Tragedy in the North American Rally to the Caribbean

While the Caribbean 1500 fleet was cooling its jets in Hampton waiting for Sean to expire, another seasonal bluewater cruising event, the North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC), was running into some serious trouble farther north.
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While the Caribbean 1500 fleet was cooling its jets in Hamptonwaiting for Sean to expire, another seasonal bluewater cruising event, the North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC), was running into some serious trouble farther north. Most of the NARC fleet of 21 boats, led by organizer Hank Schmitt aboard Avocation, a Swan 48, departed Newport, Rhode Island, bound for Bermuda (and thence to St. Maarten) on Tuesday, November 1, with a relatively clean five-day forecast from weather-router Susan Genett of Real Weather. But the unexpected development of Sean changed the dynamic of the event several days later.

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The fastest NARC boats reached Bermuda before things got too hairy, but the slower boats got caught in stronger winds that were first northerly, then shifted south. One boat, Elle, a 46-foot Beneteau, was abandoned on Sunday, November 6, for reasons that remain unclear. Though the boat had suffered a steering failure, this reportedly was repaired before the crew evacuated to Oleander, a container ship. During the evacuation, one crewmember from Elle fell overboard and spent half an hour in the water between the two vessels before being retrieved. In the end, all the crew were safely delivered to Bermuda.

Another boat that suffered serious steering problems was Riot, a 49-footer with a rather young crew aboard. The 23-year-old skipper, Coleman Bowen, told the Bermuda Royal Gazette: “A lot of stuff started to break. I mean, everything broke. We lost steering three times in three different ways.” The boat also suffered serious damage when a local Bermudian pilot boat attempted to take it in tow. In the end, Riot’s crew managed to bring her safely into harbor unassisted on Monday, November 7.

I discussed these events with Hank Schmitt on the morning of Friday, November 11 (the very day the Caribbean 1500 fleet departed Hampton), and he was rather critical of the role played by well-known amateur weather-router Herb Hilgenberg, of Toronto, Canada, who was advising several NARC participants. According to Hank, Herb’s overly conservative advice had led some boats to spend far too long reaching Bermuda. As we spoke, he was still worrying about Triple Stars, an Island Packet 380 that had already been at sea 10 days and was still over 250 miles north of Bermuda.

“Herb told them they should stay north and wait for better weather when they had north wind that could have brought them here in a couple of days,” Hank told me. “Now they have south wind and can’t get here.”

In response, Herb criticized Hank in an e-mail for leaving Newport when he did. “The NARC rally should never have started to begin with,” he wrote, “and I believe Hank Schmitt is looking for someone to take the blame for his bad decision.”

Sadly, word came the very next day that Jan Anderson, one of two crew aboard Triple Stars, had been lost. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, an EPIRB assigned to Triple Stars was ignited at 1339 on Friday, November 11, followed five minutes later by a radio call from Rob Anderson stating that his wife had been swept overboard by a 30-foot wave. A commercial vessel, High Jupiter, diverted to the scene and after taking Rob aboard conducted a search for Jan that was abandoned the following day.

According to Hank, Triple Stars had suffered autopilot problems prior to being abandoned. Reportedly, there was also an issue with the roller-furling mainsail. Rob Anderson, who was taken to France aboard High Jupiter, was not available for comChment at press time.

Photo by Michael Eudenbach

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