Another essay episode for your Friday! This one is a bit more serious than last week, and looks at some of the 'rules' of ocean sailing from the perspective of two events from last fall - the Caribbean 1500 rally, and the Salty Dawgs. You'll recall that six Salty Dawg boats issued distress calls last year, two of which were later rescued by the Coast Guard. The incident made national news, and was a hot button issue among the offshore sailing community. I wrote down my own thoughts immediately afterwards, but didn't publish them until now, after lots of time to think it over and make a fair assessment of what happened. There's a lot of opinions in here, so buckle up! What did you think about the incident and what lessons did you take from it?
See below for the full text of this week's episode if you'd rather read it, plus links to many of the news stories that appeared last year. Lastly, I wish no ill-will towards to the organizers of the Salty Dawgs. I think there is room enough for the Caribbean 1500 and a group like theirs, though I think the two are more different than they are alike. I hope the SDR organizers and sailors learned some valuable lessons from last year's incidents. I know I did.
You’ll recall that the Salty Dawg Rally garnered loads of criticism last fall after six boats issued MAYDAY distress calls, and countless others were hampered with various gear failures and other problems (links to the various news articles appear in the show notes on 59-north.com).
It’s time now for me to provide my own criticism. Before I get into it, to establish some basic facts and a brief history, hear this.
In 1990, Steve Black started the Caribbean 1500, an annual cruising rally from the Northeast US to Tortola in the BVI. He was following in the footsteps of Jimmy Cornell, who had corralled the annual trans-Atlantic migration into the first ARC rally in 1986. Like the ARC, Steve’s 1500 became very popular.
I first got involved in 2007, sailing as crew on a Jeanneau 40 from Charleston. We were the last to arrive in Tortola, but it established my relationship with Steve, who had referred me and my dad to the boat’s owner. (Steve would later be integral to my working with the World Cruising Club, and now, following Steve’s retirement and much-too-soon death this year, managing the Caribbean 1500 and running World Cruising Club’s USA’s office with my wife Mia).
2010 marked the last year that Steve ran the 1500 – with a record 79 entries – with World Cruising standing by to take over in 2011. By 2012, a core group of Carib 1500 sailors who participated annually left the rally (in my opinion because they disliked the changes that came with a new organization at the helm) and formed their own non-event, christened the Salty Dog Rally (with an ‘o’). The ‘real’ Salty Dogs, crewmembers who had sailed at least 10,000 miles with the 1500, were rightfully upset at the new chosen name. It changed then, and is now known, as the Salty Dawg Rally ( spelled ‘d-a-w-g’).
I call it a ‘non-event’ because the rally allows departure from any port in the NE, sailing to any port in the Caribbean. There are no safety guidelines since “it is the responsibility of each skipper to have proper safety equipment and to ensure that the vessel is prepared for the passage. The core group meets in Hampton, as the 1500 did in its last years under Steve, and sails now to the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda.
The Salty Dawgs were initially free, but they’ve now started charging ‘membership’ fees and call themselves a nonprofit organization. How they got that designation is beyond me. I’ll get further into detail about what exactly defines a rally – and why the Salty Dawgs do not meet that definition – further on.
Steve Black was, let’s just say, less than thrilled seeing the core folks he’d mentored, trained, sailed and partied with break off and do their own thing. The legacy of the 1500 he was leaving behind in retirement (and now death) was tainted in his eyes by the hasty departure of people he assumed were on his side. Perhaps he treated them too well – offering annual discounts and special privileges for coming back year after year – and his kindness backfired on him.
Many of his most loyal friends and cohorts did stay – Rick & Julie Palm, Miles & Anne Poor, Davis Murray and Peter Burch to name just a few who I work closest with (and apologies to those I’ve left out – you know who you are). It’s now thanks in part to them that the 1500 continues on and is starting to grow again.
The 25th anniversary of the event is coming up this fall. It’s a shame Steve won’t be there to see it, but we’re planning lots of special events, our new hosts the City of Portsmouth & Ocean Marine Yacht Center are providing even more support than last year, and we’re happy to see a few of the wily veterans who initially supported the SDR coming back to 1500.
What follows are my opinions and mine alone. I have very specific ideas on seamanship offshore and ocean sailing in general, and I believe strongly in those ideas. The Salty Dawgs last year broke a lot of rules, so to speak, when it comes to ocean sailing, which I’ll get into.
But there is also an ulterior motive in me publishing this now – for anyone starting to make plans to head south this coming fall (or in the future), I hope that the following is a convincing argument for joining the Caribbean 1500 over the Salty Dawgs, and if you go it alone, I hope this helps with your preparation.
I believe everyone involved was acting with the best intentions – but I do believe they acted wrongly. Both the organization behind the Salty Dawgs and the skippers of some of the boats that got into trouble.
Ultimately I felt badly about what happened for those involved, and understand that from my perspective as a rally organizer and a sailor myself, an event like what happened in the SDR last year is something I fear. When an ‘8816’ number appears on my cell phone in the middle of the night while there are boats at sea (indicating an incoming sat phone call), my heart rate definitely increases.
I intend to summarize what happened last fall in the Salty Dawg Rally, why it didn’t happen to the 1500 fleet, and just what the differences are between the two groups of sailors and boats. While I haven’t altered any of the facts, this story is told from my perspective and includes lots of my own opinions. I know I’m going to put some people off – that’s okay. I think there will be many more who agree with me.
So before we get into it, know that I understand that it’s impossible to make ocean sailing 100% ‘safe’. However, with proper knowledge and preparation – and a heavy dose of respect for Mother Nature – it’s possible to mitigate the risks we must live with offshore.
With that said, here goes…
So What Happened?
2013 was the second straight year that the Caribbean 1500 departed one day ahead of the scheduled start – on Saturday, November 1 – to take advantage of a narrow weather window. We timed the start around the passage of a weak cold front – due to arrive in the Portsmouth, VA area sometime Saturday afternoon – allowing the fleet to start in lights airs while a high pressure area moved in, bringing stronger winds from the NW, forecast to shift N and NE over the following 48 hours. It’s always our intention to get the fleet across the Gulf Stream and well offshore while the weather is favorable. In the fall season, and on a passage of usually longer than a week, finding a weather window longer than 2-3 days is next to impossible.
The 1500 fleet experienced 3 days of winds in the high 20’s, gusting above 30 at times, but it was ‘fair weather windy’, the wind was aft of the beam, and importantly, everyone knew it was coming.
The majority of the Salty Dawg fleet, on the other hand, departed on Tuesday and Wednesday last year, November 4th and 5th, on a southwesterly breeze ahead of a forecast cold front. The front stalled and intensified in the Gulf Stream, wreaking havoc amongst the fleet. Seven boats experienced “serious gear failures.” Two boats were abandoned and their crews rescued by the Coast Guard, two boats were dismasted, and several had severe rudder problems. For the remainder of the fleet (many of which diverted to Bermuda for repairs) there were reports of several torn sails and damage to deck gear and sailing systems.
I first heard the news from a voicemail I received as I stepped off the plane in St. Thomas. In the media – indeed the national news picked up the story of the rescues as it was unfolding – and in online sailing forums, the banter began almost immediately, with armchair critics and experienced sailors alike chiming in.
On Preparation & ‘Shaking Down’
One long-time Carib1500 crewmember, who sailed aboard a Salty Dawg boat in 2013 talks specifically about some of the troubles the Salty Dawg fleet experienced offshore last year. He puts it down to an untested boat.
This crewmember, an experienced ocean voyager himself who’d crossed the Atlantic single-handed, surveyed the boat before departure and found several things not right.
Once offshore, the front came on Thursday, stalled, and stayed 12 hours longer than expected. The crewmember tried to set the staysail but the running backstays were frozen in the stowed position. The owner had bought the boat new 7 years ago – over that time, he had never learned what the running backs were for. Apparently, he had never even set the staysail. Ultimately, the crewmember managed to beat the snap shackle open with a hammer and set the windward backstay.
They finally managed to set the staysail in 30-35 knots of wind from the SW, with heavy rain. Ten minutes later it failed, the head tearing out due to sun rot. They had a very long night cleaning up the resultant mess.
And the problems continued. Charging issues, an overheating genset. A mainsheet tackle that blew up. A loose gooseneck fitting, separating from the boom.
The crewmember admitted that they easily could have been one of the casualties reported on in the paper, but in the end, they managed to pull it together and arrived in Virgin Gorda after ten days at sea. The fact that they did so safely is a testament to the crew work in what was obviously very poor situation in relation to the condition of the boat.
The bottom line is, anyone making a November voyage off the northeast of the US needs to be mentally and physically prepared for heavy weather. They need to have full awareness of what they’re getting into.
On the ARC, crews with less experience are given a survey on downwind sailing gear and ability, as that 3,000 mile passage is firmly in the trades. I’ve modified that survey for the 1500 to focus more on heavy weather gear and sails. In my opinion it’s a huge mistake to go offshore with only one headsail, regardless of how robust your roller reefing system is. Boats leaving the northeast in November ought to have at least a smaller, heavier headsail they can hoist on the furler, or ideally a second stay – Solent or inner forestay – where they can hank on a small jib or a storm jib. Simple redundancy and easy insurance against heavy weather.
Furthermore, these redundancies and any systems installed on the boat need to be checked and shaken down long before you set offshore. Dave Hornbach, a crewmember on the Saga 43 Kinship last year, notes that he’d been working with Kinship’s skipper since May the previous spring. Kinship, by the way, is as experienced as they come, completing an Atlantic Circuit and having sailed in half a dozen Carib1500 passages. In fact I skippered the boat in ARC Europe in 2012, and Mia sailed as crew on the return trans-Atlantic in January. We know the boat and the owner well. He did not rest on his laurels.
Critical questions ought to include the age of the rig, the sail inventory and heavy weather gear, the experience of the crew, your ability to work together with the crew as a team and what the plan of action is going to be when the wind starts building.
The point is, for whatever reason it quickly became apparent by the sheer number of casualties with the Salty Dawgs, that the organizers had not made these points strongly enough. Certainly some if not most of the ultimate responsibility falls on the skippers themselves, but it was obvious that there was a lack of leadership from the top – this was not one isolated incident we were talking about, and from the outset of the creation of the Salty Dawg’s concept, many people feared this day would come. Thankfully everyone’s still around to talk about it.
The next section will be about distilling all the ‘banter’ surrounding the event and what it all means.
Armchair sailors and experienced cruisers alike quickly chimed in with their own thoughts immediately following the news of the rescues. The Internet, as per usual, took no prisoners in it’s criticism of the Salty Dawgs or the skippers. But eventually there came some backlash against that criticism, with some folks defending the Salty Dawgs.
Most notable was the chatter that revolved around the ‘luck’ – or lack thereof – of the weather that the Salty Dawg fleet experienced. The forecast changed, and the fleet got slammed, it was as simple as that they said. But it's not as simple as that. What happened out there was not then, isn’t now, and never was about the weather.
The 1500 departed on a tight window, and our fleet had winds gusting over 30 knots for 3 days, with 12-foot seas. But the wind was from the 'right' direction (ie: aft of the beam). We took a calculated call on that weather window, knowing full well the fleet would have strong winds and heavy seas (WRI, our forecasters, acknowledged conditions were "far from ideal"). But we took the 'devil we knew' with the long-term forecast of high-pressure ridging and northerly sector winds (and importantly, no frontal passages in the Gulf Stream), and people were ready for it - no surprises. Boats were prepped at the dock with heavy weather headsails on the foredeck, sheet leads secured and foul weather gear on hand. Indeed the 1500 fleet got through without any major mishaps.
While the Salty Dawg fleet experienced worse weather for sure, it was far from survival conditions, with Coast Guard rescuers reporting winds in the 20s and 8-12' seas. It made the newscaster who was attempting to be dramatic about the whole thing sound rather silly. Boats going offshore ought to be prepared for and able to handle conditions two or three times worse than that. The Salty Dawg organizers admitted as much themselves, saying that experienced sailors should be able to handle those conditions, despite the unexpected change in the weather.
(As a short aside, when, particularly in the fall, does the weather ever do what’s expected of it? Offshore sailors need to be prepared for the worst conditions possible during the given season, not for what the weatherman says. Furthermore, it’s why folks sail south after November 1 – statistically anyway, you’re much less likely to encounter a hurricane that late in the year, though early winter gales can get rather unruly themselves).
I’ll return now to the point about responsibility. While I maintain that the skipper is first in line to take the blame for a failed voyage, the main difference between the Salty Dawg’s and the 1500 is that we as organizers have a series of checks in place to help skippers mitigate the worst-case scenarios when going offshore – boats must meet a certain standard of seaworthiness (and are advised to these standards in the months leading up to the event), skippers are expected to comply with the highest in offshore safety protocols (namely ISAF's Special Regulations, which are used as a basis for all WCC rallies regarding safety equipment), and crew and boats are expected to have undertaken a passage of at least 250-miles to shakedown the boat and the crew, and learn how best to sail with one another. Ocean racing crews submit to these types of checks year in and year out – I myself just competed in the 2014 Newport-Bermuda Race and saw it firsthand – and yet for some reason, certain cruising sailors seem to think they are above these safety guidelines and somehow ‘know better’.
The Salty Dawgs website proudly states that “there is no formal inspection of each boat, since it is the responsibility of each skipper to have proper safety equipment and to ensure that the vessel is prepared for the passage.” The Salty Dawgs rely on the so-called ‘experience’ of their skipper’s, and claim (though it’s proven to be false) to only accept entries from folks who have been offshore at least once before.
I don't doubt that the majority of the Salty Dawg fleet are in fact experienced (implying that they do in fact know what they are doing) were prepared and had no trouble at all. But, as Andy Chase, Master Mariner and instructor at Maine Maritime Academy so eloquently put it in an article about the sinking of the tall ship Bounty, “Every voyage carries a degree of uncertainty,” experience or not.
“In everything we do,” he wrote, "and even when we do nothing, we assume a level of risk. So we manage risk everyday. But when we are in a position where we are managing other peoples’ risk, especially when we are engaging in activities that carry significantly elevated levels of risk, it pays to get more organized about it.” Therein lies the crux of the issue. The Salty Dawgs, while claiming to be organized enough to call themselves an event, accept none of the risks of their fleet as a whole and refuse to get organized about it, opening the door for exactly the type of incidents that occurred last year.
Furthermore, as Chase puts it, "Experience in a vacuum doesn’t make us smarter. Experience has to be processed. It has to be considered with full disclosure.” He goes on to say that un-distilled experience often simply leads people to become “bolder,” or do things they might not otherwise have done in similar circumstances. (Read the full article on www.woodenboat.com/lessons-bounty).
A perfect example of the fallacy of experience was seen prior to last year’s Carib 1500. Rick and his wife Julie Palm have circumnavigated and been back and forth to the Caribbean over a dozen times, and yet he still submit to the safety check each year in the Carib1500. Last year, the inspection paid off. The liferaft aboard Altair was being checked, and had been stowed aft in the transom in a hard case. When they went to pull it out, it wouldn’t budge. When they finally did manage to shimmy it free, the painter wasn’t attached! Altair’s raft had been packed away by the boatyard back in Maine – a very reputable one at that – but they’d forgotten a small detail that could well have cost Rick and Julie their lives. Rick had taken his experience for granted, and simply accepted that the work the boatyard had done was good enough. “That second set of eyes can be priceless,” said Rick, “no matter how many times you do this stuff, no matter what your so-called ‘experience.’”
On Responsibility & Defining ‘Rally’
“We give the fleet advice,” said Linda Knowles, founder and organizer of the Salty Dawg Rally with her husband Bill, “but the decision as to when they depart is totally up to them, and they’re responsible for that decision.”
Therein lies the biggest problem that I have with the Salty Dawgs calling themselves a ‘rally’. The Salty Dawg organizers can claim to take no part in what happened to the boats that issued distress calls. In fact, the organizers go so far in saying that “the positive take on this unfortunate situation is that these sailors might have been out there anyway not affiliated with any rally.”
Knowles misses the point – they were with a ‘rally’, and the organizers failed to properly inform those boats of the risks they were undertaking and how to mitigate those risks with proper preparation and training. Had the Salty Dawgs really done their job, they’d have advised those boats before ever leaving that maybe they ought to think twice. As it turned out, they put themselves and, importantly, their rescuers at a very high risk.
To nonsailors and nonralliers, I like to compare sailing rallies, and the 1500 in particular, to a marathon, which most humans are at least familiar with. A course is set up, a start date set, entries fees paid, and competitors show up at the starting line for the festivities and the big send off. The gun goes off, the crowd cheers them on, and the pack is off on what for most will be the challenge of a lifetime. For the elites at the front, it might be their 5th, 10th or 100th marathon, and they might be gunning for first place (and the most ‘experienced’ runners among them are just as excited to be there). But for the majority of the participants, it’ll be a race against only themselves, a personal quest to see what they’re made of. They’ll have spent months, even years, preparing their bodies for the test, and success on that single day will ride not on what they’ve done in the moment, but what they’ve done to prepare. By joining a marathon you’re setting a goal for yourself, putting a deadline on your training and committing to join to group of like-minded people for a grand challenge. You’re taking a risk that the weather on the start day won’t be perfect, but then that’s the nature of an organized event. You can wait all year to run in perfect weather, but you might be by yourself.
Rallies, to me, are just like marathons. They’re about completing challenges – namely, crossing oceans – with friends; feeling confident and prepared on departure day; having support and friendship at sea; and providing a welcome to salute your achievement on arrival. What founder Steve Black called “one of the last great adventures of our modern times.”
In the Carib1500, participants pay a fee, then become part of an active community that begins months before the trip with full-day safety seminars, preparation lists, safety requirements and resources. They receive free dockage at the marinas at the start and end of the rally and in between, they have professional guides employed to contribute to safety, camaraderie and intelligence.
Marathoners pay anywhere from $100-200 to take part in a one-day event that’s over before you realize it. For whatever reason, in the US there has been a backlash to event fees for cruising rallies. The 1500 now costs $1250.00, but you’re getting three weeks of events and support. Including crew fees, entry for a boat of four would total $1750.00. Break that down, and it’d be like running a marathon for less than 85 bucks.
But if it’s money you’re concerned about, skipper Bob Woods on board the Morris 46, Lexington, sailing in this year’s Carib1500, offers an interesting perspective.
He claims he’s essentially a cheap person, but concedes that the cost of the rally is fairly miniscule when compared to the cost of the whole trip and the cost of keeping your boat in the Caribbean for the winter. Furthermore, the entry fee gets you four nights dockage, nearly nightly happy hours before and after the ocean passage, several dinners on either end, weather forecasting, satellite tracking, 24/7 at-sea communications with rally control, a comprehensive handbook on all things ocean sailing and Port Supply pricing at the Annapolis West Marine! That last item alone can very quickly make the entry fee more than pay for itself for boats undergoing big refits.
That, friends, is what a rally is about.
On ‘Groupthink’ & Leadership
Another Salty Dawg crewmember mentioned that he thought they had hit similar weather as the Carib1500, but that he had seen it before and acted accordingly. Most of the heavy weather was sailed with a triple reef in the main and the inner forestaysail flying.
He also noted that “if you had walked the docks [in Hampton] and observed the crews and their preparation you can understand the resulting ordeals. They falsely believed waiting and sailing with a large group was going to make everything easy.”
This ‘safety-in-numbers’ sentiment crops up every time something bad happens in a rally. A Practical Sailor article from 2011 (http://www.practical-sailor.com/blog/rethinking_rally_concept-10665-1.html), commented on the NARC Rally disaster, when they got caught in late-season Hurricane Sean, and one crewmember from an Island Packet 38 was lost overboard. Practical Sailor wrote that “While the collective wisdom of a group of sailors ashore noodling a navigational challenge generally offers a helpful fountain of knowledge, it is easy to be lulled into thinking sailing with a large group will offer a great measure of safety in a storm.” In a true emergency this can be the case, but in my opinion yachts still must prepare to be completely self-sufficient.
Furthermore, the concept of ‘groupthink’ is often misunderstood. Chris of brilliantstarcruises.net says that “groupthink in the negative sense arises when a dominant person or idea and social pressure to conform, or be accepted, or avoid criticism have led to problems and tragedy.”
He notes that there is a huge difference between the ideas of ‘safely getting there,’ and ‘got there safely.’ One is forward looking and emphasizes safety. The other is retrospective and emphasizes having gotten there. The problem arises when the group members begin to merge these concepts in a way that getting there takes precedence over safety without the group realizing it. Dominant members of the group with more experience and/or self-confidence (justified or otherwise) take control of the thinking for the group — some of that thinking is willingly surrendered to them.
This brings up another very important point regarding rallies. The Salty Dawgs, being loosely organized with bottom-up decision-making creates a group that is only as strong as its loudest voice.
The Caribbean 1500, conversely, has a core leadership team of professional sailors, weather routers, safety inspectors and others. Not to say that being professional makes you any more knowledgeable than someone who has spent a lifetime at sea for pleasure – but it forces you through certain standards along the way as you gain qualifications. Nobody is going to give you the helm of a ferry boat or daysail schooner just because you’ve got lots of experience. The dominant voices in the Carib1500 – at least prior to departure – are the organizers, and ‘groupthink’ is kept largely at bay.
I want to finish by emphasizing the sentiments of proper seamanship - essentially, that it starts long before you ever leave the dock. A successful voyage ought to be uneventful and free from drama. The best passages are the ones with the least sea stories. I’m very proud to say that I personally have few of these. My longest passage to date, 23 days across the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland on our 35-foot yawl Arcturus, was drama free and wonderfully enjoyable. It wasn’t by accident that it went that way.
I’ve been put in a position as manager of the 1500 where I have an opportunity to shape the way people learn about offshore sailing, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I hope that my own experience and qualifications make it clear that I do actually know what I’m talking about, and I hope people take some of my advice whether they go with a rally or not. And we’re not selling any illusion with the 1500 – dreams of a lifetime? Yes. But we’re not promising anything.
You’re only as safe on the ocean as your knowledge, skills and most importantly your preparation make you. When someone gets in touch with me about ocean sailing questions, whether they’re signed up for the rally or not, I feel a responsibility to SET THEM UP for success as best I can. Once they head offshore, their preparation will determine their success and their enjoyment of it, and at that point I no longer have any control over it.
Finally, I’ve learned a lot myself about ocean sailing and how to best organize a fleet being involved with the World Cruising Club since first working on the ARC in 2009. I’ve got a new perspective on rally sailing that I didn’t have when I first started, namely a much more positive one.
Last year, my 5th on the ARC, saw nearly 300 boats cross the Atlantic between the ARC and new ARC+ fleets combined. That’s over 6 years of the average Caribbeean 1500 fleet, and there were few incidents. There is a method to the madness, that’s been tried and tested over the past 30 years of running events, a lot of which goes on far behind the scenes in the months before the event ever starts. The ARC, and all World Cruising Club rallies have historically had very good track records, and that’s no accident either.