The call for all sailors to attend a special weather briefing felt ominous. Soulemate and more than 100 other boats and their crews were gathered at Bluewater Yachting Center in Hampton, Virginia, to start the Salty Dawg Sailing Association (SDSA) rally to the Caribbean and Bahamas. We were scheduled to leave in two days, on November 1, 2022, and everyone had been anxiously watching the unsettled weather in the North Atlantic.
Chris Parker, founder of Marine Weather Center and the rally’s weather router, started using words like “anomalous” and “unprecedented” in his daily forecast to describe the situation. We all knew the start date was tentative and were prepared to wait a few days—one previous rally had been delayed a week. How late could it get?
We would soon find out.
My husband, David, and I had spent almost a year planning this passage south for our Outbound 46, Soulemate. This was our one and only chance for at least the next two years to sail to the Caribbean. He teaches at a Virginia university and had finally arranged to have the spring semester off. He couldn’t sail down with us because school was still in session, so he would fly to Antigua and join the boat later. Getting crew was critical, but relatively easy.
Our oldest daughter, Kate Soule, a superb celestial navigator and experienced ocean racer, had a flexible work schedule and was ready to go anytime. My sister, Kathy Tokos, an oceanographer with decades of sailing and research experience, was equally set. But neither they nor I had sufficient bluewater miles to satisfy our insurance carrier. So we hired a friend from our yacht club in Deltaville, Virginia, to serve as skipper. Dave Tabor, a 100-ton captain, and his wife, Carol Vaughn, our fifth crew member, had many thousands of ocean miles between them. The insurance broker said, “I like your risk profile.” I thought we were all set.
Husband David spent months readying the boat. From purchasing a storm jib, drogue, and heavier anchor to updating charts, refurbishing our autopilot (which would later prove critical), and chasing stray electrical currents, he worked nonstop. Captain Dave spliced a new, third reefing line (again, this would become important), built a helm seat, and helped install new electronics. Carol and Kathy cooked and froze numerous dinners for the passage.
This was only our second season on Soulemate, and I was determined to know as much about the boat’s complicated systems as possible. I photographed every through hull and printed a page labeling each. I compiled extensive protocols for operating the boat’s systems and communications—everyone knew the user names and passwords for our PredictWind account and InReach and Iridium GO devices. I practiced using them in our neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, standing in the middle of the road, pointing the transmitters to the heavens and sending test messages. I recorded every can of vegetables and tuna and dried pasta in my white three-ring binder.
I was obsessed. And ready.
Four hundred sailors jammed into Bluewater’s meeting room the morning of October 30, 2022, to hear Chris Parker’s current forecast over Zoom. We were all very, very quiet. Everyone had gone through the same preparations we had—arranging crew and insurance, provisioning, taking time off from work, making plans for elderly family members. That we were not alone in our unease only added to the tension.
To sum up Chris’ forecast for the next two weeks: The National Hurricane Center had assessed a 40% chance that “the system developing south of Bermuda would become a subtropical storm.” A hurricane in November? There were still opportunities to get south and east before anything really bad spun up, Chris said.
“But this only works if you are south of the area where the low is likely to develop,” he wrote in one email. “If you’re north and east of the low (on a course more directly toward the eastern Caribbean), you’ll face winds on the nose, possibly approaching gale force.”
(When I asked him later, Chris explained that large ridges of high pressure had created a dam in the atmosphere over the Atlantic. “Normally, we see multiple cold fronts coming off the East Coast each week,” he said. “[Last] fall, we were seeing maybe only one a week. They were blocked by the ridges.” Those patterns produced two hurricanes simultaneously in the northern Atlantic in November, the start of the southern sailing exodus. “My job was to keep the boats in relatively mild weather,” Chris said. And to encourage patience and flexibility.)
After Chris’ somber forecast, Bob Osborne, SDSA president, took the mic. He said that no one would tell anyone that, “they couldn’t go to the Caribbean.” But he added, “I’m not.”
Of the record 122 Salty Dawg boats signed up to leave on November 1, about 20 had previously planned to make for the Bahamas. Because Chris’ forecast and route planning to those closer islands—about 700 nautical miles on rhumb line from Hampton—was acceptable to them, several additional boats decided to switch their destination from Antigua to the Bahamas, acknowledging that they might not reach the Caribbean during the season, but confident they could be secure in the Bahamas in less than a week.
The remaining boats, including Soulemate, remained committed to Antigua and faced a delay of at least a week or more. Many skippers lost crew due to work commitments and started recruiting. My sister jumped ship to crew on a friend’s Catalina headed for the Bahamas. She promised to be back when Soulemate left for the Caribbean. Daughter Kate went home to Boston with the promise to return in 24 hours if, and when, we did leave. The rest of us had blank looks on our faces. We ate some provisions, drank some beer, and talked.
Soulemate’s Captain Dave could only delay a few days before Thanksgiving family commitments prevented us from leaving before the holiday. We finally agreed to wait and hope for a later weather window. At least we were not alone; the “Thanksgiving leftovers” included six other rally boats. So Soulemate motored 40 miles back up a glassy, windless Chesapeake Bay to her home dock.
My ballon didn’t burst; it slowly deflated, emitting a pitiful pssssst, ending up on my kitchen floor back home.
Different Decisions for Very Different Boats
After a day of pouting, I decided to follow the boats that left for the Bahamas on time, and the rest of the Caribbean fleet that would eventually leave on November 12. The SDSA had everyone on PredictWind’s tracker, so I was interested to see how people’s courses and destinations had changed. I now had a mission while I waited: Why did skippers make the choices they did? Was it because of crew changes? Insurance? Comfort? I had everyone’s Iridium GO contacts so I started asking questions and listening to their stories.
Alacrity, Fusion 40
Rex and Celeste Conn had cruised the Caribbean for years, including sailing in three Caribbean 1500 rallies. They decided to leave with the other Bahamas-bound boats because, at that time, Chris’ weather routing was acceptable to them, and the concerning offshore weather remained near Puerto Rico. (It would be named Hurricane Nicole on November 7.) Chris’ forecast for the Bahamas noted that sailors should be in a “secure harbor” within five or six days, something the faster boats felt they could readily do. “We’re not shy about going fast,” said Rex of their catamaran, “and were confident we could make it.”
They were in good company. Of the approximately 20 boats heading for the Bahamas, more than half were catamarans that relied on their superior speed to reach a secure harbor. “The weather wasn’t getting any better,” Celeste noted. “It was as simple as that. It was not great but OK.”
Shortly after leaving the Chesapeake Bay, their starboard engine started overheating. Catamarans routinely cruise on just one engine, so Alacrity continued. Rex and Celeste had some good days, broad reaching with first one reef in the main and then two when the wind hit 30-35 knots. Their backup plan was to head farther south to Eleuthera if high winds and seas made the cuts into the Abacos untenable. But, the passes were passable, and they made Abaco Beach Resort in Marsh Harbor in time to secure their boat for Hurricane Nicole whose eye passed directly over soon after.
“We spiderwebbed the boat at the dock and stripped the canvas,” Rex reported. But the wind was too strong to lower the foresail, so they tightly wound it with a halyard from head to tack. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. “The wind found a crevice in the head of our furled jib, and we could only watch while it was destroyed,” said Celeste. “The jib became a flailing hellion. We were lucky the boat wasn’t damaged.” The other boats in the Bahamas were unscathed.
Navigant, Catalina 445
We first met Navigant’s owners, Perry and Angela Covey, in Northeast Harbor, Maine, last year and later connected them with another sailor who became crew for the rally. This was the boat sister Kathy joined when they lost their fourth crew. Navigant’s decision to leave for the Bahamas instead of Antigua was very much a group consensus. “Everybody had to be in or we’d do something different,” Perry said.
They left with the other Bahamas boats on November 1, staying inside the Gulf Stream until near Cape Hatteras, when they had to make a decision: cross the stream for the islands or continue down the coast? Perry had lost a previous boat in Hurricane Dorian in the Abacos in 2019 and felt there were just too many variables for him to directly sail to the Bahamas. “Navigating the island cuts in bad conditions and not knowing the stuff coming didn’t feel right,” he said. “For us.”
Navigant continued down the Eastern Seaboard, first heading for Hilton Head, South Carolina, but ultimately continuing because conditions were ideal. Angela had expertly provisioned the boat and they had a fantastic, smooth ride down. The crew caught fish and felt they had made the right decision after finally pulling into St. Augustine, Florida, a port Perry knew well. By this time, Hurricane Nicole was coalescing over the Bahamas. The crew stripped canvas, lashed everything down, and went to a marina hotel. They saw 50-plus-knot winds and watched as the storm made landfall about 200 miles south.
Their wait was worth it. Navigant soon crossed over to the Bahamas’ Exumas islands, and my sister spent a week on the beach reveling in the sunsets while I ogled her photos of infinity pools and piña coladas. I was jealous.
INO, Catana 431
I was fascinated by the route of New Yorkers Martin Kerestes, his wife, Zhana Galjiasevic, and their additional, experienced crew of two aboard their Catana catamaran. They left Hampton with the other Bahamas boats, even though they were hoping to reach the Caribbean. While most boats sailed directly to Marsh Harbor and stopped, INO continued upwind farther east before turning south. “INO likes going to wind and can do 35-40 degrees apparent,” Martin explains. “We’re short, but fast.”
Martin and his crew were almost 500 nautical miles southeast of Nicole when the storm crossed the northern Bahamas on November 9. “We had our backup destinations in other southern Bahamian islands, but were able to just keep going,” he says. They saw 25 to 29 knots apparent wind and motor-sailed through numerous squalls. Their first stop was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, followed by the Virgin Islands before arriving in Antigua three weeks later.
A sailor with only a few years’ cruising experience, Martin said they made their own decisions and didn’t want to follow the herd. “Not that that’s a bad thing,” he added. Everyone knows that “the thorny path” east from the Bahamas to the Caribbean is a slog, and typically you can’t do it in one shot. But in this unusual year, INO could. So they did, getting continuous weather updates along the way. Only one other boat in the rally charted a similar course.
Far, Garcia Malibu 54
Of all the sailors in the Salty Dawg Caribbean rally, Lorraine and Phil Streat on their 54-foot aluminum Garcia Malibu would seem to least need the group’s instructional videos, quasi hand-holding, and communal support prized by first-time passagemakers. Their land home is in Maine, but they spent many years sailing in Europe, (Phil’s a Brit), had cruised extensively in New England, and had circumnavigated Newfoundland. They had signed up for the 2023 World ARC and needed be at its start in St. Lucia on January 7, 2023.
When the rally was delayed, they considered their options: Go with the Bahamas boats and try to get to Antigua and then on to St. Lucia, or wait until the remaining fleet left for the Caribbean. “Our worse-case scenario was to sail directly to Panama and meet the [ARC] rally there,” Lorraine says. Although this was not their first doublehanded passage, without additional crew, they wanted the experience of sailing with other boats. Far sat at anchor just off the marina’s docks for two weeks. They finally left for Antigua on November 12 with about 70 other boats. The weather models had finally settled down and the forecast was favorable. “We enjoyed being in radio contact with other boats on the way down, appreciated the discounts we received from the association and its help getting our foreign-flagged boat cleared to sail,” Lorraine says.
With a few exceptions, Far and the bulk of the fleet arrived in Antigua around November 22. The Streats had plenty of time to prepare their boat for the ARC.
Soulemate, Outbound 46
Now that most of the “dawgs” had left, just Soulemate and the Thanksgiving leftovers remained. We restocked provisions, fixed some additional equipment, and packed more warm clothes. We cooked Thanksgiving dinner for family and tied up remaining loose ends. Captain Dave and his wife, Carol, were now available, and Kathy and Kate flew back into town. I had contracted with Chris Parker for our own weather routing; he said the passage was doable (there’s that word again). Having great confidence in our boat and a superb crew, we left Deltaville on Sunday, November 27.
Our passage to Antigua was, obviously, doable. However, it was more an experience-building exercise than fun. We didn’t face any real storms or many squalls. But the wind never moderated to give us a break; we tripled reefed the main 75% of the trip. As long as the sun was out, 25 knots with higher gusts became routine, almost pleasant. Seas were constant at 6 to 8 feet plus. Kathy, the oceanographer, estimated we saw 12 to 14 feet at one point. I concurred when I looked up to see dolphins swimming over my head.
We traveled to within 65 miles south of Bermuda before turning right, sailing deep at 160 degrees off the wind. Aside from a few minor equipment failures—a chafed reefing line released our furled jib during the night—we sailed on pretty uneventfully until 300 miles north of Antigua. That’s when the steering system’s rack and pinion gears, directly below the binnacle compass, started making noise—first clink, then clank, then crunch. Within minutes the wheel had disengaged from the rudder. We had a drogue ready to deploy and the emergency tiller at hand. Fortunately, our linear drive autopilot still could function and steered the remaining miles. Captain Dave said, “I’m already outnumbered four to one and you had to name the autopilot Stella” Our humor remained intact.
The wind dropped below 20 knots and the seas settled. We had a glorious final two days.
Waiting for us in English Harbor, Antigua, on December 9 (my birthday!) at 9 a.m. was a flotilla of Salty Dawg dinghies. They turned the boat around and Med-moored us to the dock—a school of guppies prodding a disabled, 30,000-pound whale. It was more than heartwarming. Husband David and I spent the next 32 days waiting for Soulemate’s steering gear to be repaired and exploring Antigua. We would eventually head south to Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Martinique before returning by way of the Bahamas in May.
What did I learn in studying the other boats’ decision making?
Continuous communications with a reputable weather router helped boats sail around some seriously bad weather, Soulemate included. Some boats used a second weather routing service as a backup.
Performance catamarans can be wicked fast. Their speed and redundant systems—two rudders, two engines—enabled many of them to leave when monohulls chose not to go.
Sometimes, when sailing offshore, Plan B is not a different destination. It’s changing course for a while, slowing down, or speeding up. Or choosing not to go at all.
As for the lessons Soulemate taught me? We made the decision to go or not to go like every other boat. We talked it over, left when we could, chose the best crew possible, and picked our course and destination by what made sense at the time. For me, however, a few other things stood out.
First, I was so focused on the passage that I’d not thought at all about the destination. The day after we landed, the crew was eager to go snorkeling. I felt clueless. I never opened the cruising guide until we were docked. I would have enjoyed the passage more if I had anticipated the destination.
Second, the family that sails together stays together. Having my sister and oldest daughter on board was a comfort, a joy, and a gift.
And finally, I’m so glad we made the trip. David and I went as far south as Marin, Martinique, where we savored exquisite croissants, met captivating people, and reveled in the South Pacific-like mountains. It was 78°F and breezy when Boston was experiencing minus 30°F. I still pinch myself.
We took a calculated risk with an iffy, if doable, forecast, a strong boat, and a solid crew, and arrived safely. The bedrock principle of sailing is don’t have a schedule. Yet, we did.
I’ll try to remember that principle as we sail in the years to come. Cruising is the sum of decisions made and not made, risks taken or not, people and places encountered. I’m glad to have a difficult passage behind me and hope it stays there. It’s one thing to encounter challenges along the way; it’s another to have them predicted from the very beginning. When we are faced with new challenges, I’ll be able to say, “Been there, done that, can do it again.”
But as a sailing friend reminds me, “Misery is optional.” I’ll try to choose wisely.
The Salty Dawg Sailing Association continues to sponsor numerous rallies and gatherings (trips to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes were held this summer) to help encourage, train, and support cruisers wanting to head offshore. The 2022 Caribbean rally was very demanding for the organization’s volunteers, especially for the shoreside coordinators who tracked every boat until they reached their multiple, different destinations. They worked around the clock for more than six weeks. The nonprofit also continues to evaluate the best way to communicate with boats once offshore and to recruit more members. Bob Osborn, the group’s president, hopes that this year’s rally won’t experience the same extreme delay. But at least future rally goers will truly grasp the meaning of “tentative start date.”
A lifelong sailor, Chris Parker knows the conditions his clients face, and he and his Marine Weather Center team generally offer conservative forecasts. “When people ask which weather model is the best, I say that would then be the only one used,” he explained. “But we use them all.” And when asked if last fall’s weather was a result of climate change, he said, “Ask me again in 100 years. Then we’ll know.” (For more on understanding forecast models, read “Weather Window: Forecast Models,” May 2023, and online at sailmagazine.com. And check out “Weather 101: Basics,” a class Chris teaches on boatersuniversity.com. SAIL readers can use coupon code SAIL to get 20% off BoatersU courses.)
Alacrity basked in the Bahamas until March, returned to the U.S. via Florida, and sailed home to the Chesapeake in mid-April. They “definitely” will return to the Bahamas with the Salty Dawgs in this year’s rally. “We didn’t get as far south as we originally hoped,” says Rex. The Ragged Islands remain on their must-see list.
The 2022 rally ended tragically early for Perry Covey, Navigant’s owner. After the boat arrived in the Bahamas, Perry’s wife, Angela, who was supposed to join the boat there, became very ill. Perry left Navigant in the Exumas and returned to Florida. Angela died a month later. Perry brought his boat up to the Chesapeake this past spring and will keep it in storage while he completes a one-year overseas assignment in the Middle East. He hopes to return to the Caribbean or the Bahamas in 2024.
INO, with Martin and Zhanna on board, traveled as far south as Trinidad where they hauled the boat for hurricane season. They planned to relaunch in the fall and focus on the Windwards and Leewards where they want to spend more time. Then they’re hoping to cross the Atlantic to the Azores in 2024 and on to the Mediterranean for two seasons.
Lorraine and Phil on Far joined the World ARC and report their trip has been “incredible.” They transited the Panama Canal and were one of the boats that responded to Raindancer, the sailboat that sank after colliding with a whale 1,500 nautical miles west of the Galápagos Islands. They felt too rushed, not having enough time to recover after long passages, repair the boat, and explore. So they withdrew from the ARC in the Tuamotus but are going on with other, smaller rallies to Australia. Far may return by way of Indonesia, the Suez Canal, or the Mediterranean.
And as for Soulemate? We turned her bow back north in late February. We returned home by way of Dominica, St. Martin, and St. Barts, enjoyed cruising the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and found the Spanish VIs captivating. We continued along the southern coast of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and finally to the Bahamas. We left the Abacos on May 9 and had to divert to Beaufort, North Carolina, due to a vicious nor’easter approaching the coast. We motored the final 200 miles up the ICW to the Chesapeake Bay.
Soulemate traveled 3,742 nautical miles, visited 37 islands, and met sailors we hope to call friends for years to come. However, I don’t think we’ll sail our own boat to the Caribbean again any time soon; too far, too hard, too long. We have too many other commitments back home and truly love sailing throughout New England during the summer. But our 40 days in the Bahamas were way too short and we’d love to return there soon. Three summer months in Maine and three winter months in the Bahamas feels, today, just about right.
November/ December 2023