Elaine Bunting meets the man behind the ARC rally, whose ideas shape so many cruising dreams
Do you know this man? Some will barely recognise Andrew Bishop, though his name may ring a bell. Yet others know not only who he is, but clamour to stop him on the street or the dock, usually to ask him a question or glean some vital piece of information.
Andrew Bishop is ‘Mr ARC’, the man behind the world’s most popular cruising rallies and seminars. He has quietly shaped modern cruising, and made ocean voyaging accessible to sailors from around the world, providing a runway to launch people’s most ambitious dreams.
Building on the vision he inherited from ARC founder Jimmy Cornell, he has maintained the ethos, but styled it in his own way. His upbringing and early career explain a good deal about his reserve and self-discipline, and also his meticulous care about getting the detail just right.
An only child, he was taken sailing as a youngster by his father, who kept an Angus Primose-designed quarter tonner in Chichester Harbour. Robin Bishop was keen on offshore racing, and regularly took part in Channel races. Andrew first did the Fastnet Race with him aged 15, in the family’s Nicholson 30.
A love of sailing was fanned further during schooldays at Gordonstoun, the character-building Scottish public school famous for educating Prince Charles and infamous for its bracing cold showers. “Yes there were cold showers,” Bishop admits, “but they were after a hot shower and the theory was the cold would close the pores.”
School activities included a week of seamanship. “We had to cycle to the harbour and have lessons in the boatyard – there was no minibus to take us down to a warm changing room. Then we went out in one of the two cutters that the school owned and rowed out to make sail. It was teaching us self-sufficiency.”
Here, too, he developed a love for navigation, especially astronav – he took an O-level in navigation – and befriended Adam Gosling. They remain close friends to this day; Gosling is a well-known businessman and top Solent-based sailor who has been a backer of World Cruising and is still on the company’s board.
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In his last year at school, Bishop applied for a Royal Navy university cadetship and says he was “partly surprised to be offered it.” His first job was as a seaman officer, working in Hong Kong. Here his navigation skills were honed by a commanding officer who liked to put his navigators under pressure by threading his patrol craft through narrow channels. “That taught me a lot,” Bishop says laconically.
Following two years in Hong Kong, he was posted to Scotland as flag lieutenant to Vice Admiral Sir George Vallings, who was in charge of all the naval establishments in Scotland and Northern Ireland. His new boss was also a keen sailor, and in 1973 had skippered the Joint Services Nicholson 55 Adventure on part of first Whitbread round-the-world race. The post gave Bishop “a real understanding of how the Navy works.”
Following this, Bishop took a frigate navigation course. He spent two years with HMS Liverpool, a Type 42 destroyer, but then began having doubts about continuing in the Navy. He felt the constraints of the service were hampering him personally and professionally, and in 1989 he quit.
He was considering applying to do an MBA when his father floated a more expansive idea. Robin Bishop’s dream was to sail across the Atlantic in his Freedom 39 schooner, Tamasina. Why didn’t Andrew delay his plans for a year and come and join him on the adventure?
So the same year, father, son and friends cruised south from the UK and joined the ARC rally, then on only its fourth edition. The transatlantic rally had been started in 1986 by Jimmy Cornell, and was becoming a magnet for ambitious cruising sailors.
Sailing in the ARC proved unwittingly to be the turning point in what had, until then, been a conventional background. One incident above all caused Andrew Bishop to rethink what he would do with his life.
Halfway across the Atlantic he had been working on the foredeck, about to set the main staysail. The boat was sailing downwind, wing and wing. A preventer had been rigged, but when a wave caught the transom it picked the boat up and the boom swung over, hitting Bishop on the back of the head and flinging him across the boat.
“The next thing I remember was lying down below in my bunk with a severe headache,” he recalls.
Later, while spending Christmas on board, Bishop heard that Jimmy Cornell was looking for someone to help him run Europa 92, the first ever round-the-world cruising rally. “The rally would be going to lots of places that I hadn’t been to and after the change in direction in my career and my mid-Atlantic experience it appealed to me. It became more important to me to have fun.”
So he went to see Jimmy Cornell, had an interview with him and got the job of rally operations manager. He ran the round-the-world rally, travelling with the fleet across the Pacific, Indian Ocean and north through the Red Sea. The organisational and logistical skills Bishop had learned in the Navy, as well as an exceptionally cool head under pressure, were (and still are) a characteristic asset.
With other Atlantic rallies running simultaneously, and the relentless pace of travelling taking its toll, the relationship with Jimmy Cornell eventually began to fray. It reached boiling point in the Azores, where they were running a rally from the Caribbean to Europe. When I ask what happened, Bishop says simply: “I was fired.
“I wrote a long letter to Adam [Gosling] and I was critical of Jimmy. I had faxed it from the hotel and afterwards they put it back in my pigeonhole. When Jimmy came in he saw it there and asked for it. The hotel gave it to him and he read it. He lost it and he fired me.”
Jeremy Wyatt, now a co-director at World Cruising Club, and then also working on the rally, responded to the sacking by saying: “If Andrew leaves, so do I.” So they both went.
Back in the UK, the two promptly started up their own rally business with an event circumnavigating Britain. But they were to remain intertwined with Cornell’s business for many more years. “The events we were running were small and we needed a bigger one. The ARC was obviously key to World Cruising and we thought maybe we could have a merger and take it over. I knew that Jimmy wanted to retire and I started talking to him about that.”
The discussions were “well down the road” but Bishop’s backers would not agree the eventual valuation, and a deal fell through. “Then I came up with a solution, and that was to suggest that Jeremy and I were given full-time jobs for six months so long as we could relocate to Cowes. We would get an understanding of how the business worked. From January 1997 we all worked together.
“Then, that summer, he dropped a bombshell: he told us he was going to do a management buyout. We had spent a year negotiating and the thought of being part of that did not fill us with joy and so we declined the offer.” But someone else was interested: Sir Chay Blyth. Then looking for a way to diversity his Challenge Business from its ‘wrong way’ round the world race, Sir Chay bought the events, convinced he could find a sponsor for the ARC.
Bishop and Wyatt continued with Challenge Business. It was the opportunity they had been waiting for to put their stamp on the rallies. Among other changes, they introduced seminars to help prepare for ocean cruising.
But by 2004 Challenge Business was in trouble. Corporate sponsorship was drying up and the final wrong way round the world race in 2004 was run without a title sponsor. Chay Blyth’s business was under real financial pressure and began to offload assets, including World Cruising. This time, Bishop was able to agree a deal, and in just two weeks. “Jeremy and I finally achieved what we’d attempted to do 10 years earlier,” he says.
Since that day in 2006, the ARC has continued going from strength to strength. It marched undented past the financial crisis in 2008 and annually fills to capacity. Its resilience has several strands. For one thing, it attracts a varied international fleet, which mitigates a dip in numbers from any one country.
Bishop and Wyatt also continually look for ways of improving the experience of taking part and build on what works; they do not chase wild new ideas. They have never attempted to find title sponsorship for the ARC, however lucrative an idea that might seem.
“We continue to enhance what we deliver. We don’t get much feedback from people wanting us to do something different. Our team go to great lengths to prepare the rally handbooks, make sure all the information participants get is accurate,” Bishop says.
The ARC continues to grow, so much so that last year Bishop’s team launched a third route option finishing in St Vincent. It also runs the ARC+ to St Lucia via the Cape Verdes. A revived idea that has worked well for World Cruising is the World ARC circumnavigation. This event now runs annually, allowing crews to leave in Australia or New Zealand for a season before rejoining the following year. It is also usually filled to capacity.
Why is it so popular? For one thing, deadlines make things happen. And the information that World Cruising provides – the knowledge, the handbook, the seminars – make it very much easier than it used to be to find out what you need to know to go. Over three decades, World Cruising Club has demystified ocean cruising, and unriddled what was once something of a black art.
They continue to look at information and services that cruising sailors need. In 2008, they bought Jimmy Cornell’s cruising website Noonsite, which reports on news and information from ports and cruising areas round the world, and launched Ocean Crew Link, a platform to link up boat owners and crew.
Once, Andrew Bishop dreamed of sailing round the world, following in the wake of Joshua Slocum, and in 1996 he launched his own boat, a replica of Slocum’s yacht Spray. He keeps her in Scotland, an area that has his heart. “The peace and tranquillity are my ideal. I love the remoteness, the beauty, the challenging sailing, the tranquillity, the starkness and the wildlife,” he says.
As for sailing Spray around the world, he says: “I don’t know any more. Life changes. Responsibilities change. I don’t have the same burning desire to sail round the world as I once had. I’m lucky I’ve been to so many of the places.”
It was while covering the first round the world rally for Yachting World all those years ago that I first met Andrew, and he has become a valued friend. He is very private person, who has no need of the limelight. You’d never term him ‘larger than life’, and in the marine business that’s something of a rarity. He takes very seriously the ambitions of rally participants and cherishes the family ethos of his events. For many of the young people who have worked for him seasonally, he has been a champion and mentor.
He may be less well known than some of the rock stars of the sport, but Andrew Bishop has shaped the sailing of many thousands of crews covering millions of miles. Of all the influential figures in sailing, this quiet and serious-minded man may well be a dream-maker for more people than anyone else.
Bishop’s advice for ocean cruising
- Know your boat system – and by that I mean understand the user manuals, the plumbing and wiring runs and how the boat is put together. That is time well banked for when you go.
- Fit extra equipment in good time so it’s been used and you are not operating it for the first time on your trip.
- Seek compatible crew, which means sailing with them before you set off and knowing that you can live on board together in a small space. You should ensure that your skills complement each other and you’re not too heavy in one area.
- Give some thought to how you are going to enjoy your time at sea. For example, what food are you going to feed your crew? Listen to their likes and dislikes. Make your victualling thoughtful.
- Use a tried and tested watchkeeping routine that everybody understands and feels is fair and right. Be sympathetic to people’s different body rhythms.
- Have a plan, but be prepared to be flexible. For example, be prepared to add different or extra stops on the route you are planning to sail or change your direction of travel because of the weather. Remember, you are there to enjoy your voyage.
- Don’t be overambitious with your sails or drive your boat too hard. It is always better to arrive safely.