worse than the weather in the Atlantic Crossing.”
During an impromptu shakedown cruise off Las Palmas, I get to experience life aboard INNcredible firsthand, and it strikes me as both comfortable and entertaining: comfortable because almost every crewmember gets their own berth; entertaining because this crew consists of some truly unique characters. As Brian tells it, “Crew selection is critical, as throwing crew overboard later is messy.” Crewmember Nate Rangel runs a whitewater rafting company in California and Mark Pilkington is a private aircraft broker nicknamed “007” for his suspiciously endless repertoire of tall tales. In my short time aboard, I hear about his African safaris, his backstage musical excursions and the time he crash-landed in Texas. Rounding out the crew are Bert and Emily, a young couple from Maine who met at a B&B, traveled to Las Palmas in search of a ride, and found Brian. They are young and still in love enough to be excited at the prospect of sharing a tiny coffin berth.
When they aren’t swapping entertaining stories, I expect the INNcredible crew will spend lots of time planning their next meal. As an organic farmer and a vegetarian, Brian isn’t allowing any raw meat and only a handful of canned vegetables on board. Otherwise, everything is made from scratch, including a great seafood bouillabaisse I got to share with the crew.
Across the dock sits another Lagoon 450, Naos, which is being delivered to San Diego by a French-American family. Lagoon dealer Charlie Devanneaux proudly points to his DuoGen, which he claims will harness enough wind and water energy to power the electronics across the ocean. Behind him, his white-haired French crew drinks wine, of course. Collectively, the crew on Naos have over 250 years of sailing experience. Compared to Brian and his crew, with about 30 years experience, I’m not surprised that the Naos bunch seem exceptionally at ease.
That night, the regular sundowner party is jazzed up into a masked ball, and the entire ARC community arrives in costume. Before long, sailors from around the world are finding common ground to the tune of “YMCA” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”
Three Days to the Start
There’s a particular section of the ARC village that every sailor must visit before they leave: the head-turning “Megayacht Row.” Each time I stroll it, I notice something different: the strikingly handsome Italians in their matching crew uniforms; the fact that the boom on the Oyster must be 10 feet in diameter; how the poor crew on that 80-footer has been polishing the toerails for days.
But it’s not until you step into the belly of these beauties that you truly appreciate how these sailors will experience their crossing.
On board Arbella, I meet a formidable group of six men, all of whom have been professional sailors in some capacity, ranging from the owner, Mike Wallace, who was a Naval submarine officer, to the chef, Eric, who once ran charters on a 74-foot yacht in the Caribbean. This will be Mike’s first transatlantic, but first mate Scott Akerman has more than 120,000 sea miles under his belt. Arbella will be crossing in the racing class, but according to Scott, “We’re always racing. Even when we’re at the grocery store, we’re racing.” Though the sailing will be serious, life on board Arbella will be nothing short of luxurious. The galley is equipped with a dishwasher and a washer/dryer unit. The big-screen TV in the galley carries 1,000 DVDs in its memory and there will be streaming Internet from start to finish. Oh, and the towel racks are heated, naturally.
Just a few boats down, the Oyster 82 Rivendell is sparkling just as brightly. Owner Peter Schafer and his childhood friend Bruce Mulvey are accompanied by a professional captain from Gibraltar, a professional chef from South Africa, and five additional professional crew. The 82 features multiple big screen TVs, an engine room large enough to walk around in, two full-size fridge units and a full-size freezer. Each day, the crew will gather to indulge in fresh-caught fish and carefully prepared fruits and salads. Suddenly, Matlida’s fridge unit seems impossibly small.
With only a few days to go, the ARC community takes some time out for a full day of interactive safety demonstrations. In the morning, we crowd along the massive breakwater to watch the helicopter rescue demonstration. Then sailors practice lighting different types of flares.
In the afternoon, a liferaft is inflated in a swimming pool at the nearby Club Varadero. Like any safety demonstration, this is potentially boring, but the WCC folks encourage everyone to come dressed in swimsuits and try boarding the raft. Nearly all of the cruising kids attend and most are sent into a fit of giggles as the WCC staff simulates ocean waves by tossing buckets of water around.
By now, cartloads of provisions are arriving on the docks. The day is filled with excitement and planning, but nearly everyone makes time to attend the now-beloved ARC sundowner party.
Two days to the start
For many, the ARC is the trip of a lifetime, the result of years of preparation. For others, it’s an impulsive way to get from point A to point B. All around the marina village are billboards covered with crew resumes, people hoping to hop a ride across the Pond. Some, like Bert and Emily aboard INNcredible, are great sailors and solid additions to any crew. Some can offer cooking or language skills, and some just wander the docks, unable to get a skipper to bite.
I meet two young American vagabonds in the got-a-ride category who can’t be more excited. Savannah Gates, 21, of Portland, Oregon, had been traveling Europe looking for farming jobs when she heard about the ARC. Capers Rumph, 24, from Charleston, South Carolina, was working in Ghana, hitchhiked to Norway, then made her way to Las Palmas. Both girls have basic sailing experience, and both will make the crossing with Australian Michael Thurston on his 48ft alloy ketch Drina. Knowing how true colors can show when sailing, I wonder about crossing an ocean with a stranger, but these girls seem entranced with the adventure, and I wish them well.
My final visit today is to the ladies on board Diamonds are Forever, a boat managed by Girls for Sail, a UK-based company that empowers women to run a sailboat. This particular trip has seven girls on board the 37ft boat, including 22-year-old skipper Harriet Mason, who is one of nine female skippers and the youngest skipper in the fleet. Harriet is a tough darling who can hang with the boys. She tells me, “We’re seen as such a novelty, and loads of people are always coming over to see what we’re all about. It’s funny, though. I never go up to a boat and say, ‘Oh my—a whole boat of blokes! How will you manage?’”
It’s just sailing, says Harriet, but she admits a boat of girls has some differences. For instance, there’s an appointed “social secretary”—someone to be sure the crew is mentally OK. There’s a daily group meal at 1800 where the girls exchange pre-wrapped goodies—anything from games to nail polish to books. There are rules against shouting, and there are crewmembers in charge of monitoring everything—water, food, med kit, watch system, fuel and power. And there’s a whole lot of chocolate.
Tonight unwinds with the Grand Farewell Cocktail party at the Real Club Nautico. There are passed apps and an open bar and over 1,000 sailors talking about the trip ahead. Many agree this is the biggest party of their year.
One Day to the Start
Provisions are aboard, fuel and water tanks topped off, and final safety precautions complete. Every boat has set its watch schedule based on crew size and experience, and every sailor has organized his or her personal comforts: books, music, seasick medications, a secret stash of candy for the halfway mark.
Excitement is building as 138 skippers and their first mates file into the ballroom at the Hotel Santa Catalina for the final skippers’ briefing. WCC president Andrew Bishop takes the podium and discusses start times, over-early provisions, rules on engine use, and how and when to call St. Lucia after the 2,700 mile crossing to Rodney Bay Marina. He tells ARC participants, “Life is all about adventure, and you’re all about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.”
Then he announces a postponement. For the second time in the ARC’s history, the WCC decides to delay the start by 24 hours so as to cast off in a better weather window. “There will be plenty of opportunity for rough weather out there,” says Bishop, “no need to start with it in here.”
And just like that, sailors file back to their boats to hurry up and wait.
On Monday, November 26, they’ll take off as planned. Like the 200,000 ARC participants before them, they’ll gather at the start line and set their sails for the west. Thousands of people will line the seawall to watch the spectacle, as the fleet’s Yellowbrick transmitters start tracking the boats across the Atlantic.
Some things will go as planned: Arbella and Rivendall will both cross without a hitch. Some things will not: Kinship will end up losing a crewmember at the last minute and then turn around just two days out due to previously undiscovered leaks. Some folks will be disappointed. UK-based sailing journalists Sam Jefferson and Ivory Evans will report back on their skipper from hell. And some will be pleasantly surprised. INNcredible’s Mark will email:
“I never got seasick! We caught three dorado and a barracuda and ate them all. Days came and went, and the sun and moon rose and fell and we really did not know which day it was. Hundreds of pilot whales passed the boat, and they loved listening to Alison Krauss; not so keen on Bob Marley. The nights when the sky was clear, there were layers of stars we don’t see from land. I’ve sailed once and it was the Atlantic. I’d do it again.”
Photos courtesy World Cruising Club and by Meredith Laitos