Nothing ever bad happens in the rally, right? If you read the daily news stories over the years, you’d certainly think so. But despite what I sometimes think of as the ‘propaganda’ that we post in the news and features during the 1500 (and I’m myself responsible for producing it), I feel we ought to focus at least occasionally on some of the more unfortunate realities of ocean sailing. Namely, not everyone is, or will be, partying in the Virgin Islands when this thing is all said and done.
And I’m not talking about maritime disasters here. Since I’ve been involved with the 1500, I’m happy to say that we’ve had no major mishaps aside from some bumps and bruises and a dislocated shoulder last year. No sinkings or abandonments, no dismastings, just the normal ‘wear and tear’ that an ocean passage puts on a sailboat (knock on wood - believe me, I know how much luck is involved in that, especially with a large fleet of boats. Put me on a boat and I'm pretty confident we'll get there. But with this fleet, it's mostly out of my hands). But nevertheless, each year, there are always one or two boats that will fall by the wayside and ultimately be forgotten by the fleet that makes it safely to Tortola. And that’s the focus of today’s news item.
Before the fleet even left the dock, we had our first dropout. Rockhopper, a Morgan 45, was forced to drop out of the fleet for medical reasons. It was heartbreaking hearing the news from Frank and Suzanne, knowing that this was a dream of theirs as well. They’re two little doggies, Oz and Jonesy, provided some comfort with their constant yapping and smiling, but the news was still difficult to swallow.
I can personally attest to their feelings, a little bit anyway. My dad took his boat, Sojourner, offshore to the Caribbean last year with the 1500, but he was one crewmember short. He and my mom had bought their boat, a Wauquiez Hood 38, in 2009, and had planned to cruise on it long-term over the following few years. Instead, mom got brain cancer and died in 2012. My dad stuck to his plans though, and with a heavy heart, headed offshore anyway last year, and again this year, leading the ARC Bahamas fleet to Marsh Harbor.
My dad wasn’t alone in that endeavor either. Without naming names, at least three other boats in the 1500 fleet this year are in similar situations, dreams altered with the loss of loved ones, but continued nonetheless.
Thankfully for Rockhopper, Frank and Suzanne still have each other, and will continue cruising, just a little closer to shore. When we left them at Ocean Marine Yacht Center in Portsmouth, they were planning to cruise south on the ICW, remain close to medical care, and take their trip a day at a time. We wish them the best.
Shortly after the rally start, the fleet lost Heart’s Desire, a Pacific Seacraft 37. Though it ended well for John and his crew, it was a scary start for Rally Control. I got a phone call from the US Coast Guard while we were back in Pennsylvania, who said that one of our boat’s had issued a Pan Pan. After the initial shock wore off from the USCG call, I had to smirk to myself over the Pan Pan call. Mario Vittone, ex-USCG rescue swimmer, who had spoken during the seminar program in Portsmouth, had highlighted the usefulness of a Pan Pan.
“Nobody that I can recall ever required a rescue after issuing a Pan Pan,” he’d said. “A Pan Pan let’s us know that you’ve got a small issue on board but are working on it. As soon as it turns into a bigger issue, we know exactly where you are and what’s up, and can come and help. But usually, the folks responsible enough to call Pan Pan, end up working the issue out on their own.”
That’s exactly what John and his crew did. They had a minor engine issue, and managed to sail back to Virginia Beach without outside assistance.
“Turns out it was a very simple fix,” John told me on the phone once they were back on shore. “Almost so easy I’m embarrassed to even talk about it! The problem was, I was the only one onboard capable of fixing it, and I was too seasick to go below.”
John took the conservative route and headed back home safely. Last we spoke, he had gotten help from Trudy, our wonderful volunteer in Hampton, who rustled up some crew and helped John take Heart’s Desire to the marina for winter storage. He’s planning on following Rockhopped down the ICW and might make a run offshore to the Bahamas in early December once he gets a bit further down the coast.
Earlier this morning I spoke with Fred Ball, builder, owner and skipper of the Newick 50 trimaran Lucky Strike. They’d made it safely to Puerto Rico and Fred was about to board a flight to Miami while the friends he’d made in Portsmouth were enjoying a seminar on cruising the BVI.
“I’ve never been on a boat with someone that sick before,” Fred told me. “One of our crew, it turned out, had viral bronchitis. He was a little stuffy before the trip started, but figured it was just a cold and he’d get better. He didn’t.”
Fred said that this crewmember was so sick that he thought about the worst on a few occasions. They decided early on that with the upwind conditions, their quickest way to medical help would be to crack the sheets and aim for Peurto Rico, where they’d also conveniently be back in the USA and closer, in theory, to the American health system.
“We rolled him off the boat and got him into a hotel room the day we arrived,” Fred continued, “and immediately put him on an oxygen tank. He was on a plane the next day and is now back in Michigan in the hospital undergoing treatment. He’s getting better, which is good.”
It had to have been a brutal decision for Fred. This trip has been a longtime dream of his, and to abandon it only halfway through the passage had to hurt emotionally. Fred actually built the boat back in Michigan and had sailed it on the Great Lakes for it’s entire life. He’s getting a bit older now, and this Caribbean foray was to be a swan song of sorts. let the boat stretch it's legs offshore, do the Caribbean racing circuit, maybe even cross the Atlantic to France, where multihulls are king. After all, he’d sailed Lucky Strike to victory in all the major Great Lakes races, so he had nothing left to prove back home.
But his trip’s not over yet.
“I’ll go back to Miami to be with Pam tomorrow,” Fred told me. “And the boatyard here is working on the engine and fixing a few minor issues. The boat did great. Aside from it being upwind and a little wet on deck, we had a great sail. I’ll be back soon enough and we’ll sail her over to Virgin Gorda where she’ll stay at the Bitter End for a while, and I’ll get back down here over the winter.”
Despite the situation, which appeared dire at times, Fred remains optimistic. Here’s to hoping he makes it. We owe you a rum punch, Fred!
So as the fleet continues to arrive in sunny Tortola, we in the rally office are making a point to think about the boats and crews who won’t make it here, who’s dreams of sailing over the horizon were put on hold, at least for a little while. With luck, we’ll see them down the line and will always be happy to lend a helping hand.