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One method that blue water cruisers have used to cross oceans is to participate in a yacht rally. The idea being that security is enhanced by the proximity of other vessels and communications regarding any problems encountered by the yacht are much easier if you have the location and contact details of yachts in your vicinity.
      The largest yacht rally across the Atlantic is called the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) and leaves from Las Palmas in Gran Canary every November after the end of the hurricane season. Each year 250 yachts leave together for the 2800 nm journey to the Caribbean. The organization of this rally is very professional and caters for cruisers and also has a small racing class.  To participate in the rally you have to fulfill certain requirements such as having completed a non- stop passage of at least 500 nm in the boat and half or more of the crew have to have recently completed a sea survival training course. The safety requirements for the boat’s preparation are strict and vigorously enforced before departure. On acceptance of your participation you receive extensive documentation in the form of a skipper’s handbook which details the safety requirements that you have to meet. Whilst some skippers have called some requirements excessive it was clear to me that with such a large number of yachts standardization of the procedures is a pre-requisite for such an endeavor. It is better at sea to have more safety equipment and more stringent regulations than the inverse. In our case we passed our safety inspection with only one comment regarding the insurance certificate of the boat. The inspection took two hours and was not only helpful but instructive as the inspector, who has inspected thousands of yacht over the years, made several useful suggestions regarding our set-up. The ARC will not easily accept any modifications to their rules and one Hallberg Rassy owner had to have the builder/ boatyard confirm that a manual bilge pump was not installed in the cockpit of the 56 foot boat due to the height difference between the cabin sole and the cockpit floor. The situation was resolved when the owner of the yacht purchased a large portable manual bilge pump that could be used anywhere in the boat. You may think that modern production boats from the large yards would meet the safety requirements such as Beneteau, Dufour and Hanse however modifications and some additions are required to these boats to meet the safety standards of the ARC.  For instance how many production boats have a second set of navigation lights that are pre-wired and can be switched on immediately if the primary ones fail? This often means running additional wires up the mast and connecting them to the main switchboard inside the boat. Have you ever checked that your gimbaled stove swings at least to 30 degrees each side of horizontal? Ours didn’t which meant re-routing the gas pipe and cutting a hole in the back of the galley. When the organizers state that you should have a knife in the cockpit ready for use they will check that you do. New safety regulations are introduced from time to time and ARC will ensure that you are up-to-date with these rules. There are differences between various countries and as to their nautical safety rules. In Monaco there is no requirement to have spray-hoods fitted to inflatable life vests the ARC insists and applies the offshore racing safety regulations to improve the chances of a happy outcome in an emergency. If you do go down the rally method be sure to leave sufficient time to prepare your boat for additional requirements specific to the rally.
     The ARC organizes pre-rally seminars for its participants in the UK and these cover most subject’s specific to offshore sailing. Topics include clothing, safety equipment, medical emergencies, navigation, rigging, sail choices, water and energy management, weather routing, communications, provisioning and issues specific to women offshore. We attended one of these seminars eight months before the start of the 2010 ARC and found it very useful. They provide a good summary of what is required to sail offshore and even if you may know some or all of these subjects a refresher course or listening to other people’s opinions and experiences can be helpful. The seminar was run over three days and was intensive due to the number of topics that were covered. This provided us with a basic template for checking whether our preparations were in-line with the current thinking of the rally organizers.
     We arrived in Las Palmas at the beginning of November which gave us enough time to make the final preparations for the 21st November start of the Atlantic crossing. There were many mini seminars organized in the final week by the ARC organization that covered similar topics to those that were discussed in the shore based course but also had more practical topics such as a live helicopter rescue demonstration, a course on the basics of using a sextant, weather routing and short wave radio nets. The social side of the ARC consisted of numerous parties and dinners for the crew and owners of the boats. We met crews of all different nationalities, caught up with crews on some of the boats who had come from the Mediterranean and that we had met in other ports on the way to the Canary Islands. The port organizes for boats of similar size to be docked on the same pontoon and this allows a lot of social networking between their crews.
      There are several different types of crew that participate in the ARC, there are crews like us consisting only members of the same family, there are groups of friends that have a common passion, there are professional skippers who business is that of taking fare-paying passengers across the Atlantic for pleasure or to build sea miles for certification of maritime qualifications. There are racing crews and family crews with professional paid crew and the port of Las Palmas became an international village with people from all walks of life linked by the adventure of sailing across an ocean. There was a shopping frenzy in the port’s chandlery outlets in the final weeks stimulated by the impending ARC security inspection and the doubt created by other skippers and “radio pontoon” (local gossip between crews) that they were lacking a ”vital” piece of gear. The game of Chinese whispers and rumors was at its height when we heard that the safety inspectors of the ARC were insisting this year that each boat had to have floating grab bags (waterproof bags that you grab when abandoning your yacht). Furthermore the rumor spread that these special floating grab bags were for sale at the local ship chandlery at a price of 150 euros and they had a piece of foam inside that allows the bag with its contents to float. We rapidly installed closed cell foam into our two grab bags and waited for the inspection. After discussing the issue with the inspector we found out that the rumor was false. The ARC is a commercial organization and several crews believed that they try to stimulate the purchase of equipment that might not be necessary in order to benefit the local community in Las Palmas. We saw no evidence of this however there are equipment sales people present at the seminars in the UK who in return for providing a presentation on for example water-makers will happily try to sell you one after the lecture.
     To our knowledge the ARC did not insist on any specific manufacturers equipment and the presence of sales people at the seminars we considered as normal commercial practice. There are many people that gravitate around the ARC that can provide sails, rigging and other equipment and this is due to the success of the organization. We were advised by the organizers to be careful regarding employing undeclared casual labor for repairs or canvas work. There used to be an issue with theft from yachts in the marina however the port had installed security gates on all the pontoons and whilst this cured the theft problem it had the negative side effect of accessing other pontoon to visit friends on other yachts as the our keys were specific to each pontoon.
     One reason that I was not overly keen to participate in the rally was that our project was to tour the planet to visit local cultures and that the ARC maybe very insular in terms of a large floating village full of European yachtsman with little contact to the local community. The parties and events only admit ARC participants however we had left enough time to visit both Lanzerote and Gran Canary prior to our departure and so this aspect was not a constraint.      The other reason is a derivation of the Gaucho Marx saying of “I would not want to be a member of a club that allowed me to be a member”. Some people join clubs or associations to try and gain the social respect they believe is due to them that is lacking in their professional lives. The effect of this behavior is often an overly competitive attitude towards their fellow associates. Having raced yachts for twenty five years I have come across people with this behavioral problem that translated into cheating in the regattas. They do it to try and gain the respect of their fellow competitors but usually end up pitied by them.
     The ARC is divided between about a 90 percent cruising division and a small racing division and the cruising division is split into several sub groups of yachts with similar cruising handicap or boats that would be expected to sail at roughly the same speed. These groups have radio net controllers assigned to each group and it is a safety feature that may allow a faster response to an emergency due to the probable proximity of the members of the each group. Each boat is given a handicap which means that a slightly faster boat on paper will have to arrive earlier to compensate for its handicap disadvantage. The vast majority of people we met took the rally spirit at face value and a friendly competitive approach to the crossing more out fun then a serious desire to win at all costs. Cruising class yachts are allowed to use their engines for propulsion and declare how many engine hours they used during the crossing a time penalty is applied for each hour and their arrival time is recalculated. There is no external control of the number of engine hours used and it is down to the honesty of the crew to make an accurate declaration. One skipper that I spoke to weeks later in Martinique was still very angry at the result of his division. He told me that he watched a competitor motor past him doing 6 knots in three knots of wind and then declared zero engine hours to the rally officials in St Lucia. The competitor was declared the winner of the division and received a trophy at the presentation ceremony. The skipper of the boat that was declared second complained to the organizers and explained the incident. He was told that the five male crew of the winning boat had declared on their honor that the engine had not been used and therefore the result must stand. Whilst I cannot comment on the validity of any of these claims I can vouch that the skipper of the yacht placed second was convinced the winning boat had cheated. The professional delivery skipper John Kretschmer wrote in his book “Flirting with Mermaids” regarding a past Trans ARC rally “He accepted with quiet dignity the DNF ( did not finish) for HERE AND NOW at the bottom of the race-results sheet, but he was miffed when a Hallberg-Rassy 42 was declared leg winner in our class. The German-owned boat, which scooted past while we lay becalmed, apparently had been sailing even without any sail set. On the official results sheet they had logged zero hours of motoring”.
      We participated in another rally from France to Malta several years ago and there was deliberately no classification for the various legs sailed even though there where start and finished lines for each stage. Yachts, if they wished, could challenge each other and this system worked very well and the presentations by the organizers centered on the largest fish caught or the most helpful crew etc. This did not stop yachts racing each other but limited it to the fun side of amateur yacht racing. The ARC has these elements included and the prize-giving ceremony had many different types of award however they still gave the over-riding impression that this was a yacht race for the cruising yachts. In the racing class there are commercially run boats that fill their boats with paying clients some of whom have little or no yacht racing experience, the idea is to provide an additional motive to attract clients by crossing the Atlantic in a race. Not all crew members have their own bunk and share on a rotating basis with another crew member (hot bunking). Half the crew is kept on deck at all times and they take turns at helming during the crossing. These crews fly in to the Canary Islands and leave by plane back to Europe shortly after arrival in the Caribbean. They do not have to prepare the boat for the crossing which is handled by the permanent professional crew and rarely participate in getting the boat to the Canary Islands. One yacht we knew had to abandon the race due to light conditions and the constraint of getting some of the crew to St Lucia in time for their return flights.
     Other boats in the racing class are full-on race boats with highly trained crews equipped with the latest carbon masts and sails. There is also a mixture of large fast cruisers and smaller boats with amateur race crews. While the ARC maintains a handicap system and rewards cruising class yachts by their times of arrival in St Lucia they will continue to attract “weekend warriors” to the cruising class and it would be interesting to see if they abandoned this type of classification how many boats would transfer to the racing class.
      We were very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the organization and all the people that we met felt the same. We felt it was a worthwhile experience and were relieved that we were not herded across the Atlantic by an over-bearing organizer. Once we crossed the start line there was no intrusion as to how our boat was run. Participation in the daily radio nets was optional and a lot of the boats did not have SSB radio and relied on Iridium satellite phones for communications. Part of the reason that there is little intrusion is that each boat carried a YellowBrick tracking system which automatically sent a position report every 6 hours to the ARC. It was possible for them to increase the frequency of the reports if they thought a yacht was in difficulty. This also allows family and friends to follow the progress of each yacht. We did not often participate in the radio nets but put the SSB on during the scheduled net times in case we needed to assist a fellow yacht. We also had a 24 hour radio watch on channel 16 with the VHF radio which uses much less power than the SSB. When we suffered during a storm a broken gooseneck, loss of the use of the mainsail and a significant saltwater leak we sailed for 10 days into St Lucia without informing the ARC or other boats as I felt we could handle the various situations and did not need to worry our shore-based families and friends if the information was relayed. The ARC rally will not improve your sailing skills and you are on your own crossing the Atlantic Ocean, poor sailors and poorly prepared yachts are not advised to attempt the crossing believing that they will automatically be saved by another yacht. The normal horizon for a sail boat is about 6 miles and we saw very few boats whilst crossing due to the widely varying routes and different sailing speeds of the fleet.
      Like many things in life the more you put in the more you can take out and those crews who adopted the spirit of the ARC such as Christian and Lucy on the British flagged “Northern Child” or Peter on the American flagged “Time Warp” gained the most from the experience.