Rally Cry: Lessons from 2013’s Southbound Rallies

This November, nearly 200 boats sailed from the East Coast to the Caribbean in two rallies. One rally arrived on Tortola intact while the other had at least seven boats call the Coast Guard in distress. What do this mean for rallies, and which rally is right for you?
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Each November, an exodus of boats departs cooling northern climes and heads for warmer southern climes. Hundreds of snowbird sailors complete the annual pilgrimage, many as part of a rally. Organizations like the World Cruising Club’s Caribbean 1500 and the Salty Dawg Rally feed this dream, and together, the two chaperoned nearly 200 boats south this year.

People join rallies for a host of reasons—the benefits, the education, the support or simply, the fun. But this year, when a particularly bad weather front befell one of the rallies, causing half a dozen boats to send distress calls to the US Coast Guard, the entire concept of “rally” came under the microscope. What, precisely, is the roll of a rally leader and how should that affect the expectations of its participants? And which rally—if any—is right for you?

First, a tale of two rallies.

In late October, the Caribbean 1500 had 25 boats signed up to sail from Portsmouth, Virginia to Nanny Cay, Tortola. The boats paid a participation fee and in exchange, received months of preparatory material beforehand, a thorough International Sailing Federation safety checkout in Virginia and a highly organized departure from the marina. When the rally organizers recognized a series of cold fronts was set to hit near the scheduled departure date of November 3, they began alerting participants of a potential early departure. Come November 2, the weather looked good, so the entire fleet set out together, one day early.

Though the fleet experienced several days of rough seas with winds of up to 30 knots, all boats arrived in Nanny Cay without serious issue. The worst injury reported was a separated shoulder, which was put back into place by another crewmember on the same boat, using over-the-phone instructions from a doctor that the Caribbean 1500 organizers tracked down.

In Tortola, the fleet gathered to debrief about their trip south. Some boats said they wished they’d prepared more than one watch schedule, as the hand-steering required during the bad weather was more taxing than their schedules allowed for. Andy Schell, a Caribbean 1500 organizer says, “The experience of a Gulf Stream Crossing is only worth so much on its own; it’s when you can compare notes with others that you get a whole lot more out of it.” He says the organization plans to record lessons from this year’s debrief and incorporate them into next year’s preparatory materials.

Meanwhile, the Salty Dawg Rally (SDR), now in its third year, had roughly 117 boats registered to sail from Hampton, VA and other points along the East Coast, to the Caribbean on November 4.

The SDR is free to participants and, according to its website, “There is no formal inspection of each boat, since it is the responsibility of each skipper to have proper safety equipment and to ensure that the vessel is prepared for the passage.” Though the SDR’s weather router, Chris Parker, provides Gulf Stream analysis and daily weather forecasts, the Dawgs believe that the onus is on each skipper to determine when to sail and which route to take. Consequently, though the official start date was November 4, Dawgs departed various marinas at different times and on different days throughout the week. Reacting to the strong front forecast to pass the mouth of the Chesapeake on the 4th and 5th, many departed on the 6th, 7th and 8th, but the front slowed and intensified, giving the bulk of the fleet a hairy ride. According to the Salty Dawg website:

“Two boats, Ahisma and Wings, were abandoned and crew rescued by the Coast Guard due to hull damage and gear breakdowns. It is believed that Ahisma has sunk while Wings is adrift and awaiting salvage by the owners. The crew of Ahisma was first to reach land so they were able to meet their compatriots from Wings when that crew also arrived safely in a CG helicopter.

“Two boats were dismasted. Like Dolphins made their way back to Portsmouth, VA and is looking to get a new carbon spar installed. Nyapa motored back to the Chesapeake Bay under her own steam.

“Four boats had rudder problems. Wings is still at sea, adrift. Zulu and Jammin were towed in by the Coast Guard and are lying at Cobbs Marina waiting for repairs and Pixi Dust is in Morehead City, NC having her rudder repaired.

Braveheart crewmember who suffered a broken arm is being tended to in Morehead City, NC. For the boats at sea or in Bermuda, there have been reports of several torn sails and damage to deck gear and sailing systems. Yet, each of these boats has been able to make jury rigged repairs at sea and were able to carry on safely which is a testament to the preparations, skills and determination of their skippers and crews.

“In summary, of the 116 boats that started the SDR last week, seven had serious gear failures and had to return to the U.S. for repairs or in two cases were abandoned. These emergencies are a cause of concern for all of the Salty Dawgs and will be addressed by the board of the SDR in the aftermath. More than 95% of the fleet managed the challenging conditions and put it behind them in a very seamanlike fashion.”

Given these examples, what can the sailing community glean about the nature of rallies? Let’s start by defining “rally”. According to the World Cruising Club, “Our definition of a rally is safe and social cruising. We offer an element of fun competition, but it isn't a race! Rallies are about crossing oceans with friends; feeling confident and prepared on departure day; having support and friendship at sea; and providing a welcome to salute your achievement on arrival.”

In the Caribbean 1500, participants pay a fee, then become part of an active community that begins months before the trip with full-day safety seminars, preparation lists, safety requirements and resources. They receive free dockage at the marinas at the start and end of the Rally and in between, they have professional guides employed to contribute to safety, camaraderie and intelligence. On the ocean itself, Schell says, “We still stress that while you’re out there, you’re on your own.”

Alternatively, the SDR is free to enter and though they suggest participants have at least one previous bluewater experience, there are no requirements for either crew or boat. (Indeed, founders Bill and Linda Knowles designed it this way, reacting to their experiences in the Caribbean 1500). The SDR provides several partner benefits as well as safety, weather and routing suggestions, but the final decisions rest on the shoulders of the skippers. Skippers determine their own schedules and take responsibility for their health, safety and happiness along the way.

In response to recent criticism, founder Linda Knowles says, “It’s not as if we’re a bunch of wayward sailors who leave when we want and do what we want and don’t pay attention to forecasts. We give them advice, but the decision as to when they go is totally up to them, and they’re responsible for that decision. They knew those seas were going to be bad.”

Knowing how both rallies define their experience, it’s up to each individual sailor to consider what they value in a rally. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Salty Dawg model. In fact, plenty of boats enjoyed it, including this guy and these guys, but it’s essential to know that you’re signing up for an every-man-for-himself journey.

If it’s money you’re concerned about, skipper Bob Woods on board the Morris 46, Lexington, sailing in this year’s Caribbean 1500, offers an interesting perspective:

“I’m essentially a cheap person so I can appreciate sailors trying to save money. At the same time, the cost of the rally is fairly miniscule when compared to the cost of the whole trip and the cost of keeping your boat in the Caribbean for the winter. If the cost of the rally is an issue, you’d better think twice because the cost of the whole trip is going to be prohibitive.”

If safety or companionship are your concerns, SAIL’s Editor-in-Chief Peter Nielsen wrote in his January 2014 print editorial: “But of all the reasons to join a flock of other boats in an organized blue water rally, surely the notion of safety is one of the strongest? I suspect that the passage that lay ahead of the skippers in the Salty Dawg and the Caribbean 1500 would be the longest most of them had undertaken, and faced with the unfamiliar, there is the certainty of comfort in company and at least the illusion of safety in numbers.”

Perhaps it’s boat preparation you’re concerned with. Regarding that, Schell shares an interesting perspective: “I used to have a hard time with rallies, philosophically, and I think there are a lot of people out there who think rallies are lame. Now, however, as the leader of the 1500, I have the opportunity to influence the way people prepare to do big crossings and I’ve come to believe there is a ‘Right’ way of doing things—of preparing the boat, of talking on the radio, of selecting your sails. I believe that the Caribbean 1500 sets an example of good, safe cruising for the rest of the community.”

Schell also believes that, given the same conditions, his fleet would have made it through, because they would have been better prepared.

For more on the Salty Dawg Rally, click here. For more on the Caribbean 1500, click here.

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