Stories from the Cruisers of the ARC

The sailors in the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers all crossed the same ocean, but had very different tales to tell
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The crew of Johanna arrived in good spirits despite a chaotic departure

The crew of Johanna arrived in good spirits despite a chaotic departure

Each December, the docks at Rodney Bay Marina in St. Lucia are abuzz as the fleet of the ARC—the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers—arrives to much fanfare. No matter what time of day or night, the staff of the World Cruising Club, organizers of the 33-year-old rally, are there to catch the dock lines of the weary sailors who just crossed the Atlantic. A steel-drum player, a basket of fresh fruit and other ARC participants welcome giddy sailors running on the last of their adrenaline, the excitement of having just made an ocean passage plainly visible on their exhausted faces.

The ARC was launched in 1986 by Jimmy Cornell and is now headed by Andrew Bishop. The concept has since grown to 11 events that variously include “ARC” in the name and take place around the globe. Per Bishop, the idea is to “smooth the way” for sailors as they make an ocean passage, or in the case of the circumnavigating WorldArc, as they transit from one country to another.

The ARC has also grown a sibling in the form of the ARC+, which adds an extra stop at the start. Instead of running from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands directly to St. Lucia (a distance of 2,700 miles), ARC+ participants sail to the Cape Verde Islands first (850 miles) and then on to the Caribbean. This year’s ARC and ARC+ included a few twists, among them the fact it was a record-setting year for the number of multihulls (54 in total) and there was an alternative finish at the Blue Lagoon on the southern tip of nearby St. Vincent. According to Bishop, the continuing popularity of the rally necessitated a second finish line farther south as the IGY marina in Rodney Bay was at capacity. Fifteen of the total 261 boats sailed to St. Vincent and were welcomed by a different group as they filtered in after nearly 3,000 miles at sea.

The docks in St. Lucia were crowded with recently arrived boats

The docks in St. Lucia were crowded with recently arrived boats

Wandering the docks with a press badge, it’s not hard to get invited aboard boats from dozens of countries. Not surprisingly, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States were all well represented. However, I also found boats crewed by sailors from Spain, Belgium, Russia, Sweden, Canada, Norway, China, Slovenia, Finland, Brazil and Korea. Recognizing the flag hanging from a spreader, I addressed one captain in Czech. After he got over his surprise, he welcomed me aboard with a stiff drink of who-knows-what (something he said was only slightly alcoholic, but could have stripped varnish off a caprail) and I settled in to hear the stories of his multi-national crew, including one from Israel.

Fun with Statistics

Numerous boatbuilders were represented this year, but top honors went to Beneteau and sister company Lagoon, with a combined 50 boats, while Nautor’s Swan, Hanse, Hallberg-Rassy, Oyster and Catana also made good showings. Then there were the one-offs like the fleet’s oldest boat, Peter von Seestermühe, built in Germany in 1936.

Forty-six boats were brand-new, but the average age of the fleet was 12 years. Participants ranged in age too—the youngest (18 months) aboard the Dutch catamaran Chubby Bunny, and the oldest (82 years) on Germany’s Albatross. The captains varied in age from 21 to 77. Roughly 75 percent of the sailors were male, while the remaining 25 percent included one all-woman boat that dubbed itself “Finland’s Females.” Twenty-five boats carried kids under 16 from 15 different countries, and LOAs ranged from a whopping 128ft to a miniscule 30.

The wind gods smiled upon the ARC this year with mostly downwind sailing in strong east-northest trades, although there were periods of either 40 knots or no wind and confused seas. All but 10 boats had arrived by the time I finished scouring the docks.

Rum Truffle’s self-steering troubles made for an especially long crossing

Rum Truffle’s self-steering troubles made for an especially long crossing

The Cast of Characters

As fun as it is doing the backstroke through a spreadsheet of statistics, it’s better getting to know the people and hearing stories that keep me enthralled for four days. Some of the early arrivals, like French sailing legend JP Dick and his crew on The Kid, had already come and gone after winner their class, having crossed in just 11 days. (The overall winner was the perennial participant Scarlet Oyster, which sailed a more direct route and took the honors.) However, many of the most colorful characters were still enjoying St. Lucia’s hospitality so I got to work.

I found two catamarans crewed by people originally from Newport Beach, California. One was tying the knot on an 11-year circumnavigation, while the other crew had purchased its boat only six months earlier in Greece. One boat carried a musical composer while another saved the day for a fellow cruising vessel after it struck a whale and lost its rudder. In the latter case, the ARC boat accompanied the stricken vessel all the way across the Atlantic, even though it was not a part of the rally. For their selfless efforts, they won the Spirit of the ARC award.

One morning we welcomed a boat with only a spinnaker pole for a mast, the remnants of the boom tied to the deck. Another day, I witnessed a reunion of sailors who hadn’t seen each other in a few years and ended up parked side-by-side. I alternatively found myself chatting with participants over rum punch at all-night parties and crammed into an engine room with five other people admiring an equipment installation—because that’s what sailors do.

Although I spent long days out on the docks, I heard only a fraction of the sea stories. Some people were reserved, quoting their underway times down to the second. Others were laid-back and jolly and would tell you their crossing took a vague number of days and who really cares how many hours? Some were serious, some hilarious, some were newbies, others were ARC veterans. The common thread was that they had all made it and wee all now passagemakers.

Princess Arguella - UNITED KINGDOM

ARC2018ArguellaSiomonRachel

Simon and Rachel sailed the ARC + with a crew of four on a 1996 Oyster 55. I noticed sausages and soursop hanging from their antenna mast, a perfect entrée to an invite. Per Rachel, the sausages had been hanging there since the Cape Verdes and must have been well dried—or at least seriously salted—by then. Their crossing was 12-plus days, a long passage after coastal cruising in the Mediterranean for the past year.

A retired pharmaceutical entrepreneur and a language teacher, the pair were enjoying their time with friends on the dock although they should have vacated their slip a few days earlier. Their crew included good cooks and a barber, so all enjoyed free haircuts on the crossing. An RYA- certified skipper by the age of 19, Simon appreciated the variety of people that come together on an ARC rally and described seven straight days of sailing under spinnaker.

At one point we noticed a commotion as another boat started backing down to a spot between Simon and the Oyster next door. “It’s Rum Truffle!” shouted Rachel, and all hands were soon on deck to help the boat squeeze in. It turned out the two crews hadn’t seen each other in years, since back when Simon and Rachel were just dreaming of world cruising and met Mark, whose guidance led them from their Beneteau 38 to the boat they eventually purchased. The world is indeed a small place.

Rum Truffle - UNITED KINGDOM

ARC2018RumTruffleCrew

Mark and Gina plus one crew scooted into a narrow spot after 19-plus days at sea on a 2006 Moody 49. I noticed their Hydrovane self-steering gear tied to the push-pit, the bolts sheared off. Mark was the net controller on the crossing and had warned other boats with the same equipment about their predicament, potentially saving another Hydrovane from the same fate.

Mark described the ARC as a comforting blanket whether dealing with bureaucracy or suggesting repair shops. Gina likened the trip to giving birth. “There’s all this buildup to the departure, which is the birth,” she said. “But nobody tells you how much you won’t sleep after, which is on passage. It was an endurance test.”

Mark took himself out of the watch rotation to have time to fix all the things that were breaking along the way. “It’s about the quality of time off, so we shortened sail at night so people off-watch could get good rest,” he noted.

On arrival, they were dazed as they accept their rum punch, still sporting their harnesses. The last thing they expected was to be tied up next to people they inspired years ago.

Sea Child - UNITED STATES

ARC2018SeaChildEricTamara

Eric and Tamara had been sailing their VPLP-designed Aikane 56 catamaran since 2009, and the ARC was the final leg of their circumnavigation. We soon found common ground in that we had all lived in Newport Beach, California, at some point. They sat at a table with a map of the world laid out, and Tamara described the flood of memories ignited by this “finish” of their decade-long, 45,000-mile adventure.

Eric described why, after all the miles sailed just as a couple, they’d decided to join the ARC. “We sailed just as two for nearly 70 percent of the time, so I thought it would be nice to finish up with a group of like-minded friends,” he said. “It’s great to be a part of something bigger like this, and we sailed over 3,000 miles just 40 miles apart from other multihull friends we made on the other side of the Atlantic.”

The Trinidad-built Sea Child was no slouch, having crossed the line sixth overall. The boat had circumnavigated with her previous owners, so she was a proven vessel. After such an accomplishment, Tamara added that Sea Child’s next chapter will be enjoying relaxed sailing with family and teaching grandkids all about life on the water. “The ocean is our highway,” added Eric with a sunburnt, California surfer smile.

BabSea - Austria

ARCBabSeaHermanHelmut

Helmut and Herman welcomed me aboard a neat and tidy 2005 Nautitech 40 catamaran. From the look of the boat, you’d never have guessed they had arrived only that morning after 18 days at sea. As a crew of two, they looked remarkably fresh and hadn’t lost their sense of humor. Herman was the owner and Helmut joked that the boat was named for two of Herman’s favorite hobbies—Barbara, his wife, and the sea.

A three-time ARC veteran and retired software entrepreneur, Herman said he just doesn’t want to die, so he keeps busy by sailing. He would be continuing on the WorldARC that left two weeks later, with the first stop in Santa Marta, Colombia.

They both described an easy passage with a top surfing speed of 21.5 knots in 32 knots of wind under a Parasailor, a popular downwind accessory throughout the fleet. Helmut, a retired cardiac surgeon who doesn’t like to swim, will stay on until the Marquesas. When I asked about their favorite piece of equipment aboard, they excitedly led me to their bread maker. Clearly, they hadn’t been roughing it.

I learned that the Austria Yacht Club is the largest club in Europe—an odd fact given that the country is landlocked. “People always want what they don’t have,” said Herman, as he quickly put on a shirt because he wouldn’t want his wife to see him in a magazine “naked.”

Gauntlet of Tamar - UNITED KINGDOM

ARC2018TamraMillenialcrew

I caught up with the crew of a 1992 Sigma 38, not surprisingly at the bar of the St. Lucia Yacht Club. A lively bunch of millennials, this crew of five hadn’t stopped partying since the finish of their 18-day journey. Stef, the only woman aboard, was an RYA instructor, Andy was the captain while Hugo played the role of quartermaster in charge of keeping order—a task he likened to motherhood as he attempted to manage chaos onboard a small boat. Their trip was an easy one with no dramas, although it was clear that with this group, the dramas, as well as the comedy, were self-generating.

On passage, they kept a loose duty roster with few rules other than whoever cleaned up the morning’s breakfast dishes received the chocolate from an advent calendar and got to choose a Christmas carol to sing that night. There was a lot of singing, but also a near mutiny as the chocolate began to run out. They had provisioned little alcohol due to limited stowage space and were making up for the deficiency in the marina bars.

Mark from Rum Truffle had cautioned them on the radio to check their Hydrovane, and they attributed the survival of their self-steering gear to him. “Once we arrived, it was nice to finally put faces to the voices we’d heard on the SSB every night,” says Stef. Andy, whose girlfriend will be giving birth soon and then joining him on the boat with their newborn, seemed genuinely perplexed by the possibility of it being challenging to sail the Caribbean with a baby in diapers. When I asked why he’d be contemplating this, he said, “We come from a dark and rainy place so we just want a bit of sunshine, baby and all.”

Carissa - Finland

ARC2018Carissafemalecrew

An especially notorious boat in the marina was Carissa, a chartered 1980 Swan 441 with a crew of eight women. “Finland’s Females,” as they called themselves, had prepared for this adventure for two years and finally crossed with their 70-year–old skipper, who didn’t start sailing until she turned 40. They seemed in very good spirits after their 20-plus-day journey despite having had no watermaker and each living out of a tiny duffel, all they were allowed.

Despite a mysterious leak t and some broken mainsail battens and slides, the group had few problems as it enjoyed the simplicity of life on the water. They attributed their success to good preparation and asking for help when learning tasks like diesel mechanics and sail repair. “Men don’t ask for help,” said Petra as she spliced a line. “We took classes and got practical skills. It’s the way women go to sea.”

Johanna - Germany

ARC2018JohannaCrew

Berni and Stephan crossed the ocean in 200-plus days on an X-Yachts 41 they’d bought in Italy. They were notable for at least two reasons: first, their preparations were so chaotic they were still waiting for new spreaders to arrive two days before departure from the Canaries and did their entire provisioning the night before they left; second, Johanna was uniquely outfitted with an onboard recording studio because Berni was a pianist and composer.

Both were young first-timers on the ARC and had quit their jobs to pursue a dream. When I interviewed them, they still hadn’t decided where they were going next. Berni worked in the automotive industry doing acoustic work on car exhaust systems, a job she disliked so much it’s unlikely she’d return. She’d composed and recorded three pieces on the crossing in between sessions flirting on the radio with the crew of passing tankers (that per Stephan). Their crew, Arvid and Gunter, enjoyed piano concerts underway that became known as “the boat’s music.”

Garuda - British Virgin Islands

The 2006 Beneteau 50 Garuda rolled in one morning to an extra-warm welcome. Crowds gathered around the ex-BVI charter boat with her Russian, Ukrainian and Spanish crew. They had lost their mast 600 miles out from St. Lucia and limped in under power with their boom and vang lashed to the deck. They jury-rigged their spinnaker pole as a temporary mast, but luckily, never had to use it, as two other ARC boats brought them fuel.

After six hours spent cutting the rigging away with only a saw and hammer, they devised a method by which they hauled in cans of fuel donated by buddy boats standing by. A whale also came by to inspect the process as they worked. Crewmember Alejandro, who was going on to bike Argentina and Colombia, said it was the teamwork and lack of panic aboard that made the whole thing work out fine.

Field Trip - UNITED STATES

ARC2018FieldTripcrewwithkids

As I sat with Mike and Andrea aboard their 2012 Lagoon 400 catamaran, I noticed how completely calm they were about not knowing what their two sons (ages 11 and 13) were up to, or even where they were. “The ARC is like a small town of people you know, so you can let your kids run free,” said Mike. “Besides, I think they’re learning French.” That last bit was due to kids, having formed a tight bond with the other cruising children, including one on a French Outremer 4x. Other than running out of fuel on the dinghy, the kids couldn’t get in much serious trouble.

After buying an ex-charter boat in Greece just six months earlier, they had made their crossing in 20-plus days. I also soon learned that Mike and I had been in the same sailing classes decades ago in Newport Beach, though we never met.

Years earlier, they had called their cruising ambitions the “5 percent dream,” because it had a 5 percent chance of happening. Then came the day their youngest, then a 9-year-old, came home with a drawing of a catamaran with their whole family aboard, what they could only interpret as a clear sign it was time the dream became a reality. Since then, the drawing had been made into T-shirts, and although their radar was still in a box and many other boat jobs were still undone, they’d cruised the Med and crossed the Atlantic. Not bad for a venture that had started out with a mere 5 percent chance of success.

ARC2018Garudaboomondeck

So Many More Stories

These are just a few of the people who came together on the 2018 ARC and ARC+. By the time I left, I had heard quite a lot about downwind gear, broken spinnaker halyards, great food, good fishing and the vastness of the ocean. Some of these sailors may have joined the rally for the safety aspects, but most finished citing the camaraderie as their favorite part.

I met amazing people: the super-organized Swedes on the Hallberg-Rassy Glittra that reflected the military training of her female first mate; the boisterous boys of Glory, a Canadian-flagged Lagoon 420 that was on her mad shakedown cruise and delivery from the factory at Sables-d’Olonne in France; and the English crew of Bimble, a new Catana 42 commanded by wife, mother and first-time skipper, and many more.

They differed in age, nationality and walks of life, but they all became passagemakers, with many things in common no two stories quite the same. 

Photos courtesy of Zuzana Prochazka

March 2019

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