Local windshifts give the ARC fleets a welcome lift across the line, but forecast south-westerlies suggest this may not be a trade winds passage

Nearly 230 boats jostled for space outside the harbour at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria today to begin one of the biggest events in the international cruising calendar – the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. Two distinct fleets undertake the crossing, the first a racing fleet who will battle across the ocean under sail alone, and the second a massive cruising fleet who, although timed, can use their engine under a penalty scheme.

The first start today was for the race fleet, who at 1240UT crossed the line to a maroon from the committee boat, Spanish naval vesselVencedora. Leading the fleet was Bénéteau First 40.7DLancelot, heeling to a light south-easterly breeze on a close reach, with Corel 45Renaissanceshowing impressive acceleration to take second place. Several local boats joined the fray, often obstructing the participants in their efforts to get a front row view of one of Las Palmas’ foremost tourist events.

Ten minutes later, the preparation gun for the cruiser fleet signalled the beginning of good-humoured mayhem as two-thirds of the boats attempted to start at the end of the line adjacent to the committee vessel. At 1300, the maroon fired once again, with Oyster 72Oystercatcher XXVfirst across the line, closely pursued by Bowman 42Eternity of Hamble. In the time since the race fleet started, the wind had backed to give the cruisers a welcome reaching start, while in the distance the first spinnakers were beginning to take advantage of the favourable shift.

Further down the coast the fleet encountered a different story. The ARC’s weather guru, Chris Tibbs, had predicted south-westerly winds for the beginning of the crossing, and these asserted themselves with a vengeance around the headland on the eastern side of the island, leaving the boats pushing close-hauled through a choppy sea. This is a well-known local effect and conditions are likely to moderate as the boats move out into the Atlantic, but these are hardly the gentle north-easterlies hoped for by the ARC crews.

The stage looks set for the next few days, with a low pressure area in the Atlantic disrupting the trade winds, facing the ARC skippers with a tough decision – to go south into what are expected to be light headwinds, or to choose a northerly route and take advantage of the easterlies around the top of the depression, forecast to reach around 45 knots.