Helen Fretter headed out to the start of the ARC to find out how to prepare for an Atlantic crossing with crews about to head off across 'the pond'
Every autumn the pontoons of Las Palmas are a hive of activity, as hundreds of yachts prepare for an Atlantic crossing with the ARC and ARC+ rallies.
Over its 38-year history, the ARC has seen thousands of sailors pass through Las Palmas, and an entire network has grown up around the port and city to support the World Cruising Club community, as well as dozens of suppliers and services who set up base in Gran Canaria for a few weeks to help prepare the fleet.
But if you’re planning to cross from the famous transatlantic jump-off point, what are the key things to get checked off your jobs list before you arrive in Gran Canaria, and what is best done in Las Palmas? Shortly before this year’s ARC rally we spoke to skippers, organisers and yacht services to get their top tips.
“The most important piece of advice is get here early,” cautions World Cruising Club’s Jeremy Wyatt. “And by early, I mean ideally September. Certainly no later than early October, because you’ll have more time to do things, the yards are less busy, the chandlers have got time for you. If you leave everything until the first or second week in November, it’s going to be very stressful.
“We definitely advise yachts to get here by early October, and there’s also a good weather reason for that as well. If you look at the synoptics at the moment [early November] there are some big low pressure systems in Biscay, so you should be across Biscay by early September. You should be hopefully out of the Iberian Peninsula, or out of the Med, to be in the Canaries by early October, and then you’ll miss the worst of the weather that could delay your arrival.”
Even if you’re not crossing with the ARC rally but plan to transat independently, it’s important to schedule your arrival so you’re not competing with the rally fleet for service availability as turnaround times for between the ARC+ and ARC fleets are tight.
This year a number of yachts told us they had altered their route to sail directly to the Canary Islands rather than follow the traditional path south along the Iberian peninsula in order to avoid any risk of encountering orcas.
“We were planning on going to Portugal to have some work done, but instead we dodged the orcas, and came here early to get all the work done here,” explains Dan Bower, skipper of Skyelark 2, a charter Oyster 62.
Due to the sheer number of yachts stopping over in Las Palmas, there are marine services capable of doing pretty much everything required to get your boat ready for a transatlantic passage – but timing is key.
“You can get anything done in Las Palmas,” explains Wyatt. “It’s a big port, there are riggers, metal workers, boatyards.
“We don’t recommend having major equipment fitted out here simply because you won’t have time to test it properly. So we really recommend any new systems you’re putting on should be done before you leave your home port and use the delivery down here to shake down and test it.
“A classic example is a watermaker. If it’s been badly installed, you’ll find out on the way down that it aerates and you can try and alleviate the problem. You don’t want to find that out when you’ve just left to go 3,000 miles across the Atlantic. So big systems should get done in advance.
“Typically what people are doing here is maybe getting new sails shipped in, or their canvas work done, or they’re getting rigging checks and repairs. And then the usual fixing pumps that weren’t working, stripping winches down in preparation for the trip, that level of maintenance.”
Some skippers cautioned that it’s important to get quotes for any planned work well in advance as costs can be higher than anticipated – unsurprising due to the ‘honeypot’ effect of the ARC arrivals each autumn.
“I had a quote to fabricate a solar arch that was over double what I might have paid at home,” noted UK east coast sailor John Kirchhoff, who is preparing for his first transat on his Southerly 42 Easter Snow. “I suspect the companies here do 90% of their business when the ARC is in, and they do charge very healthily for it. We’ve already had a quote for the arch from somebody in St Lucia, and it’s under half the price of getting it done here. Chandlery costs and purchasing things is not too bad, but the cost of the engineering support can be very high.”
On the other hand, skippers rated Las Palmas as a particularly affordable place to spend time in the marina, or leave a boat if arriving early, and flights back to the UK or mainland Europe are often cheap, particularly out of peak season.
The boatyard in the Las Palmas marina is run by Rol Nautic, which has been involved with the ARC since 2004. Rol Nautic also has a chandlery on site, stocking many items on ARC skippers’ last minute shopping lists. Services include antifouling, mechanical repairs, fitting windvanes and hydrogenerators, metalwork, glassfibre repairs and joinerwork.
“We get everything here, all kinds of problems to deal with,” director Juan Carlos Rodriguez explains. Common requests include solving issues that only revealed themselves on the sail down to the Canaries: in the previous weeks the Rol Nautic team had dealt with delamination around the bow thruster on an ARC+ entrant, lifted yachts for concerned skippers that had grounded in the Canaries or Madeira, and fixed a leaking diesel tank in a 47-footer.
“Rudders are a typical problem, because a lot of sailors are pushing the boat hard to get here,” adds Rodriguez. “At the end of the day it’s a weak part of the boat, if you’re constantly moving 20 tonnes on a small piece of glassfibre you can have problems.”
After completing the ARC, Dan and Emily Bower’s Oyster Skyelark 2 will be heading on to the World ARC circumnavigation rally. They arrived months early into Las Palmas, with Skyelark booked in for work pre-circumnavigation including rudder bearings – “which turned into a bigger job than anticipated, as these things do, but they managed it and got on with it” – new batteries, and repairs to a lazarette lid and surrounding teak. “The boatyard partner with an engineering company out in the main docks, and they’re brilliant. It gets project managed by the yard and they’re pretty on top of it. And it wasn’t too busy,” Dan notes.
Previously Rol Nautic has been unable to lift out catamarans as its current travel hoist can only handle vessels with less than 6.5m beam. Next year there’ll be a second Rol Nautic yard in the commercial docks (roughly a 10-minute taxi ride away), with two new lifts – one with a hoist capacity of 850 tonnes and nearly 16m beam, and another capable of lifting boats of 120 tonnes and up to 9m beam, which will enable the company to offer more multihull services. Alternative options for haul outs include a boatyard on the south of Gran Canaria at Pasito Blanco, and there are three boatyards in Lanzarote, including one in Aracife which can lift catamarans with a beam of over 8m.
Across the road from Rol Nautic is Alisios, another doorway almost every ARC skipper will step through. Alisios is a rigging specialist company that has also worked with the ARC rally since it was founded 26 years ago. Owner Octavio Jimenez estimates they see around 200 boats taking part in one of the ARC rallies each year – most of them within just a few weeks in late October and early November.
Alisios’s services now range from rigging, sails and electronics, to engines and deck equipment. It’s also an official service provider for brands including North Sails, Lagoon, Beneteau, Fountaine Pajot and Nautitech.
The most common reason ARC sailors contact the Alisios team is to book a rig inspection (they work closely with ARC stalwart Jerry ‘the Rigger’ Henwood), easily inspecting 10 rigs a day in the run-up to departure. Participants can book their rig check online before arriving in Las Palmas, though Jimenez reiterates that confirming their rig check early is key.
“The problem is that years ago sailors would arrive here as early as August, and leave the boat here for us to work on. But now so many people arrive just one week before. It’s almost impossible if you find some problems.”
Among the most common issues the rigging team finds are torsion problems in wire forestays with furling systems, cracked swages and broken wires – often single wires that are hard to spot without an expert eye – in terminals. “But we always solve it, nobody misses the start!”
For many cruisers a key reason for signing up with the ARC in the first place is its stringent safety requirements, and every yacht is subject to a safety check before departure. However, an initial inspection can now be done remotely so any deficiencies can be rectified before arriving in Las Palmas.
“My advice to anyone thinking of doing this is to take advantage of the opportunity to do an early safety equipment check, which you can do via a video call during August and September,” says Wyatt. “You can do it when you’re closer to home, and have a better chance of getting items from your preferred supplier. If you’ve been through the equipment list, there shouldn’t be anything on there that you haven’t got.”
Las Palmas chandleries are well stocked with ARC-mandated items, right down to St Lucia and Grenada courtesy flags.
A slick operation has developed to get the provisions required to sustain thousands of hungry ARC crew to the boats each year. If you’ve not provisioned for an ocean passage before then Clare Pengelly’s excellent and detailed seminar is a must-attend, as she breaks down what to buy, where, and when. Each year she shares updated local knowledge, such as which butchers currently supply meat in vacuum packs and the exact (and slightly complicated) procedure for refilling gas bottles at the Las Palmas DISA gas plant.
“Take time to plan your provisioning because you’ll need several days just to go out and visit the different vendors, find out where the brands are that you like,” advises Wyatt. “If you’re planning to have several days of packaged meals, you’ll want to buy different brands and try them because they won’t be familiar.
“Because of the volume of things you need to buy, you can’t do it in a day. By splitting up into multiple trips you’ll take the stress away and also you’ve then got time to stow it in a logical order, organise it, and get your fresh produce ordered for delivery at the last minute – and by last minute, I would recommend Friday.”
Pengelly suggests buying dry goods and household items in one shopping trip, drinks in another, meat and fish in a third, and then finally fruit and vegetables. Suppliers are used to making deliveries to the dock. “It’s very easy – all the supermarkets and market stalls offer delivery services now,” says Wyatt. “So really, you don’t need a car other than for a couple of days to explore the island.”
That’s what Claire and Miguel Queiroz opted to do, arriving in Las Palmas from their home country of Portugal with weeks to spare, and their Fountaine Pajot Tanna 47 Portlish was enviably ready to go. Although they initially planned to cruise the Canaries, they instead made Las Palmas their base, mingled with the ARC+ fleet and hired a car to explore. “We have been very happy here, we’ve had lots of fun, met some really nice people from the ARC and ARC+ – watched the Rugby World Cup with them! And it’s been really quite nice to actually just slow down and get ourselves a little bit calmer,” says Claire.
And another thing…
If you’re travelling with pets, make sure all vaccinations are up to date. The WCC can recommend vets in Las Palmas used to the paperwork needed for Caribbean arrivals, but some vaccinations are a multiple week course.
Allow some time to stock up the ship’s medical supplies also. “There’s a local pharmacy who will prescribe based on ships papers and passports, so the advice is to go and see them directly. There are different controls on what you can buy in different countries, particularly around opiate-based drugs, so our recommendation is not to have those, but they will offer alternatives that work almost as effectively,” adds Wyatt.
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