This year’s Atlantic Rally for Cruisers proved a reminder that no ocean crossing is ever straightforward. Rachael Sprot and Helen Fretter report
When the 2021 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) set off from Gran Canaria on November 21, there was one early sign this would be an unusual crossing: the 143 yachts set off with sails sheeted, upwind.
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers has attracted thousands of sailors over its 35-year history, drawn to the appeal of a tradewinds passage to the Caribbean. The rally’s startline runs roughly east-west just outside the harbour of Las Palmas and in mid-November the prevailing north-easterly trades mean it’s almost guaranteed to be a downwind start.
Instead, a light southerly breeze gave a gentle reminder that nothing should be taken for granted in ocean sailing – and the 2021 ARC rally proved this adage once again.
Tragically, the crossing saw one fatality and two yachts abandoned at sea (both later recovered). However, across its diverse fleet there were a wide range of experiences, with both first-timers and experienced crews demonstrating great seamanship, camaraderie and determination.
During the pre-departure weather briefing meteorologist Chris Tibbs explained that the fleet had two choices: head south towards the Cape Verde islands to try and find wind off the African coast or head west and for wind on the edge of the low pressure to the north. The southern route risked being very light for the first week, the northern route risked an encounter with heavy weather. He strongly advised the fleet of largely amateur sailors to go south.
The pontoons were soon invaded by an army of crew bearing jerry cans as boats stocked up on extra fuel, with many skippers apprehensive about burning too much diesel in the first few days of a two-and-a-half-week crossing.
Jeremy Wyatt, World Cruising Club director, explained that it was a year that “skippers had a lot of choices to make. They were never going to go down the rhumbline this year.”
After the start the fleet split, with the majority of yachts heading south for Cape Verde. A splinter group, led by Vendée Globe sailor Jean-Pierre Dick on The Kid for Ville de Nice, headed north-west towards the Azores.
While most of the southern boats sailed about 10% more than the Great Circle route, the northern group, largely made up of performance yachts and multihulls sailing broader angles, covered around 15-20% extra miles, recording total distances of 3,100-3,300 miles.
The entire fleet faced light winds immediately after leaving Las Palmas and boats in the cruising division, where engine use is permitted, spent a couple of days motoring before the breeze filled in. What took many participants by surprise, however, was the speed with which conditions ramped up, with steady 25 knot winds and gusty squalls arriving at the end of week one.
Combined with a large cross-swell from the weather system to the north, this made conditions challenging and tiring, especially for lighter displacement yachts. It was a year for the heavyweights: traditional Bowmans, steel Challenge yachts, Oysters and solid Swedish designs all fared well, with one racing division even won by a Nauticat 521.
For the crew of the S&S designed Swan 65, Blue Magic, the ARC got off to an even more unusual start. Just as the gun went off, crew member Denise Wiltse turned to Swedish skipper Nicholas Rolander and calmly said: “I lost my finger”. The little finger on her left hand had caught in one of the powerful primary winches, taking the top third of it off. ARC race management swiftly took her ashore by RIB while the Swan 65 headed back into the marina.
Nicholas Rolander had previously worked as a professional skipper, but when an injury in 2018 took him out for the season he and his wife Maria decided to go for their dream. Wiltse regularly sails at home in Juno, Alaska but the ARC was to be her first taste of ocean sailing. She met Rolander on an astro navigation course and joined his largely Swedish crew after he offered her a place on the ARC.
Despite her injury Wiltse decided to continue with her crossing, explaining: “I didn’t come all the way from Alaska not to do this.” Blue Magic set off four hours behind the rest of the fleet.
After spending a couple of days on lighter duties Wiltse got stuck into the normal rota on board. Co-owner Maria, a nurse, removed her stitches along the way, the two bracing themselves in the saloon, to time the delicate procedure for the right moment in the wave cycle. Despite the setback the celestial navigators were able to put their theory training into practice and got a good set of sun-run-suns.
Go north for speed
A couple of days into the ARC, and the fleet split was becoming clear. While the majority headed south on a 250-260° course, a small group of yachts struck north in search of stronger breezes.
Former IMOCA 60 racer Jean-Pierre Dick on his custom designed JP54 and the Marsaudon TS5 Addictive Sailing took the most radical line, Dick’s The Kid for Ville de Nice sailing almost 500 miles north of the rhumbline.
Others taking this northerly route included Graham Clapp and crew sailing his brand new Swan 48, Sarah Mercedes. Like many yachts launched this year which suffered Covid-related and supply chain delays, the handover date had been pushed back several weeks. It was mid-September before Clapp was able to take delivery of Sarah Mercedes in Finland, immediately hot-footing it south to the Canaries in time for the ARC start.
Sarah Mercedes took a northerly routing, working with a shorebased meteorologist. Peter Banham, an experienced crewmember, described the crossing as, “some of the most sustained, challenging, heavy weather weeks” he’d seen. Many of the crew were accomplished dinghy racers and the team had worked hard to get to the front of the fleet.
Sarah Mercedes was just 70 miles from the St Lucia finish when a bang came from the rig, and shortly afterwards the D1 on the leeward side went slack and the lower spreader detached from the mast. The crew quickly dropped sail, setting the main halyard and staysail halyard for support – the self-tacking jib sheet entered the mast at exactly the right point for the missing D1 – and safely nursed the boat into Rodney Bay.
Despite the incident, Clapp was delighted with his new yacht’s performance: “She just handled the conditions brilliantly, the helm is so well balanced and she sails beautifully.”
Tragically, amid the strongest conditions there was a fatal accident. Max Delannoy was sailing on X-Yachts X43, Agecanonix, which was among the yachts sailing a more northerly route. The three-man French crew on Agecanonix had moved up to 1st place in Racing B division by 25 November.
Late on the evening of 26 November, Delannoy, 73, was struck on the head by the mainsheet or boom during a crash gybe. Skipper Philippe Anglade, who was also injured in the incident, was able to prevent Delannoy from falling into the water. The crew made a Mayday call around midnight on 26/27 November requesting a medical evacuation, but sadly Delannoy was declared dead before any outside help could be provided.
It’s understood that a preventer was rigged, but both the preventer and boom were broken during a violent gybe. The Agecanonix crew were evacuated by the 300m cruise ship PV Mein Schiff 1, and the yacht was later recovered.
However, taking the southerly option was no guarantee of a smooth crossing either. The Oyster 55 Magic Dragon of Dart was almost exactly halfway across when they received a Mayday call over VHF from Charlotte Jane III.
The Hanse 588 Charlotte Jane III had suffered catastrophic steering damage – Hanse later reported that the skipper believed it was caused by a whale strike. Despite deploying their drogue, the five-person crew reported spending a terrifying night at sea lying beam on to a 4m sea with a cross swell in 30-40 knots of wind.
Another ARC yacht, the Beneteau First 51.1 Polygala, spent the night standing by as the crew attempted to repair the steering, but the damage was so extensive and the conditions so violent that they took the decision to abandon the vessel on 1 December. Polygala already had 12 people on board including a camera crew. Magic Dragon, some eight miles away at the time, was in a better position to offer assistance.
A second rescue
Rod and Jane Halling have owned Magic Dragon of Dart for two and half years. Both are experienced sailors, and Rod had made several Atlantic crossings before. The ARC was the start of a five-year circumnavigation with their three young children, including four-year-old twins, and nine-year-old daughter. Rod’s adult daughter, Lizzie, was also on board, and they’d taken on an additional experienced sailor, Craig Gray.
As they approached Charlotte Jane the severity of the situation became apparent. “We made one attempt to get close to them,” explained Rod, “but both boats were being thrown around so much that there was a real risk of rigs clashing, even from several metres away.” The Hanse’s drogue created another obstacle, obscuring the approach. It became clear that getting into the liferaft was the only sensible option for the transfer.
There followed some nerve-wracking moments when the raft took several attempts to inflate, and the difficulty of getting into the raft from the high freeboard yacht, with the stern lifting up and down in the swell. “For a moment we wondered if they would actually do it,” recalls Jane. “We were so relieved when the first person went for it and jumped in.” Fortunately all the Charlotte Jane III crew had done the Sea Survival course.
Once the crew were off the boat, they freed the raft and hoped it would drift away from Charlotte Jane III, making it easier for Magic Dragon to approach – but it didn’t. Even without deploying the drogue, the raft made much less leeway than expected. Rod was concerned that there was a very real chance of crushing the liferaft beneath the 30-tonne Oyster given the sea state, so he manoeuvred to leeward of them rather than to windward. Craig threw a line to Charlotte Jane’s skipper who held on while everyone else scrambled on board, assisted by Craig and Lizzie. It was a huge feat of seamanship from all involved.
There was one more difficulty to contend with: Magic Dragon’s watermaker had failed a few days out of Las Palmas. They now had 12 people on board, 1,500 miles to sail, and only 400 litres in the tank. An attempt to transfer water from another yacht had to be abandoned due to the sea conditions, so rations were tight.
Fortunately a team effort got the watermaker going after a couple of days, and conditions aboard improved. When the two crews finally made it into Rodney Bay they received a hero’s welcome, with the pontoons packed with family, friends and fellow sailors cheering them in.
The incident reopened the debate about steering failures leading to abandonment. While Magic Dragon felt confident they could offer assistance, a crewmember on another yacht told us that their skipper did not go to Charlotte Jane’s aid as they felt that the vessel was not in immediate danger, but that diverting to their position would have involved beating into strong headwinds and so potentially put another crew at risk.
Charlotte Jane was later recovered by a salvage crew from Martinique who set out with repair equipment and a spare rudder. They were able to re-attach the starboard steering column to the base, by drilling out and replacing the bolts, then sail the boat back to St Lucia.
Few yachts made it to St Lucia entirely unscathed by damage, and there were some creative repairs made en route. Ollie Vauvelle and Claire Padilla had bought their Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 410 Amanaki at Düsseldorf Boat Show in January 2020.
Despite being newcomers to cruising, they threw themselves into boat life during lockdown, signing up for the 2021 ARC with a year to go. This gave them a deadline to work towards as they prepared the boat for ocean sailing. “I didn’t even own a set of screwdrivers when we bought the boat,” recalls Vauvelle, “it took me a month to install the radar, and two months to install the watermaker!”
The pair opted to route well south to avoid the worst of the sea conditions. During the passage they did a deck walk twice a day, and if in any doubt about the condition of a fitting they compared it against an extensive photo library.
Amanaki was sailing in a comfortable set-up with a poled-out headsail, but 10 days in, the car on the pole track failed. The plastic inserts which hold the car onto the mast track had broken and dropped out. For several days they scoured the boat for a suitable replacement for the inserts: they needed a straight rod about 11mm in diameter.
Eventually Vauvelle’s gaze fell on a solid bike lock: a few hours with a hacksaw and a file later, he’d made a new pair of inserts and Amanaki was back up and running.
There was little in the way of trends to any damage sustained, and even the most thoroughly prepared yachts were not immune. Liam Shanahan’s immaculate Oyster 625 Ruth II carried over 1,400 spares as they were crossing to the Caribbean ahead of taking part in the Oyster World Rally. But when the vang failed mid-crossing, it was down to old-fashioned lashings to secure it in place.
“It seems that two grub screws had not been correctly seated and so it started to leak oil and unscrew. We weren’t sure how far the vang would unscrew, so we deployed a jury rig to support and replace the vang function. We noted that it tightened up on one gybe (that’s good!) and loosened on the other (that’s bad!), so we were mindful of that in our route choices!” explained Shanahan, adding: “We were grateful and relieved to be able to reach someone at the manufacturers on Thanksgiving day who very kindly took our sat call and advised us.”
For others the rigorous planning extended beyond boat preparation. Piero Zucchelli purchased his Hanse 588 Andrew after selling his company in 2020. He describes it as a “new step in life, taking time for myself after 30 years of taking almost no holidays.”
Despite that, Zucchelli continued his same work ethic to the project of boat ownership! Applying the rigours of his previous career as a nuclear physicist, Zucchelli committed to thoroughly learn all the systems on board, reading the manuals as though they were Sunday supplements, and attending all the seminars run by World Cruising Club in the run-up to the rally start.
“The ARC provides 30-40 hours of training,” he said, “and I did all of them!”
Zucchelli’s meticulous approach extended to crew selection. He interviewed 18 candidates for the crew roles, eventually taking on board an experienced Ocean Yachtmaster, an RYA Yachtmaster Instructor, another competent sailor, and his brother-in-law.
“No one on board had the complete picture,” he explained. “I know the boat, and I can repair things on board, but I’m not an experienced sailor. The experienced sailors didn’t have technical knowledge of the boat though.” However the collaborative approach – based on shared responsibilities rather than placing all the pressure on one person – made for a successful crossing.
It’s easy for experienced sailors to feel complacent about the ARC: it’s an easy tradewind route with lots of other yachts around if things go wrong. But this edition proves that nothing could be further from the truth. The tradewinds are powerful forces: a steady 25 knots is to be respected, and with squalls and a cross-swell, can still make for pretty inhospitable conditions.
A common feeling amongst the finishers was of new-learned respect for the ocean. Fiona Hart had her first taste of ocean sailing in the ARC aboard the Farr 50 Carioca. “I wouldn’t say it was enjoyable,” she said once ashore in St Lucia, “it was borderline terrifying at times, but it was awesome… I am absolutely in awe of the sea.”
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