They had sailed nearly 3,000 miles over the worst the Atlantic had to serve up, crossing from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (in Spain’s Canary Islands) to St. Lucia in the Caribbean. All of them were weary but had the glow of accomplishment about them as they finished the 2021 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), organized and managed by the World Cruising Club (worldcruising.com). Most of the 143 boats that started took just under three weeks to cross, but some didn’t finish at all, including two that were abandoned and three that turned back.
This was by all accounts a fast ARC with rough conditions, but that’s not what made it noticeably different from the 35 previous years that the rally has been run. Instead, the differences clustered around the boats, the people and the attitudes that have morphed this event from a classic passage for cruisers to a box to check on a bucket list marked off by a younger crowd seeking adventure. Covid turned a few participants’ plans inside out, but it also sprouted a group of new and intrepid sailors who were bored of sitting at home and needed an excuse to go out and do something bold.
Not everyone had crossed the line by the time I arrived at the docks in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, this past December, and you could hear whistles, hollers and loud hailers beeping in welcome day and night for those straggling in. The changes from years past were immediately visible. For one thing, the boats had grown—both in terms of LOA and the number of hulls. The first across on December 3, for example, was the Italian-flagged 12 Nacira 69. At nearly 70ft, the racing Maxi underscored just how much bigger the participating boats have grown. The average LOA for the 2021 rally was 50ft and many reached 60ft and beyond with the largest measuring 120ft from stem to stern. Also, multihulls aren’t the weirdos in the crowd anymore. Nearly a quarter (32) this past year were catamarans or trimarans, making them not only the fastest-growing segment of the group, but also the newest, with the average age of multihulls participating coming in at just 2 years versus 14 years for monohulls. (Around 7 percent of the fleet was under one year old, with 80 percent of those newly launched being multihulls.)
The sailors seem to be getting younger as well. More captains and crews were in their 20s and 30s than ever before. And that doesn’t even include the gaggle of kids that crossed. Yes, a few were salty dogs on their third or fourth ARC, but others had bought their boat a mere six months or less before flinging themselves into the fray. More than a few were working remotely or interrupting their careers to have an adventure rather than waiting for retirement. Along these same lines, a number of skippers planned to sell their boats after enjoying a few months in the Caribbean and after which the intent was to go back to their “normal lives” or move on to the next exploit.
Several of the skippers also had families aboard, including everything from toddlers to 80-year-old parents. Some had pets, including dogs and parrots. Some had taken on crew in Las Palmas, while still others had paid to participate aboard a commercially operated boat with a professional crew, either to gain additional experience in preparation for taking on the Atlantic on their own boat or just to say they had done it.
Most of the participants I spoke with were still riding the heady high that comes with completing a serious passage—that and the rum distributed to finishers! However, not all the ARC stories this year were ones of success. Charlotte Jane III, a Hanse 588, suffered a catastrophic steering failure about halfway across when they hit something unidentified and the bolts in both redundant steering installations sheared off. As an emergency measure, the crew tried steering with drogues, but the conditions included 15ft seas and 40-knot winds. Two ARC boats stood by to assist and when the decision was made to abandon, the Oyster 55 Magic Dragon took on the Hanse crew despite having a limited water supply aboard and a broken watermaker. In the rough sea state, the two boats couldn’t get close enough together to transfer Charlotte Jane III’s crew directly, so in a bit of heroics they abandoned into their liferaft and clambered up onto Magic Dragon from there. The rescue’s silver lining was that Charlotte Jane III’s captain managed to fix the watermaker aboard Magic Dragon, and both crews made it to St. Lucia nine days later. The abandoned Hanse continued drifting toward the islands until an IMCO 60 crew sailing from Martinique a few weeks later was able to jury rig the steering gear and sail the boat to Rodney Bay for a haulout.
Then there was the X-Yacht 43, Agecanonix, which ended up suffering a fate far worse. The experienced crew had decided to skip the light winds forecast for the recommended southerly course and go north instead. Eventually they ran into a gale, and in truly horrifying conditions, a preventer failed causing an accidental jibe, during which the mainsheet wrapped itself around the driver’s neck, fatally injuring him. The owner retrieved his friend, who’d also been dragged half overboard, but suffered a serious leg injury as he was doing so, leaving a single able crewman to manage the boat the rest of the way to St. Lucia. In response to their mayday call, a German cruise ship altered course and then stood by until conditions were such that the two surviving sailors and the body of the helmsman could be transferred.
Those last two tales highlight what a different rally each boat on the ARC experienced. And even among those crews who made it, the stories differed greatly, with those on monohulls describing rough seas that kept them from sleeping and eating for days on end while those on catamarans were mostly oblivious to discomfort. What follows is a survey of a few of the crews I caught up in St. Lucia, each a distinct bunch and some quite colorful.
Blue Mist: Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 42DS (UK)—22 Days, 16 Hours
I found the relatively relaxed crew of Blue Mist sitting in their cockpit. Owners Ross and Louise were accompanied by their friend Gary on the nearly 23-day adventure. They had headed south to dodge the worst of the weather, but Gary became permanently lodged in the companionway (which became known as “Gary’s Hole”) watching 18ft waves coming up from behind the transom, often thinking, “Oh god, that’s way, way above the boat.”
At one point they hit a whale in the dark, which is when Gary moved out of the forepeak and set up camp in the saloon. All three sailors were in their 40s, and the couple had extensive experience. They had always planned to cruise, but Covid helped make up their minds to do so sooner rather than later. They had sold their home and moved aboard. They chose the ARC because they liked the community, and Louise’s family felt better knowing that they would be crossing the Atlantic as part of a group. (Louise wasn’t going to shatter their image of the boats neatly sailing in a convoy within sight of each other all the way across the Atlantic.) Her parents now keep a map with push pins tracking their cruising progress. “Anyone can do it, but you have to prepare,” Ross said. “You just can’t rush anything.” As for Gary, he’s in no hurry to do a repeat trip. “That second week was dreadful,” he said. “You don’t ever see stuff like that on YouTube.”
Misty Mohr: Malo 42 (UK)—18 Days, 1 Hour
The crew of five I found on the 24-year-old Misty Mohr were in good spirits. Two, Jon and Alistair, were brothers-in-law who described going through their equipment rather rapidly. “We tore the spinnaker in 22 knots, ripped part of the spinnaker track off the mast and bent the bowsprit,” Jon said somewhat matter-of-factly. “We also surfed at 12 knots and crashed about.”
Jon’s partner, Fiona, was the cook and received high praise. “We ate so well that we’re thinking of making an ARC cookbook from our blog,” Alistair said. They also caught a number of fish, though Fiona was less than enthusiastic when the second fish came aboard and ended up being her responsibility. The surprises they discovered along the way included feeling very small in the middle of the ocean and the utter lack of flies. They also had a special crewmember who they brought out from the V-berth. Wilson, a watermelon, was in surprisingly good condition following the rough crossing. They had named him Wilson in honor of the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. Wilson’s fate on this side of the Atlantic was uncertain, but thoughts were turning to cutting a hole in his head and filling him up with vodka for the next happy hour.
Casamara: Discovery 55 (UK)—19 Days, 11 Hours
Casamara had a somewhat unique ship’s complement in that owners John and Susie had chosen a pair of young women, Laura and Noa, as their crew, sponsored by a scholarship from the Ocean Cruising Club. Although the crew’s ages ranged from 21 to 59 years, it worked perfectly, and unlike some crews that can’t wait to get to shore and away from each other, the group of four seemed perfectly congenial even after all they had been through. Undoubtedly, this was at least in part the result of strong leadership. John had done the ARC 10 years earlier, and Susie is an experienced sailor as well, so the two newbies had great teachers.
Despite the heavy weather, Casamara didn’t suffer any serious breakages and unlike crews that were scrambling to fix things, Laura spent much of her time sitting in the cockpit doing her schoolwork while Susie stayed busy catching up on e-mails. They had fished but without success. “The only thing we caught was our own windvane,” said Laura. “In fact, we didn’t see any sea life at all while we heard all these reports on the SSB of people fishing and seeing whales. It was like we were sailing a different Atlantic.”
Emily Morgan: Bowman 57 (UK)—20 Days, 19 Hours
The 39-year-old Emily Morgan is the quintessential boat of ARCs past. A heavy ketch, the boat was commanded by Anna and Bones, who have logged seven ARCs and one circumnavigation between them. They run the boat as a commercial venture, taking paid crew who want to learn the ropes. Along the way the crew of six does everything from stand watches to navigate, hand steer, make yogurt and bake bread.
They also serve net controllers for the rally, managing old-school communications via SSB that many participants found helpful and reassuring. The blustery conditions suited the heavy boat, which succeeded in ticking off a number of 160-mile days as she pushed through confused seas. “We used the spinnaker during the day. At night, we carried only white sails,” Bones said. “In the middle we stopped to go swimming, which is a ritual on this boat.” As we spoke, a new wind generator lay across the aft deck, the old one having fallen victim to the weather during the crossing. “The best part was the ribbon of phosphorescence we trailed behind,” Anna said. “It was a bit of magic.”
Minga: Bavaria 42 (Chile)—23 Days, 7 Hours
Among the youngest crews were two Chilean couples (ages 26-29) aboard Minga. Fernando was the captain and the only truly experienced sailor aboard, with Juan Pablo, Camila and Josephina as his crew. They had spent all their savings to buy a 20-year-old Bavaria (sight unseen) from a Greek broker in Lefkas. They outfitted the boat as best they could and gained some experience as they made their way through the Mediterranean to the ARC start.
Apparently, they were all in search of adventure after a year of sitting around during the pandemic. Fernando’s father had sailed the ARC 20 years earlier on a Bavaria 50, and they were following in his wake. Only 200 miles out, a huge wave swept the liferaft off deck. Although it remained attached it was also hobbling the boat as it dragged alongside in nasty conditions. Since they couldn’t haul it back aboard, the decision was made to cut it loose. After they cut it free, the raft deployed in their wake, but they didn’t have sufficient power to turn the boat around in the giant seas and motor back against the weather to try and capture it. They continued on and caught much of their trip on video, which they’ve since posted on Instagram. They found the adventure they came for, and then some. Now that it’s over, though, they plan to sell the boat and go back to their “real” lives.
Carissa: Swan 441 R (Finland)—20 Days, 17 Hours
A boat I had met in St. Lucia before was Carissa. She sails with groups of Finnish women aboard and has gained quite a following back home. For the 2021 ARC, the crew’s ages spanned 30 years, with the oldest being the 76-year-old captain. A total of eight women shared the 44ft vessel and seemed to have changed their moniker since the last time I saw them from “Finland Females” to “Ocean Ladies.”
Each crewmember had to apply to make the roster, and from 20 entries six applicants were chosen. Clad in hot pink shirts, they were all quite eager to relay their thoughts as we sat at Café Ole on the dock. To encourage the vintage boat in lighter air, they kept talking to it. “We said, ‘Come on old lady,’ but then we realized we were old ladies too.” They all agreed their captain was their inspiration, but with a group of eight women, they lamented that there could only be one captain because all their strong personalities. One thing they all agreed on: “It was harder than expected, but the stars were unbelievable and well worth it.”
Juno: Oyster 575 (Netherlands)—21 Days, 2 Hours
My head snapped around when I saw Juno at the dock. It’s a boat I know from when it sailed with British couple Paul and Caroline in the 2018 ARC. Aboard I found her new owners, Lester and Monique, and their young crewman Lars. All of them were ridiculously good looking, more like they Dutch models hired to pose as ARC participants than actual sailors. They were also nearly identical to the previous owners in how organized and meticulous they were with their now 4-year-old Oyster 575, which despite its mileage, still looked like it was just launched. “We just took over the shift from Paul and Caroline,” Monique said.
As was the case with the crew of Casamara, they had a lumpy but manageable ride on their first transoceanic passage, savoring the 360-degree views. “The moon was like a lamp,” said Monique. Lester was proud of their fantastic start, while Lars seemed to be most pleased with the rum at the finish. All three had significant miles under their keels, with Monique having sailed from France to Corsica in a 20-footer back in her youth. Like the owners before them, they had sold their company and were now on a quest to circumnavigate. The plan was to continue via the Oyster World Rally, scheduled to start from Antigua the following month. “Paul was right about the boat,” said Lester. “She sails like a witch.”
Lots of interest, different motives
Organized rallies are getting serious interest these days. The ARC+ (which is like the ARC but adds a stop in the Cape Verde Islands) runs concurrently with the ARC, but ends in Grenada and serves as a sort of overflow for primary event. The World ARC (also managed by the WCC) ended up being canceled for 2022, since according to event director Jeremy Wyatt, there were just too many Covid-related variables at work to plan and execute a rally that circumnavigates the globe. But the ARC January 2022, a brand-new event, left Las Palmas January 9, right on time en route to St. Lucia. Because the ARC has sold out repeatedly, the WCC added the new event, which is like the classic ARC but run at a time when the weather is arguably more suited to an Atlantic crossing. Other WCC events, like the World ARC 2023, are pre-booked to capacity.
As for all the changes I saw in St. Lucia, one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact the ARC is still a great way to make an ocean crossing and there’s no lack of sailors signing up. The pre-sail checklists and technical guidance attract some while others come for the social aspects and the community that the event builds. The ARC may no longer be made up of greybeards sailing hefty full-keeled sloops, but it still speaks to a sizable audience albeit with different motivations. It may not be your dad’s ARC but it’s still held up by many as the Holy Grail of passage making.