We’d been told to expect meteor showers on our first night out of Bermuda, so Sue and I were eyes-alert to the black sky when a green light, round like a traffic light, erupted from the sea 300 yards off our starboard bow. It arced toward us and Salamander’s foredeck and sails were briefly aglow in green, like an alien spaceship. Then it was gone.
“What the hell was that?” Sue asked.
“A flare,” I said, already imagining a liferaft disappearing in our wake. They had fired their last flare… we were their only hope… we were in the Bermuda Triangle…
“Distress flares are red, not green,” our skipper, Chris, said.
In the sensible light of day, I realised that a man-made light from beneath the water could come only from a submarine. Google agreed. The long grey cigar of an American sub had slid undetected beneath our keel.
We were one of 30 yachts sailing in the ARC Europe rally from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, north to Bermuda and then east across the Atlantic to the Azores. ARC rallies are run by the World Cruising Club (WCC) on popular cruising routes, almost guaranteeing that participants avoid pirates, political unrest and major storm seasons. It makes no promises about submarines.
The WCC does, however, promise to streamline the formalities of customs and immigration and negotiate bulk deals at fuel docks and marina berths. Oh, and as I found in Tortola, Bermuda and the Azores, all ARC staff know how to throw a party.
For those reasons, some independent yachts consider that being in port with an ARC fleet is like pulling up to your favourite restaurant at the same time as a tour bus. They check the ARC schedule before planning their own to ensure they don’t coincide.
I had arrived in Tortola on at the end of April last year, to join Britons Chris and Sue White on Salamander, a Nauticat 55 ketch. The BVI were still a mess after Hurricane Irma hammered most of its marinas, roads, infrastructure and houses in 2017. The wrecks of sailboats and motorboats lay jumbled together in harbors. No wonder the local cocktail is a Painkiller.
Nanny Cay Marina, the base for the ARC Europe fleet, had been trashed, too, but had been rebuilt for its core business: foreign yachts. The piers were pristine, and the bar welcomed patrons beneath palm fronds beside a swimming pool and a trucked-in white sandy beach.
The ARC Europe fleet was a display of national ensigns: the United States, Chile, Italy, Denmark, Germany, England, Portugal, Slovenia. Some boats were crewed by families or couples, others by groups of friends. Some had paying crew, others had paid crew or maritime hitchhikers picked up on the dock.
Somehow, the ARC staff of Mark, Cecelia and Manuel, super-powered by their bright yellow shirts, managed to coordinate 30 boats, 120 people and 10 languages. The “Answer to Everything” was Mark’s radio scheduled for 0900 every morning. It notified the fleet about final safety inspections, a fleet of minibusses going to the supermarket and where customs officials would set up a temporary office to stamp us out of the country.
The 850-mile leg from Tortola to Bermuda gave us little wind in an increasingly choppy sea. Most of the ARC yachts sailed the rhumb line, forming clusters of icons on the AIS. Chris clicked on those closest to us—Mares Tail (Bavaria Vision 42), Amari (Hylas 46), Chantana (Oyster 56), Amanda (Dufour 455 GL) and Oyster Blew (Oyster 56)—to see if they were sailing faster and trimmed our sails to make sure we were performing.
After the green light our first evening at sea, day two brought another drama when Amari called Amanda over the VHF. On Amari, Will and Dottie had noticed Amanda’s bizarre track on AIS and wanted to know if all was well onboard. It wasn’t. In a strong Danish accent, Eric, Amanda’s skipper, reported that his yacht had lost steering and a crewmember was injured.
Over the next few hours, Dottie calmly advised basic first aid and stayed on point as she arranged for the two yachts to rendezvous. Amari would stay with Amanda through the night and had a spare steering cable if required.
Eric said he was trying another repair. It must have been horrendous, struggling with the steering gear in a confined space and a rough sea. Amanda’s emergency steering was working, he said, but difficult to use. And yes, they would like to try the steering chain, thank you. He sounded stressed.
Karma Daze (Elan 434) and Mares Tail called up and said they’d shadow Amanda, too. It was ARC love in action.
The following morning, we listened as Amari arranged to transfer the steering cable. As Will explained later, the two boats drew abeam of each other, about 20ft apart in the sloppy sea. Amari had jury-rigged a zipline that ran from her spare halyard, across the water to Amanda. The zipline threaded through the handles of a canvas bag containing the shining new steering chain. As the halyard was hoisted, the bag slid across the sea from Amari to Amanda. Amari stood by until Amanda was underway again.
“HOW Y’ALL DOING TODAY?”
With just Chris, Sue and me onboard Salamander, we ran watches of two hours on, four hours off. It took me three days to stop feeling sleep-fogged as I hauled myself out of my bunk for the midnight watch, but the meteor showers made it worthwhile. I stood alone in the cockpit making wishes as stars fell through the sky.
Less fun was hurriedly furling in the flapping headsail in a 33-knot rain squall, but then the wind went light again and it was throttled down to make port in time for the ARC welcome party. On the sixth night at sea, we spied lights sprinkled along the horizon: Bermuda’s southern coast. We bumped and bashed our way toward our finish line off St. David’s Lighthouse, peered through the dark for the triple flash of the cardinal mark and anchored in St. George’s Harbour at 0100.
We weren’t the only ones ready to party. Most of the fleet arrived within 24 hours of each other. The next morning, over the VHF, Mark patiently managed the sequence in which the yachts would clear customs. Amanda had priority so her injured crew could seek medical attention.
Then it was our turn to meet the world’s most cheerful customs official.
“How y’all doin’ today? I need your passports and your faces.”
Like your mama told you, never joke with a customs officer. We were bemused in Bermuda as we followed him into the small, sparse customs office. He stood behind his steel bars and joked and stamped, joked and stamped. Eventually, we got brave and joked too.
Duale, the Italian Hallberg Rassy 42F, with her crew of Alberto, Francesco, Marco and Max, also earned priority for the wrong reason. Max had fallen down the companionway in rough seas and broken his femur. He and Francesco flew back to Italy two days later. Alberto, 78, and the somewhat younger Marco would be sailing double-handed to the Azores.
Every yacht rally has a pirate party, and that night the St. George’s Dinghy and Sports Club swashbuckled with parrots, bandanas and enough black eyeliner to impress Johnny Depp. Over Dark ‘n’ Stormies, we caught up on each other’s adventures. We learned that the injury on Amanda had occurred during the steering failure, while the crew were attempting to steer the boat with different sail combinations. The skipper’s wife had been resting her hand on a halyard just in front of an electric winch. An accidental tap on the button had activated the winch and drawn her hand into the drum, crushing two fingers.
The Chilean yacht, Carolina, had bow thruster and generator problems. She was on the hard in Dockside, the southern end of Bermuda, awaiting engineers from the United States.
The crew of the Leopard 45 Limitless arrived salty and cheerful mid-party. “It’s called Limitless,” joked Kevin, “because the problems are limitless.” Waves had pushed out the catamaran’s trampolines; the main halyard, coiled on the deck, had washed overboard and snarled the starboard propeller; a generator was kaput. Still, Kevin’s daughter Caroline, the youngest in the fleet at 16, had now completed her first offshore passage and couldn’t stop grinning.
Over the next few days, we explored Bermuda. It exuded a genteel air. Every building has a sparkling white roof to gather rainwater for underground tanks; gardens were bursting with tropical flowers and don’t even think about getting on a bus without greeting everyone else onboard.
Saturday was refueling day and Mark directed our yacht choreography as we disengaged from our raft-ups at the dock, and came on and off the fuel dock like performers in a chorus line. There was some waiting involved, so I photographed Andy as he retrieved Ocean Magic’s runaway bunting from the top of the Beneteau Oceanis 461’s backstay, and chatted with Josh, aged 20, who had just completed the World ARC with his parents on Mad Monkey, a Grand Soleil 56.
Andy was half of what I called England’s oddest couple. He had the boat, but lacked funds. Ian had the funds, but lacked sailing skills, so they teamed up to go sailing. Both sported an East London accent, so their stories sounded funny even when they weren’t. Offshore, Andy did his watch with a Guinness, cigarettes and re-runs of Coronation Street. All worked well until he ran out of Guinness and cigarettes. “’E drives me mad,” Ian said. “’Ere I’m tryin’ to sleep and he’s bored, so he’s ’oovering my cabin.”
TAKING THE RHUMB LINE
With 1,850 miles to go from Bermuda to the Azores, Chris and Sue brought two extra crew onto Salamander: Harriet, 20, and Randal, 19. That would give us six hours off between watches instead of just four. No more sleep-fog.
Departure day was bright and sunny, as the fleet motored from St. George’s Harbour, out through the narrow cut to open sea. Some boats went north to find wind. Others went south to avoid it. We took the rhumb line and seldom saw another ARC boats the entire trip. The forecast was for light airs all the way, but it felt like cheating to motorsail cross the Atlantic Ocean, so for once in my life, I secretly hoped for a gale.
Most days we had dolphins around the boat, and we all hoped for a whale. On day three, a small bird with bright orange, yellow and red markings suddenly appeared on the port cockpit seat. It hopped from knee to coaming to shoulder to companionway then went below to check out the galley. We named it Mango, for its bright orange. Unfortunately, its tiny unwebbed feet were designed for curling around small branches, and its tiny form had no built-in buoyancy for resting on the sea. Clearly, it was far from home, and Chris warned us it would end in tears. We offered water and honey, and Mango slept in Randal’s beanie, but by morning, he/she had died. I later identified Mango as an oriole.
THE MANDATORY STORM
On May 21, we were less than 1,000 miles from the Azores. Predictwind indicated I would get my wish: a massive stream of isobars cloaked in the dark red of strong winds was chasing us down. Soon the barometer was also falling and dark clouds gathering. During a pre-storm check, Chris noticed a great hunk of light blue trailing from the rudder. It was thick nylon rope, probably from a fishing net. We couldn’t get it with the boat hook, so Randal volunteered to retrieve it providing we kept a lookout for Portuguese men-o-war. We had passed hundreds of them since leaving Bermuda. It was no surprise that Randal was in and out of that water within a minute, having successfully removed the rope.
The storm arrived bang on schedule at 1400 the next day. Over 30 hours, seas built from astern as Salamander rollicked along under reefed mizzen and staysail. Chris put us on double three-hour watches: he and Harriet, Randal and me. The temperature plummeted with the barometer and for every watch it took 10 minutes to kit up in thermals, mid-layers, outer layers, wet weather gear, gloves, hat, boots and lifejacket and harness. I clomped up the companionway feeling like an astronaut.
Belowdecks, Sue was in charge of hot food and processing our soaked gear through the drying room between watches. She also called up ships that appeared on AIS, explaining that we were sailing in storm conditions and restricted in our ability to hold course. I imagined the captain in his nice warm bridge and his epaulettes, casually tapping a few degrees of course change so his monster ship would avoid Salamander’s tiny nav lights in the black sea.
The front finally overtook us, and our world was restored to sunshine and a flat sea. Chris declared we could have hot showers, and the decks became a teenager’s bedroom floor of wet gear and smelly boat shoes.
As the fleet converged on the Azores, Chris recalculated engine hours and remaining fuel to ensure we could motor all the way to Horta if the wind stayed away. After two weeks at sea, the 7,700ft volcanic peak of Pica appeared at dusk. We slid past the volcanic landscape and entered the port of Horta on Faial Island in darkness. Manuel waved torches to guide us in to raft up in the marina beside the Lagoon 450, Attitude. The Oyster 56 Chantana, the XC-50 Carolina and Oyster Blew were behind us, and the X65 Nika was in front. Our friends on Ocean Magic soon came alongside. It felt like family.
Socially, the fleet gelled in Horta. I’m blaming Peter’s Sports Bar with its scrimshaw museum, every square inch of wall covered with ensigns and ocean paraphernalia and, especially, its homemade gin.
The Azores comprise nine islands, all governed by Portugal. Their swashbuckling history involves pirates, whaling and ships racing to get treasure across the 850 miles to Portugal without being plundered by the Spanish. In Peter’s Sports Bar, there were wild-eyed, handsome men who looked like they could strap on a cutlass and save a damsel or two. All the churches were white with black swirling detail like Sir Francis Drake’s moustache. The streets bore black and white mosaic tiles in simple patterns of ships and roosters, harking back to prosperous times centuries ago.
Horta was the Atlantic Ocean’s gallery of boat art. Every step along the pier told a story: yacht logos, adventures and misadventures, spiritual offerings and crew names painted by thousands of boat crew. Chantana added a whale design; Oyster Blew, a blue pearl in an oyster shell.
On the third day, a military man stepped aboard Salamander and asked, friendly-like, for the key to Salamander’s engine. Divers were inspecting keels, he said, and he wanted to ensure Salamander’s propeller wouldn’t start accidentally.
“What are you looking for?” I asked. “Drugs or weapons?”
“Drugs,” he said. Behind him, a golden Labrador was sniffing every corner of Attitude. The next day, a yacht reporting into customs was boarded by police and detained. The Labrador had done his job.
ARC Europe sails to four of the Azores Islands: Faial, Terceira, São Miguel and Santa Maria. In every port, our inter-boat friendships strengthened, transcending multiple languages including several versions of English—British, American and Kiwi (me). It was a workout for those already working in a second language. A couple of romances began to bloom.
We sailed for Terceira at first light, heading southeast in company with Ocean Magic, Mad Monkey and Chantana to arrive at Angra do Heroismo by late afternoon. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Angra do Heroismo is even more colorful than Horta, with old-town streets, town squares with cafes, restored architecture and ramparts above the town.
My last sail on Salamander was overnight from Terceira to Ponta Delgada, capital of the Azores with a population of 50,000. I was at the helm when the soft mist of a whale’s blow appeared a boat length in front of our bow. I hit standby to disengage the autopilot and bore away to pass the grey-blue back of a sperm whale awash in the seas. Finally, we had seen our whale.
The marina at Ponta Delgada was huge, just minutes from the old town, with more mosaicked streets and restaurants. I teamed up with Dan and Nico from Amanda and Marco to take a rental car through the narrow streets of the old town and villages, climbing up into the lush countryside, laden with hydrangeas, to the thermal pool gardens at Terra Nostra. After days at sea, it was bliss to soak in hot pools surrounded by fountains. It would have been a perfect place for delicate 19th century Englishwomen to winter-over.
I flew out from Ponta Delgada to Spain and the fleet continued without me to the fishing village of Vila do Porto on Santa Maria, the last stop in the Azores before they headed home to Portugal or Europe.
Three countries, 2,500 miles, more parties than I could count, a flock of new friends in just five weeks. I could never have achieved all that without the superpowers of the Yellow Shirts.
Yachting writer Rebecca Hayter is at home in New Zealand awaiting her next bluewater voyage.
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Hayter and the World Cruising Club