The ARC itself, I have to say, seems to have become rather institutional, in both the good and bad senses of that word. Some of the parties now seem a bit pro forma; some are even exclusive---clubs within the club, as it were---sponsored by high-end boatbuilders that are well represented in the fleet. The prestige of participating in the ARC has attracted more and more of the best-financed yachts on either side of the Atlantic, and for many the rally has become part of a regular season’s schedule that also includes traditional high-profile events like the Sardinia Cup, the Heinenken Regatta, and Antigua Race Week. One skipper I know confessed to me his boat was actually on delivery and the only reason he was in the ARC was so his owner could experience the rally vicariously via the Web.
By the same token, the attentiveness to the business at hand, prepping the boats for the passage, is as professional as it is intense. World Cruising Club, now run by Andrew Bishop and Jeremy Wyatt, who broke from Cornell in that turbulent year of ’92, but returned in 1997, puts on an exceptional series of live demonstrations and seminars on everything from provisioning to communications to self-steering to SAR procedures. The star of these, encouragingly, is Stokey Woodall, the man who currently probably most personifies the spirit of the rally to those who participate.
A cantankerous soldier-turned-delivery-skipper-turned-offshore-guru, Stokey has been preaching weather routing and celestial and emergency navigation to ARConauts for the past four years, and his annual Stokey Awards bash in St. Lucia, wherein he rewards his star pupils, has become the highlight of the ARC social whirl. Another very important figure, of course, is Neil Cox, a UK-based rigger who has been offering free rig inspections to ARC boats for the past eight years. This year Neil inspected about a third of the fleet, and, believe me, some of the stories he tells about the things he finds can set your hair on end.
Meanwhile, out among the groundlings where the most of the smaller boats lie, in that vast new section of the Marina Deportiva that sits in the middle of where the anchorage used to be, the original spirit of this mother of all cruising rallies is still very much alive. Talking to people like Peter and Alison Aldred, off on a one-year Atlantic circle with their 11-year-old daughter daughter Freya on their tiny Van de Stadt 29 Canina, or Chris Roberts aboard his beautiful wood ketch Dovekie, or the indomitable Patricia Smith aboard her Nicholson 35 Wantok, I felt the same old Las Palmas magic I felt 10 years ago.
Some may complain that the ARC has become too big and too high-profile for its own good, but in the end there is no diluting the intense camaraderie that is created when sailors help other sailors get ready to confront the sea.
Long Road West on a Fast Cat
I am not normally quite so obsessed with speed, but there was something about Eric Roach’s sleek new Catana 582 Liberte, with its twin hulls, gorgeous carbon rig, and 3DL sails, that brought out the maniac in me. Acclimatized as I have become to snail-like speeds aboard my own monohull sailboat, I found sailing across the ocean at double-digit speeds to be intoxicating. Add in the fact that we never heeled, had oodles of electrical power, got to take showers every day, ate fantastic food, and had a full suite of satellite communications, and I can say without doubt this was the fastest, most comfortable transatlantic I have ever done.
Departing Las Palmas on Sunday, November 24, we were immediately confronted with a forecast for strong southwesterlies, the exact opposite of what everyone signed up for. The start outside the harbor, well inside the lee of the island, was a drifty light-air affair, but by late afternoon we were south of Gran Canaria banging into a harsh headwind straight south down the African coast. That first night, definitely the roughest of the entire passage, we saw apparent wind speeds spiking at times into the low 40s and had the boat down to just a triple-reefed main and solent jib. Over the next couple of days, however, the wind veered through the westerly quadrants and by Tuesday afternoon arrived finally in the northeast where it properly belonged, and we at last were able to start cracking off toward St. Lucia.
We had a very strong crew. In addition to Eric, the owner, a successful entrepreneur and inveterate surfer, there was Adam Bass, the skipper; Lisa Duffy, the mate and cook; Charles Allen, an accomplished singlehanded ocean racer who served as our navigator (like myself, he had also sailed in the America 500 in 1992); Rob Stober, a lawyer and former pro yacht skipper; Tony Maslin, a seasoned amateur sailor; and yours truly, the itinerant scribe. Still, we sailed fairly conservatively, in spite of some steady clamoring from certain speed-crazed members of the team.
This was my first long passage on a catamaran, and I was struck by several things. First, the strains placed on a cat’s hull at sea are truly amazing. Sitting on the cockpit sole with my back to a settee coaming, I often could feel the boat flexing quite dramatically beneath me. This was so marked that our icemaker, mounted in a cockpit bulkhead, at one point popped right out of its frame. Rob and I had an easy time remounting it, but still this is something to keep in mind when mounting equipment on an ocean-going cat.
Second, being on a bigger cat with a higher bridgedeck makes a big difference in onboard comfort. My last offshore multihull trip had been aboard a low-slung 46-foot cruising cat that suffered quite a bit of random wave punching between the hulls. The sound inside the boat was loud, and at times it was difficult to sleep. On this 58-foot performance-oriented Catana with a high bridgedeck there was much less of this. We did occasionally hit what I called “boulder patches,” where things got rough and rumbly very briefly, but these were relatively rare. On the whole, our ride was remarkably smooth and quiet. I, for one, slept like a baby.
Third, in spite of the above, Lisa assures me that cats really do need gimballed stoves! Cooking on a fixed stove at sea, even on a more-or-less flat cat, can be a bit of a hassle.
Fourth, I have a question to throw out for debate: Why are whisker poles never carried on catamarans? We certainly could have used one. Confronted with steady 20-to-22-knot winds right aft, we often had to choose between flying a spinnaker (tacked to either hull) in marginally strong conditions, which made some members of the crew nervous, especially at night, or trying to sail under just the furling headsails in marginally light conditions, which other members of the crew found frustrating. Without a pole, we were unable to set our gennaker winged out to windward, and instead had to settle for tacking the little solent out to the windward bow, with the gennaker set behind it to leeward, where it caught little wind. With a pole, we could have sailed much more efficiently off the wind without flying the spinnaker.
Be that as it may, we did well enough in the end. We sailed conservatively enough that we experienced no serious damage, in spite of twice getting caught with monumental spinnaker wraps. We sailed aggressively enough that we covered the 2,700 miles from Las Palmas to Rodney Bay in 14-1/2 days, finishing 11th over the line (out of 235 boats), just a day-and-a-half behind one sistership, Diadem, that pressed hard and shredded all her chutes, and a day ahead of another, Aurora, that pressed not quite as hard as us.