UPDATED: Unpredictable Weather Pattern Challenges the 2013 ARC Fleet

The trades have finally filled in now - but it's been a tough start.

Here's another update from St. Lucia that I just finished working on. Follow the fleet online at www.worldcruising.com/arc and click 'Fleet Viewer'. As usual, see below for photos with captions.

Year to year, the docktalk among ARC crew inevitably turns to the weather, and 2013 is certainly no different. And what’s on everyone’s mind this year is the remarkably challenging conditions that most crews have had to deal with. In fact, the 2013 ARC is turning into one of the most challenging years for weather in recent memory.

Traditionally, the end of November marks the finish of the north Atlantic hurricane season. By leaving Gran Canaria in late November, ARC boats are crossing at the start of the tradewind season, and arriving in time to spend Christmas in the Caribbean. But this can mean a less settled Atlantic weather pattern, as shown in this year’s crossing.

ARC weatherman Chris Tibbs briefed captains before departure about a developing low in the north Atlantic, which would be the dominant feature for the first part of the crossing. Many of the racing skippers, especially those on the large or fast boats, were excited by this news, as it opened the door to the longer “northern route” and the prospect of record breaking crossing times. If any of the racing boats could sail sufficiently far north, and fast enough, then they would be able to sail down the western side of the low, and take advantage of strong winds and excellent sailing angles to power towards Saint Lucia.

But the ARC is a cruising rally, and most captains followed Chris’ advice, which was to take a more cautious route close to the Cape Verde Islands, before heading west across the Atlantic. This is the route jokingly referred to as “sail south until the butter melts”! However, with the developing low several hundred miles away disturbing the trade wind air flow, this route option looked likely to mean lots of light winds and plenty of motoring hours early on.

The pattern of having low pressure mid Atlantic in itself is not unusual and has generally occurred at some stage on about 50% of recent ARC crossings” said Chris recently. “What was unusual was for how long it persisted and the extent of it, with one low giving way to the next one. Usually boats pass well to the east and south of the low pressure staying in trade winds, but this year the low pressure was so extensive that it slowed the trades making for a slow passage. Although it has been made up for now with strong trade winds and a gibbous moon to light the way.” he continued.

Indeed many yachts that have crossed in January have historically had remarkable downwind conditions. The Saga 43 Kinship crossed last year after having to drop out of the ARC due to deck leaks. They re-started the crossing just after the New Year holiday, and made landfall in Tortola 20 days later.

“I don’t think the wind ever fell below 20 knots,” said crewmember Andrew Hassett. “We sometimes went days without touching the sheets. It was easy!”

But sometimes the trades can be too much later in the season. French Canadian solo sailor Yves Gelinas also made the crossing in January in his Alberg 30 some years ago. “I avoided the hurricane season, but found more wind than I needed when sailing the Atlantic in January,” Yves recalls. “I could not carry the unreefed mainsail more than the equivalent of one full day; it was grueling sailing.”

So whilst a later departure date is likely to give more consistent tradewinds, most cruising sailors would rather be enjoying the delights of Caribbean cruising, instead of being mid-ocean, during the holiday period.

Tonight, exactly two weeks before the Christmas holiday, marks the first event on the ARC program, the official Welcome Reception that is set to take place at the Royal by Rex resort on Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay. By then, 37 yachts will have taken the finish line; compare that to 2012, when 100 yachts had crossed, and you start to get an idea about the weather irregularities.

It’s only appropriate that tonight’s Welcome Reception immediately follows the ARC+ prizegiving ceremony. Though they departed only two weeks earlier than the main ARC fleet, the ARC+ enjoyed a much more typical tradewind passage after their brief stopover in the Cape Verdes.

David Smith of the ARC+ catamaran Easy Rider, sympathized with the ARC fleet. “Having heard some stories, I feel very lucky to have had some of the weather we had from the Cape Verdes.” Easy Rider is an ARC and ARC Europe veteran, and was lucky enough to have good weather during their three Atlantic crossings, culminating with ARC+ this year.

“If you compare it to skiing, the westward crossing is like a green slope,” said Marc Elbet, skipper of the OVNI 43 Hanami II, who completed the ARC+ last week. “Going back east, that way is a black or a double-black.”

Or at least it’s supposed to be that way. For Hanami II and Easy Rider, the passage lived up to those expectations. But for the ARC fleet this year, it’s looking more like a ‘black.’

When asked how the weather was during the crossing, skipper Ross Appleby of the perennial Racing Class favorite Scarlet Oyster said simply, “Complicated.”

At least two-dozen boats were forced to stop in Cape Verdes for refueling, after a very light wind start to the rally. And when the wind finally did fill in, it came from all directions and at all speeds, scattering the fleet over hundreds of miles north to south, and stringing them out east to west over the entirety of the course. At the time of writing, at the back of the fleet, there remains 29 boats with at least 1,000 miles to go.

So what happened to the tradewinds? In short, a depression had formed just north of the rhumb line route shortly after the ARC start. Winds circle a depression in a counterclockwise motion, blowing from the west to the south of its center, and from the east to the north. The westerly winds on the south side of the center of low pressure effectively canceled out what normally would be the easterly tradewinds, caused by the clockwise rotation of the ‘Azores High,’ and in many cases gave the ARC fleet headwinds.

Hence many of the racing fleet’s decision to go north. If they could get north of the depression’s center in time, they’d have easterly winds that would slingshot them around towards St. Lucia. But it’d be a gamble.

For Caro, the gamble paid off – the 65’ newly built racer-cruiser took line honors and set a new ARC record, completing the 2800-mile course in under 11 days. “All credit to Caro because they had the speed to get to sail in the weather that they wanted to,” Appleby of Scarlet Oyster continued.

Scarlet Oyster, for their part, would have followed Caro to the north, but their slower speeds would have given them headwinds.

“We normally start with a strategy in Las Palmas,” said Appleby. However, he explained that there simply was no obvious strategy this year. So they started on the rhumb line and went from there. “It’s better to go direct slowly than fast in the opposite direction.”

Indeed Caro’s experience has differed drastically from the majority of the cruising fleet.

“It was a very difficult passage,” added skipper Samuel Brenko of Lady Mila. The Hanse 575 with a crew of Swedish charter guests, just arrived into Rodney Bay Marina this afternoon after a 17-day voyage. They took a more standard southerly route, but still never quite found the tradewinds they’d expected. “We broke the mainsail and a few other things,” continued Brenko, “and had a few squalls with heavy gusts.”

In fact, as they approached the finishing line off Pigeon Island, they nearly blew up their gennaker. “But it’s only got a few holes in it, an easy fix,” said the relieved crew.

“That was not easy by any standards,” concluded Appleby, who’s certainly qualified to make such a statement, having crossed the Atlantic now more than a handful of times. “I really feel for a lot of the cruisers out there. It won’t have been an easy trip.”

Thankfully, the pattern looks like it’s finally beginning to break. The ‘Azores High’, the generator of the tradewinds, has re-established itself to the north of the ARC rhumb line, following the departure to the northeast of the depression that helped Caro set the record. The synoptic charts are now showing winds from the ENE in the 20’s right the way across the Atlantic for the next 7-10 days.

“We're in the tradewinds,” wrote the yacht Surya. For the past day or so, they’ve had strong winds of 20-25 knots, and are sailing ‘goose winged’ – the full genoa boomed out to starboard and full mainsail to port, the wind almost directly from behind. “Surya accelerates to 10+ knots at times,” they continued, “and it’s really starting to go well!” they exclaimed.

Here’s to hoping it continues.