The ARC+ rally might have a reputation for being the ‘easy’ way to cross the Atlantic, but this year’s event was fast and occasionally furious, as Elaine Bunting reports
It’s the dream that never fades. The desire to cross the Atlantic by boat seemingly doesn’t wane, no matter what the state of the global economy or geopolitical upheavals. Post-pandemic, it is a boom time.
Nowhere do you see this more clearly than in the annual ARC rally, which has spawned two parallel events to satisfy demand: the ARC+ rally from Gran Canaria to Grenada via Mindelo in Cape Verde; and the new ARC January early in the New Year. Between them, 278 yachts will have sailed across by the time you read this. The organisers, World Cruising Club, are simultaneously running two World ARC circumnavigation events.
Of all these, the ARC+ rally is the quiet success. Although eclipsed by the publicity generated by the original and bigger event, it has grown steadily since it was launched 10 years ago and regularly produces its own waiting list. There are good reasons why this is the pick for crews in no particular hurry to reach the Caribbean, which have made it the favoured way for crews of family and friends to cross in company.
A lightbulb moment
Sweet Dreams is the name of Roz Preston’s yacht, though her sailing now has a bittersweet element. Preston, from Edinburgh, sailed throughout her married life with her husband, John. They both had busy working lives and when they had enough of it decided to build their dream yacht.
“We saw an article on [traditional wooden] boatbuilding at Lowestoft and had a lightbulb moment. We both gave up our jobs and did a one-year boatbuilding course at Lyme Regis,” she says.
The experience spurred them on to commission a design by Bill Dixon and set up a team to help build the one-off 44-footer in a barn in Dorset. Sweet Dreams echoes the Eurythmics hit of the same name. It captured their sentiments and had a personal connection; John had been chairman of a record company, and counted Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as friends.
The Prestons spent 10 years sailing in Scotland, the Baltic, Scandinavia and as far south as La Rochelle, then in 2017 John died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage.
Among many other bleak decisions Roz had to make was what to do with Sweet Dreams. John had been the skipper and driving force. “I felt it was important for me to reconnect with the boat and sailing,” she says.
But to go further afield, she needed help.
“I’d always sailed with my husband and if he wasn’t around there was no one in charge. I’m not really in my comfort zone taking the decisions, and physically not strong enough to do some of the jobs so I had to take a different role,” she says. So she turned to two good friends the couple had made at Lowestoft, Ed Phillips and Dick Phillips (they’re not related), and devised a plan that would fulfil their ambitions by joining the ARC+ rally.
Across the marina from Sweet Dreams, berthed with the larger yachts along the harbour wall, was Ross Allonby on the Oyster 675, Alika. He is on a ‘sailing sabbatical’ until next summer with his wife, Poppy, and their two children aged 12 and 14.
The Allonbys are a longtime sailing family and also own a boat they keep in the US, a classic 34ft Herreshoff-designed daysailer. The Oyster was bought to be the vehicle for time out from their high-pressure jobs in finance and also for going cruising further afield in future, when the children are older.
“The boat is for fun and adventure,” Allonby says. “I believe that life is more round than you think and that it will be a good way of learning for the children, more than they would in school.”
Their transatlantic plans were two years in the making and the ARC+ rally the first big stage of the adventure. This part was something they were sharing with Poppy’s brother and sister-in-law, a friend and two professional crew who run the boat and manage it for charter between times.
Because the route takes a week or so longer than the more direct ARC, the ARC+ rally is not the favoured event by commercial charter yachts, the really big boats or race yachts. Consequently, its atmosphere feels quieter and less excitable. These are, by and large, tight-knit crews long bonded together by a summer’s cruising down the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal. The rally is the centrepiece of several years of preparation.
The ARC+ route has some special advantages. First, it removes one dilemma skippers face: how far south to go before turning west. This follows the ‘south till the butter melts route’. Although some 350 miles longer than the direct route and totalling just over 3,000 miles, it’s the route most likely in November to produce early tradewinds on any average year.
“I decided to do it because I liked the idea of being part of a smaller group, seeing the Cape Verde islands and also thought that the more southerly route might give us a better wind angle, although in fact I don’t think there was a significant difference, especially after the halfway point,” says Roz Preston.
Hugh Johnson was sailing across the Atlantic for the third time on the ARC (his second crossing in his current Oyster 625, Nikitoo). “We noted that so many boats on the ARC end up 100 miles or so from Cape Verde as they search the Trades, so why not stop over and split the trip?” he says. “It was the right decision.
“We were asked by several folk why do we pay for the crossing and not just do it ourselves? Our answer was, and still is, that we enjoy the camaraderie of the group and it’s really nice to know there’s someone just over the horizon.”
It’s easy to understand why the Cape Verdes are on so many skippers’ wishlists. You know instantly you’ve left Europe; it feels like somewhere more distant you might hope to visit on a circumnavigation. “The Cape Verdes are culturally interesting and contrasting to Europe, and the stop is a nice reset for crews, and a chance to meet each other,” says Paul Tetlow.
Tetlow was the event manager for the first ARC+ 10 years ago with his wife, Suzana. Fittingly they are in charge again as the new owners of World Cruising Club following the recent sale of the company by managing director Andrew Bishop.
The town of Mindelo has an air of faded colonial grandeur, yet the place pulses with a sense of youthful vigour. The way of life is relaxed. Culturally and ethnically, heritage is a mixture of Portuguese, African slaves once brought here to work the land, and Brazilians from a long-established trade route south to Fortaleza and beyond.
The local food is wonderful, and cheap. Cachupa, a corn and bean stew with fish and meat, is sold almost everywhere, tuna is freshly caught. You can have goat’s cheese from the island of Fogo and some of the biggest shrimps I ever laid eyes on.
Many people are poor, though; drink is cheap and problems go hand-in-hand with that. There is widespread deprivation. Take a tour up to the high slopes of São Vicente and you see fields of gravelly volcanic soil still tilled and cultivated by hand.
“There is poverty there,” notes Tetlow. “We have many families on the rally and some of the parents have said they think it is good for their kids to learn about that.”
Hugh Johnson admits he was surprised. “Wow, was the poverty a shock!” he says. “I didn’t expect it to be so severe.”
Beyond the town of Mindelo, the coastal and mountain scenery are striking. There are bays so turquoise they look as if they’ve been lit from beneath. The nearby island of Santo Antaño has folded, fissured peaks that might put you in mind of Chile or New Zealand. For all of these reasons, the Cape Verde stop has become a central attraction of the ARC+.
Riding the rollercoaster
Leaving Mindelo, the rally goes straight into the tradewinds. Crews noted how bumpy the conditions were, and the first few days back at sea were an uncomfortable time before they settled into rolling down the Trades.
“There was apprehension,” Roz Preston observed on board Sweet Dreams. “What we all hope for, and the reason for doing the crossing at this time of the year, is to take advantage of tradewinds which typically blow at a steady 15-20 knots, maybe occasionally rising to 25. Our forecast was for ‘the upper end of the range’, 20-25 knots, and not quite the gentle downwind stroll we were hoping for.”
Typically, the north-easterly trades are accelerated by and bent between the Cape Verde islands, and it can be a bumpy first few days. Crews reported a 3-4m swell from the north.
“A crazy rollercoaster,” Preston noted, while adding they were making “fantastic time” under twin headsails.
These sea conditions caught out Alika, sailing ahead of Sweet Dreams. On Monday 21 November, two days out from Mindelo, the crew reported that they’d experienced a sudden loss of steering and in the resulting broach or gybe two crew were injured.
One suffered a compound fracture to the ankle and another had concussion. Alika put out a Pan Pan and also reported they’d damaged their mainsail. “They said they couldn’t get the mainsail down and that the hydraulics were a problem,” says Paul Tetlow.
Several ARC yachts stood by, and MRCC Ponta Delgado nominated a nearby motor superyacht, the 75m Planet Nine, to assist and take the casualty on board, as it could make the crossing faster. In 3m swells, however, it was too risky and the two vessels continued on a more northerly route towards Antigua until conditions moderated.
By Friday, four days later, a transfer was finally possible. When that had been done successfully, Planet Nine continued west until in range of Martinique, when the injured crew was airlifted to hospital for surgery.
“The medical supplies that Alika had on board were 100% and the access to medical information they were getting was the very best, and they managed to look after the casualty for five days with some complex injuries,” notes Paul Tetlow. “The only thing that prolonged the incident was the sea conditions.”
Several boats reported rudder problems and autopilot failures. The spinnaker pole on Sweet Dreams broke with a ‘tremendous snap’ one night. On Oyster 56 Mistral of Portsmouth, Karen Parker bravely went aloft to cut away their Code 0 when the sail wrapped. As she was coming back down, a gust knocked her flying. She was thrashed around the rigging, terrified and severely bruised, before managing to free the preventer line again to be lowered.
A crewmember on Estonian skipper Indrek Prants’s Lagoon 50 Sirocco also had to go aloft – four times – to fix a problem with a mast fitting. “It was a little bit challenging, but we were able to sail with our downwind Parasailor most of the time and only lost a couple of days because of it,” he said laconically. “Overall, for us, the crossing was perfect and we actually enjoyed the swells and rolling seas.”
Hardware such as steering gear, goosenecks and poles, and sails, sheets and halyards are most prone to breakages and chafe when yachts are sailed downwind in vigorous tradewinds, heavily laden and fully powered up. Duration at sea is a factor in itself: a 14-day crossing is the equivalent of several seasons of coastal sailing.
But in such conditions it isn’t necessary to push hard and even yachts sailed quite conservatively, either wing on wing or under poled out furling headsails, had a fast crossing from Mindelo in 12-14 days.
Records were set this year on this transatlantic expressway. Vincenzo Addessi’s Mylius 60 Fra Diavolo was first to arrive in Grenada in a time of 9 days, 5 hours, a course record for the rally. It was “an exhilarating passage”, said crew Giulio Gatti, adding: “We were reaching speeds of over 20 knots in sometimes confused seas, and at night. There were times when we were certainly not in our comfort zone!”
In the multihull division a one-on-one match between sister ship Outremer 51s Piment Rouge and Helia 2 was settled only in the final hours of the crossing.
Pierre De Saint Vincent‘s Piment Rouge crossed first, after 10 days at sea, and immediately headed back out to accompany the crew of Helia 2 across the finish line.
The ARC+ has never really been about racing though. It is about getting across safety and enjoying the experience. The sense of solidarity created within this smaller, cohesive group is perhaps that bit stronger than in the main ARC rally. Typically people make friendships with other crews that they carry on as they cruise south afterwards to Grenada or make their Christmas and New Year plans.
“I enjoyed it and found in particular the camaraderie among the women really positive,” says Roz Preston. “We formed a WhatsApp group to exchange info, gripes and support, and that was great. Lots of us were the only women among male crews so it was good to support each other.”
The enduring popularity of rallies can be a mystery to independent minded cruisers, but it is completely obvious to everyone who signs up, or comes back year after year. Rui Simões Da Silva from Portugal, sailing his Lagoon 450S Attitude on his third ARC rally, explained why he keeps returning to take part.
“I have no desire to do the Atlantic crossing on my own. You’re alone anyway, you run your own boat etc, but there’s always the fact you have the support of World Cruising and someone looking at what’s going on, or helping you if you need it. That sense of community helps you to cross.”
One of the crew of Swedish skipper Ulrik Wehtje’s Xc45 Xenial, described their arrival: “We sat on deck watching the lights get closer and closer and looking at the mile count get smaller and smaller. We listened on the radio as boats and friends who had not seen each other in weeks greeted each other with joy.
“Everyone has a story, and each of them resonates with us and brings up an anecdote from our own crossing. It’s all part of a unique and incredible experience.”
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