Cruisers and racers in the ARC rally have had a turbo transatlantic with great winds and boisterous seas

The ARC rally finishing in Saint Lucia has been one of the fastest – if not the fastest – in the 27-year history of the event. Crews have enjoyed some exceptional tradewinds conditions.

Happily, it has been so speedy that the 194 crews who took advantage of the option to start two days later from Las Palmas made up for all that lost time – or more.

The wait gave them strong north-easterlies and a turbo boost for the first few days and many skippers arriving here are reporting that they never saw less than 20 knots of true wind all the way. Even those who took the traditional southerly route and spent a day or two working their way through a trough with light winds in mid-Atlantic have had a quick crossing.

Manfred Kerstan, German skipper of Swan 62 Albatros, the most capped sailor the ARC, has just finished his 18th rally and told me today: “We were here in 14 days. It is the fastest I ever crossed. It was fantastic sailing, but the seas were very hard. It was hard steering.” He showed me his calloused hands.

Similarly, fellow ARC regular Christoph von Reibnitz, owner and skipper of the 60ft classic Peter von Seestermühe, tells me his finish time of 15 days is his quickest ever. He too commented that there were difficult cross seas, often with rough waves that broke over the low stern of the boat into the cockpit. “We have been wet for 15 days,” he says.

British skipper Michael De Figueiredo sailed in the ARC in his Dufour 45 two years ago and the crossing took 20 days. This time he and a crew of four finished in 15 days. The difference, obviously, is huge.

He and his crew sounded unsure how much they’d enjoyed it. They admitted it was very tiring sailing with hefty cross seas.

Less than half the crews have finished to date, but as they continue to arrive I think I’m going to hear more complaints about the fatiguing conditions. But having covered the ARC for so many years I can say fairly conclusively that it’s better to be fast because crews are always happier then than when it’s a light winds crossing. Boredom and frustration seem harder to bear.

And one good thing about the consistent strongish winds this year, judging from the accounts so far, is that there hasn’t been a huge amount of damage. Many boats in the cruising divisions didn’t fly spinnakers as they were reaching hull speed with a poled out genoa and mainsail. Boats were less stressed and less frequently caught out overcanvassed in squalls.

It has also been suggested to me that the improvement in performance of autopilots is having an effect. On dark, moonless nights and in light winds they generally steer better than most helmsmen; even professional sailors I spoke to admitted this.

We’re seeing the same thing going on in the Vendée Globe, of course, where daily runs up to 540 miles are being done under pilot as solo sailor blast almost as quickly as the fully crewed (and bigger) boats in the Volvo Ocean Race.

This is an interesting theory, and there’s more to be said about the top end pilots – but more of that in the February issue of Yachting World. If you’re planning an ocean passage or an ARC crossing, dare I suggest you shouldn’t miss that?

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