A Southbound Cruise with the ARC Bahamas Fleet

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As I write this we are in Marsh Harbour, Abacos, in the Bahamas, on Delphinus, our new-to-us 2003 Fountaine-Pajot Belize catamaran. We have just arrived from Portsmouth, Virginia, with the ARC Bahamas fleet, a rally organized by the World Cruising Club (WCC). It is sunny and warm, with a strong east-northeast breeze. My wife, Kathy, and I have been enjoying our stay visiting the different towns and cays on the eastern side of the Abacos, planning our trip around to Freeport on the western end of Grand Bahamas Island, and looking forward to cruising the Exumas.

Jumping in with all four feet

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to start preparing for your cruising adventure early and to keep focused. The WCC ARC Bahamas team, led by Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson, provided a superb rally handbook, with checklists covering safety equipment, rig checks, spares, provisioning suggestions, customs and immigration notes, and other information on what to expect before, during and after the rally. The guide helped us prepare for the rally’s safety and equipment inspections. If you cringe at the idea of the inspections, know that these help ensure you have a safe and well-prepared boat. The inspectors also provided many good ideas and suggestions. I’d completed six previous passages to the Caribbean (taking part in Caribbean 1500 rallies and a delivery to St. Maarten), but this was my first on our boat and as captain. It’s a different stress level altogether.

We prepared ourselves by refreshing our first-aid skills with Red Cross courses and took the Ocean Preparedness Course at J World Annapolis. The latter provided great information and hands-on experience with safety equipment like the LifeSling and an eye-opening in-water liferaft demonstration. (It’s harder than you might think to get in and out when laden with a PFD and other equipment.) Instructors also covered heavy-weather strategies, lifesaving equipment, USCG protocols, and emergency medicine tips. We highly recommend this type of course to all boat owners.

Provisioning the boat took weeks, and we were still buying small items days before departure. Spare parts and consumable fluids were purchased, stored onboard and recorded in our storage-location logs. Final equipment upgrades were completed, including a last-minute standing rigging change when a shroud was found to be separating. Our crew members, Ron Fox and Phil Barbalace, joined us in mid-October for a weekend of sailing, crew discussions and emergency drills.

Now we think we’re ready

Boats in the ARC Bahamas and Caribbean 1500 began assembling in Portsmouth at Ocean Marine Marina in late October. We joined the fleet on October 30 and began socializing with friends old and new. The weather grew cold and a blustery nor’wester brought us rain and bouncing berths—a good way to get the sea-legs ready.

Our safety and equipment inspection was completed early, as we followed the advice in the handbook and organized items for the inspectors. This gave us time to attend many seminars on safety, storm sailing and weather, plus a cruising women’s roundtable and a skipper’s briefing. We especially liked the session on the Bahamas, as the speaker, who had many years experience cruising in the Bahamas, covered shoal-water navigation, anchoring strategies, cruiser radio nets, where to go and how to catch fish. Much of this information can be found in guides, but it hits home more when you talk directly to someone who has been there, done that.

During the last few days we helped other crews with tasks that required an extra hand and received help in kind in return. This was a great way to both get to know our fellow cruisers and compare systems and equipment. Everyone keenly monitored weather forecasts, studied Gulf Stream charts and began plotting courses.

Socials abound

There were many social events where crews could meet each other, take a break from prep jobs and relax over a few drinks. Most events included some free adult beverages and munchies. Everyone had a great time. We also celebrated Halloween, as there were families with children on some boats. The kids got dressed up and trick-or-treated boats in the marina.

The WCC also sponsored a tribute to Steve Black, who passed away in March 2014. Steve founded the Cruising Rally Association and the Caribbean 1500, and was a friend to many of the sailors participating in these rallies. Everyone who knew Steve remembered him as an inspiration, an experienced teacher and guide, and a caring friend and shipmate. He left a great legacy.

The Start

The beginning of the rally was postponed for a day due to weather, because it was blowing hard off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina, and the Gulf Stream was very messy. It is normal for a start to be changed due to weather, and delays can range between one to six days. In some cases the fleet has even started early to avoid bad weather coming. For our delayed start we had barely 15 knots of wind, with five boats in the ARC Bahamas fleet and 36 boats in the Caribbean 1500. The Bahamas-bound boats started first. Light-air sails and spinnakers graced the start line and provided a picture-perfect opportunity for photographers. Within an hour we were at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and entering the Atlantic.

We decided early to cross the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras, and from there our route was a small arc east and southward to Marsh Harbor. As we passed Cape Henry we turned south. By early evening the wind was diminishing to 10 knots, and we started our engines and began motorsailing.

Passage to the Bahamas

Our Gulf Stream crossing was a non-event. The winds were southwest at 10 to 20 knots with 5ft to 6ft waves coming from the northeast. It was sloppy sailing, but the easiest crossing I’ve ever done. True to form, we entered the Gulf Stream wearing thermal underwear, warm clothing and full foulweather gear, and exited less than two days later wearing T-shirts and shorts.

After crossing the Gulf Stream we ran into two days of light wind. We used this opportunity to work on our port engine, which had water in its cylinders.

Culinary delights made up for much of the boredom. The “Admiral,” Kathy, prepared and served a fantastic meal every night—Teriyaki chicken, chili, grilled chicken and tuna. She surprised the crew with hot fresh rolls—what a great smell while they were baking—and Atlantic Beach pie. Following advice from Julie Palm (a seasoned Carib 1500 sailor), the crew sat down at the saloon table and enjoyed every dinner together. We used this time to catch up on the day’s experiences and discuss the coming evening watches.

This trip was also unusual in that we could still see other boats three days in. Only one of these was in the ARC Bahamas, as far as we could tell from our AIS. We also kept in touch with several other boats traveling to the Bahamas, using our SSB radio to check in with other Caribbean 1500 boats (until the fourth day) and our VHF to contact any non-rally boats nearby, with whom we shared weather forecasts and fishing reports. Sadly, we only caught plenty of Sargasso weed, while others were boating mahi and wahoo. We received weather reports from WCC coordinators via email over satellite phone.

Arriving at Man-o-War Channel

We made it to the entrance to Man-o-War North Channel at about 0500 on Saturday, November 8, with modest 15- to 20-knot winds blowing from the east. It was dark. Since there were no lighted markers and we could not tell the state of the entrance, we slowed down and sailed big circles off the coast until morning.

I have to say I was nervous. I knew there were reefs on both sides, but I didn’t know how wide the entrance was. We proceeded very slowly and discovered the channel was several hundred yards across with only small rolling waves in it. In the last half mile we went from depths of thousands of feet to just 30ft. We could now smell the earthy organic scent of land. What a great feeling as we passed through and began following waypoints to Marsh Harbour.

As we approached Marsh Harbour the water was crystal clear and visibility to the bottom 12ft down was great. Soon we were tied securely in our slip at Harbour View Marina.

The next step was to check in with Bahamas Customs and Immigration. This process was very quick and simple, because the WCC had arranged for officials to come to the marina. Soon the boat was washed and cleaned, after which the crew got some time ashore for some showers and rest. In the afternoon we helped Rick and Helen Bell on Symmetry III (a Balance 451) tie up in their slip. Later that day Sean and Cynthia on Arkouda (a Privilege 49)
arrived from Charleston, South Carolina. Arkouda was not in the rally fleet, but were fellow travelers nonetheless. In the late afternoon we broke out some champagne, and together we all celebrated our successful passages.

End of Passage Socials

Rallies such as the ARC Bahamas always include arrival parties. These are great fun and are good opportunities to share experiences and brag about fishing conquests. The ARC Bahamas celebrated at Snappas, and the final night included participation awards and some fun awards for each crew. In addition to Delphinus and Symmetry III, the party included Tom Hynes and crew of Comocean (a Sabre 426), Jeff Jordan and crew of Euro Trash Girl (a J-120), and Dennis Schell and crew of Sojourner (a Wauquiez Hood 38). All in all it was a great experience, and we are now looking forward to exploring the islands in detail.

Why we chose the ARC Bahamas 

We had many reasons for joining the ARC Bahamas rally instead of taking the ICW to Florida and skipping across to the Bahamas. The most important included:

  1. It was quicker (five days versus 14 to 16 days), with less engine time and wear
  2. It was cheaper, with less fuel burned (under 38 gallons for the whole trip) and no marina costs (the ARC included two free marina nights in Portsmouth and two in Marsh Harbour)
  3. The rally inspection ensured we were ready for offshore conditions
  4. The daily updates on weather and regular communication with other boats in the rally

Our progress/location was tracked by satellite transponder, so family and friends could follow us on the WCC website worldcruising.com

We had a great experience and made many new friends

Photos courtesy of Andy Schell; Pete Burch; Mia Karlsson; Pete Davenport 

July 2015

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