12: Why do the ARC?

Check out the bonus episode of 59 Degrees North above, or continue reading the article about why the ARC is so popular...

In it’s 27th year, the popularity of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers has never been higher. 2013 marked the first-ever ARC+ rally, which saw 43 boats take the starting line in Las Palmas 14 days ahead of the larger fleet, and sail south to the Cape Verde’s for a brief stopover before crossing the Atlantic in the heart of the Trade Wind belt.

The ARC+ came about as a way to meet the increasing demand for the ARC itself – the waiting list of boats wishing to join the fleet in Las Palmas grew so long, that an entirely new event suddenly became viable. As it turned out though, unexpectedly almost 60% of ARC+ entries were from former ARC participants who wanted to see a new part of the Atlantic before making the crossing. Boats like the catamaran Easy Rider and the OVNI 445 Hanami II, ARC veterans, looked at the new rally as a way to even further expand their horizons, which has always been World Cruising Club’s goal. 

Even so, there remains that elusive question of what, exactly makes the event so popular to so many people. I trawled the logs and talked with crews on the docks in St. Lucia to get the answer.

For most, the ARC represents that once-in-a-lifetime moment, an unforgettable adventure that takes time, money and an enormous amount of emotional resources to even make it to the starting line in Las Palmas. Not to mention completing the 2,800-mile passage. 

The majority of the 230+ yachts in the fleet are family cruisers on sabbatical from ‘normal’ lives ashore, with houses, cars, pets and mortgages – in short, responsibilities. Yes, the odd racing boat shows up for the start with professional crew onboard (Caro, who set a new ARC racing record this year is the best example), but they’re the exception, not the rule (though in fact, having those few big boats makes the ARC that much more exciting – how often does a family cruiser get to rub elbows at the same parties as some of the hottest sailors in the world? After all, the ocean is the great equalizer – out there, the conditions are the same for everyone).

For the American flagged Hallberg Rassey Windleblo, the ARC passage has been the culmination of a years-long project and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Skipper Jack bought the boat in Sweden several years ago and has been cruising Europe in anticipation of finally bringing her back home to American waters. As they neared the end of the 3-week Atlantic crossing, the reality of it all began to sink in.

“It is bittersweet that the end is in sight,” the crew wrote. “This journey was so many years in the making – the dreaming, the planning, the scheming, and now our first major ocean crossing is nearing completion.”

Aboard Arkouda, with 850 miles to go, the crew seemed to really have settled into the life and sea and wrote with awe about the nature they’ve been so close to for so long.

“The seas are building in size, and it beautiful to watch them roll in, under, and away. The crests are starting to rise up and break, a little like waves the surfers ride. The sun hits this crest just before the white water, and it glows a magnificent teal blue. The early morning sun and the moon at night cast a metallic shadow on the water, turning it into molten silver. It is beautiful, awe inspiring, humbling. I feel so privileged to allowed to watch.”

Another yacht, Windsurf, like so many others, have made lasting friendships in the ARC, at shore and indeed at sea. “Half of the ocean the Swiss catamaran Allure was in our neighborhood,” they said, “And we had radio contact several times. So we toasted at the finish with the rum punch at 05.00 am!” At the ARC finish,‘5 o’clock somewhere’ suddenly has a new meaning.

Of all the folks we spoke to on the docks, the British-flagged Adina, who are continuing around the world with World ARC in January, provided the best insight into just what it is about the ARC that makes it so special.

“I think for us, the key thing was we’d never been across an ocean,” they said. The crew was eating a mellow breakfast in the cabin of Adina, tied to the end of E-dock in Rodney Bay and enjoying the comfortable motion of no motion at all for the first time in weeks. “Usually we’re quite happy doing independent travel, but we thought, ‘alright, we need some really good help.’”

Tom and Susie from Adina are used to taking breaks from real life and going on grand adventures. This is the third time that they’ve taken a lengthy sabbatical, but the first that they’d attempted something as audacious as an Atlantic crossing. 

“The preparation in the handbook was just brilliant. I mean we’d been reading it since a year ago,” they said. “And we always said, ‘if we can get the boat through the ARC inspections, it was good to go around the entire world.’”

For Adina, like much of the fleet, the ARC started long before the gun went off in Las Palmas. They left England in March and wanted to have as much of the prep to the boat done before they left, so they wouldn’t have to do it en route in Europe. The ARC support staff was there during the entire process.

“I mean, simple things like, the ARC used Jerry the Rigger,” they said. So they got a hold of him and had him inspect the boat way back in the spring before they ever left the UK. When they got to Las Palmas, Jerry came by a second time, recalled the boat, and was able to go over the rig once more, with the benefit of having already been familiar with it. 

“We talked about it when we were at sea, we talked about ‘Jerry’s Checks,’” they said. “It becomes – because there’s a face on it, it brings it all to life.”

But it was the safety equipment requirements that really forced the Adina crew to stop and focus.

“We actually went out and we tested all of the safety equipment,” they told us in St. Lucia. “I think that was a really important part – getting all the safety stuff right, and actually testing it, understanding it and knowing how it works.”

Finally, Adina admitted that through all of the equipment checks, all the boat prep, and all the work involved in making it to Las Palmas on time, it’s the friends they’ve met along the way that will stick strongest in their memories of the ARC. 

When they got to Gibraltar en route to Las Palmas, Adina hoisted her ARC flag for the first time. Almost immediately they realized they had familiar company. 

“Millport came in opposite us with their ARC flag up,” they recalled. “Next thing there was another boat down the pontoon from us, George, and he got his banner up. Within 24 hours, we’d got them all on our boat for drinks, and they’ve since become lifelong friends.”

When Adina left Gibraltar, they had a problem with their gearbox, which failed shortly after their departure. Millport came out and towed them back. In doing so, they missed their crossing to Las Palmas, as the brief weather window evaporated in the time it took to perform the tow. 

“You make lifelong friends in this, and Millport II will be a friend forever,” said Tom. “Tim from George will be a friend forever. The guys next to us in Las Palmas, Tim and Claire from Ghost, you know we’ve seen them so many times. And we’re going to meet up with them for New Year further down the line in Grenada.”

When Adina crossed the finish line, having never before been into St. Lucia or Rodney Bay Marina, they weren’t exactly sure where they were supposed to go. They had their marina map, and had gotten berthing instructions from the Yellowshirt team, but were still unsure. 

“And Alvaro, one of the Yellowshirts, just came back on the radio and said, ‘Tom, look at the welcoming party, all those people cheering. That’s where you’re going!’ That just made it for us. It’s a lifetime highlight.”

“You know, some people get slightly skeptical about rallies, and say ‘do you really need it?’” Tom added as he finished up his story. “And I would look at this and I would just a thousand times recommend it to somebody and say, ‘you know, an ocean crossing is a big deal, and you need to have your boat in the best state possible, and the ARC will help you do that.”

Click here to hear the full interview with Tom & Susie from Adina on the 59 Degrees North podcast.