Three ARC fleets sailed across the Atlantic on very different routes. Elaine Bunting reports from each
Steven Ismail never really meant to join a rally, but he ended up doing one almost by accident and sailing to a destination he’d never originally intended. Ismail’s crew, a mixture of friends from Scotland and Norway from the oil business, thought a rally would be worth doing, but by then the ARC+ to Cape Verde and St Lucia was full so he signed up for the new ARC+ finishing in St Vincent.
This new, small spin-off of the ARC stops at the Cape Verde Islands and finishes at Blue Lagoon Harbour Marina at the south end of St Vincent. It was created, really, as an overflow to the ARC+ from Las Palmas to Cape Verde and St Lucia, an event proving so popular that entries this year had to be capped at 72 boats because it had reached maximum capacity at Mindelo in São Vicente.
Why the stampede? Several reasons: the route breaks an Atlantic crossing nicely into two parts: an 850-mile starter passage southwards to Mindelo, then a two-week, 2,150-mile crossing to the Caribbean, setting out at a latitude where tradewinds are generally reliable.
But the intriguing thing is that the new ARC+ St Vincent that Ismail and his crew ended up joining seems to have filled a need perhaps no-one acknowledged was there. With only 15 yachts in this first of the new rally (though from 12 different countries), it formed its own distinct identity as a close-knit, boutique event that treated crews to a route of off-the-beaten-track destinations. It became the ARC for adventurers.
Now, with three separate transatlantic rallies all starting from Gran Canaria and finishing in the Caribbean, World Cruising offer several different flavours of experience – if I had to sum them up with epithets, I’d choose ‘classic’ for the ARC, (a world class event with 165 entries this year) ‘family’ for the ARC+ and ‘adventure community’ for the ARC+ St Vincent.
No easy undertaking
Steven Ismail may have ended up at the island of St Vincent by happenstance, but he says he loved it all. Last year Ismail was made redundant and he spent £51,000 on a 25-year-old Feeling 486, RoseMarie (“We like to say it’s more than a feeling,” jokes one of his crew), and around £15-20,000 on hull treatments, new equipment, sails and safety gear.
After a long and eventful voyage from Norway, there was a crew discussion about joining the ARC+. “We got there a day before the deadline for registration,” says crewmember Terry Thorpe. “We had thought it was middle-aged people doing 18-30 type things, but in Las Palmas we were attracted by the social aspects and realised that we were taking an older boat 1,000 miles offshore and it was no easy undertaking.
“We could see that there was a quite a big gap in [the safety equipment] needed to join, but we realised that it wasn’t being asked for as a joke. The weather information was good, the seminar information was good and the safety stuff was good.”
“I had a discussion with all the crew,” says the skipper, “and all the guys were of the opinion it was worth doing and worth spending the money on. It was well-run and professional.” Now, he adds: “I can recommend it quite readily and I can see why it’s grown. It is well run and fun. It’s a nice way to arrive. We feel like a sailing family; we’ve all been on a similar adventure and everyone can relate to what they’ve done.”
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On the face of it, St Vincent might seem like a less attractive destination than St Lucia. It has a chequered reputation; there has been occasional trouble in some of the bays at the north end of the island where crews making inter-island passages often overnight. There are known problems with drugs, with crime; I was warned not to walk around the capital, Kingstown, alone at night.
If you were only to read the above, you might never go there, but you would be so wrong not to. I visited the ARC+ St Vincent fleet in December and, wow, did I get a surprise. Blue Lagoon Harbour Marina is set in a bay of the kind that you might dream of; an idyllic Caribbean destination.
It has a small marina attached to a hotel and restaurant, set in a bay fringed with tall palm trees and protected by a reef. A slight scend comes over the reef at high tide, nudging the boats stern to, but you can sit aboard your boat and look out to sea and feel the breeze, something impossible in big marinas.
Kingstown is a working port and fascinating if you enjoy being in the midst of life unvarnished. It is dingy in parts but vital, filled with market stalls piled high with everything from St Vincent-grown fruit and vegetables (agriculture is a staple industry) to Chinese-made fancy lingerie.
Ferries leave bustling with building materials, schoolchildren, shoppers. You can buy rotis, eat traditional meals with breadfruit, dasheen and ‘ground provision’ (creamed and mashed root vegetables), all manner of fish from flying fish to fried ballyhoo and mahi mahi, local juices such as sorrel or golden apple and (of course) rum and local Hairoun beer.
I joined a group from the rally to visit the town’s British colonial era botanical gardens, and when we arrived children in the playground next door ran around shouting excitedly: “White people! White people!”
The rally organisers arranged a tour of a local organic farm and a hike through the rainforest to the Soufrière volcano. Some crews took day trips across to Bequia, just ten miles away, or to the Tobago Cays, which they were going to be sailing to later over Christmas. Everyone I met in St Vincent was friendly and polite. The island has an authentic Caribbean feel that can feel diluted, sometimes extinguished, elsewhere.
And with its stop at the Cape Verde islands, which is a fascinating archipelago scenically and culturally, and very different to Europe, I can see why this rally will grow, and deserves to. It has something of the atmosphere of a round the world rally: a small fleet visiting distinct places that are distinctly not like home.
Freedom for a year
Roberta and Jason Bowman also ended up on the ARC+ St Vincent unintentionally. They had a plan they called ‘Freedom 50 for a year’ but when Jason was made redundant last year aged 46 they decided to sell their house, buy a boat in Europe and go sailing.
They picked up the 2006 Elan 434, Dobra Dani, in Croatia last February and spent the year cruising slowly through the Med and down to the Canary Islands. The Bowmans were on the waiting list for ARC+ when the organisers contacted them to say they had launched this new rally, and they signed up.
“It was fantastic,” Roberta says of the experience. “Honestly, I’m in disbelief! We’ve done this crossing and it was a really great experience. We had great weather, 25-28 knots at first and really bumpy, but then it settled to 15-21 knots and 80% of the crossing from Mindelo (Cape Verde) to here was on the jib alone. We did the crossing from there in 14 days.
“It was a great experience. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to people? Absolutely. The camaraderie is great – we are a community.”
Reflecting on the benefits of the event, she adds: “The rally was able to get you ready mentally. There’s such a wealth of information in the rally binder, from medication to safety equipment, that it really got us looking at what we needed to prepare.”
North in St Lucia, the main ARC fleet and the ARC+ crews who had come via Cape Verde stormed in this year borne by perfect tradewinds. “Some of the best conditions I have ever had – 18 knots of wind plus or minus three knots,” remarked German skipper Christoph von Reibnitz, as he stepped ashore after finishing his tenth ARC this year in his 59ft yawl Peter von Seestermühe, built in 1936 and the oldest yacht in the rally by a long shot.
“It was a Goldilocks year,” jokes Jeremy Wyatt, director of World Cruising, making an allusion to the bears’ porridge that was neither too hot nor too cold.
First across finish line of the ARC rally in December, A-sail bar-taut and cresting on twin bow waves, was one of France’s most famous sailors, Jean-Pierre Dick, sailing his 54ft canting keel cruising concept design The Kid with a crew of five. They sprinted across from Las Palmas in 11 days. “Perfect tradewinds, 17-26 knots all the way,” he remarked.
Dick wanted to race across with a group of associates and sponsors, and “pass on my knowledge of how to sail offshore”. He hadn’t realised when he entered the ARC that this was not the only tradewinds option.
“At some stage later, I learned there was the RORC Transatlantic Race,” he confesses, “and a rally was not my intention as I am more race-minded, but it is very well managed with a global ambience and I was amazed at the number of boats and the commitment. I hope to come back next year.”
Richard Dobbs, sailing his Swan 68, Titania of Cowes, called the crossing, his first transatlantic, “ideal. We have one spinnaker and we pulled that out and sailed with it, or main and jib all the way. It was incredibly stable, though challenging in many ways.”
Dobbs was particularly struck by what he calls “the eco-system of the ARC. The partners such as insurance and medical training [Yachting World is also a partner…] all share the same values, about the spirit of sailing and not just making the most amount of money out of it. There is something careful about the way that the ARC has chosen this that’s great; they’ve done it to make a long-term, sustainable event.”
Titania’s crew played their part by carrying out a mercy mission on the way across. One of the eight crew spotted a fishing net floating nearby with a turtle trapped in it.
The crew went through their MOB drill, furled the headsail and started the engine, then motored back to the tangle of plastic netting, fishing floats and jugs. Lifting the turtle on board, they cut the animal fee and dropped it back into the water.
According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, more than 250,000 turtles die annually as a result of accidental bycatch in US waters alone. It’s a sad but not uncommon sight. (The Conservancy is lobbying for the use of Turtle Excluder Devices in trawl nets, two-dimensional inserts with large escape openings.)
Transatlantic for kids
At Rodney Bay Marina, in the thick of the ARC+ fleet, were groups of children playing and speeding up and down on scooters. Across the three rallies, there were 58 kids taking part this year, 23 of them in the ARC+ “So proportionally there were more family boats in that rally, as it is only 30% of the total numbers,” says ARC manager Nick Martin.
“Sometimes I don’t know where my boys are, but all I have to do is look along the dock and see where their shoes are!” laughs Belgian sailor Kristel Moring. She sailed across with husband Dave and their two sons Arthur (11) and Vince (9).
The Morings, both civil engineers – Kristel is in charge of bridges, canals and cables for the Flanders government, while Dave is in charge of the department doing the maintenance she’s specified – share the same boss, and when they asked for a year off they say her response was: “At first, ’What a great idea!’ and then: “But now we will have to find someone to replace both of you.’”
After working for 18 years since graduating, the Morings felt they should take a break. “Since we will have to work until we are 67, we thought let’s do it now.”
They bought their boat, a 2006 Hanse 370, Gertha 4, in the UK. Her owner, Simon Ridley, had done two previous ARCs in the boat, plus ARC Baltic, the Azores and Back Race and the Malts Cruise, and the boat was equipped with lots of bluewater equipment. Ridley later bought another yacht, a Swan 46, Gertha 5, and also took part in the ARC+ – she was berthed next door to the Morings in St Lucia.
Kristel says that the biggest challenge of the crossing was “finding the balance between keeping watch and keeping the kids happy”. The boys both have e-readers and read books, did some schoolwork every day (mainly maths, as writing was difficult with the boat rolling so much). “They helped us a lot,” says Kristel. “We made bread together, they kneaded the dough and cut vegetables and they were happy doing those things with us.”
“Time is the luxury here,” she says. “Schoolwork is always tested in a certain amount of time. At home we are always hurrying the kids. ‘Come on, come on, get up, get dressed’, and the same in the evenings; when everything is done we only have half an hour before they go to bed.
“At the weekends, you might have things planned, fun things, but you are still living by the appointments you have made. This trip is a chance to [experience] life without deadlines.”
Steady progress westwards
With steady, good winds and few reports of big squalls, there were no really major incidents this year. Two yachts were dismasted (one with a cracked swage on a cap shroud at the spreader; the rigging, the skipper admitted, had done 25,000 miles) but both made landfall safely.
There did not appear to be an exceptional amount of sail damage, perhaps because many crews reported that they’d been able to make very good progress sailing wing and wing with main and genoa.
The route helped too: this was a year to trend south from the rhumb line, away from a ridge of high pressure. With a runway of steady downwind breeze from the Canary Islands, the temperatures rose and the seas were getting warmer. By a week out, as World Cruising’s Nick Martin observed: “Anxiety about the crossing has gone away and people have gained confidence. Soon people feel and think to themselves: I’m an ocean sailor.”