I remember sitting in Bora Bora, French Polynesia, watching as a fleet of boats in Jimmy Cornell’s Europa 98 around-the-world rally—Deerfoots and Swans and a few big Beneteaus—raced into pass at Bora Bora and then, three days later, raced out again, spinnakers drawing. The crews were noisy but fun, rubbing some of the locals the wrong way, while delighting others. The world would be a duller place without people like these, I thought.
Some among our small group of less-hurried cruisers seethed quietly—mostly to themselves—that this rally business was a bad idea. Herding people in wagon-trains made sense long ago on land—but at sea?
“It’s an itinerary meant for madmen,” said the oldest in our group, a retired British seaman who—I was certain—had decided to live out his last years on his own little boat. “Eighteen months around the world. What’s the hurry? The weather does not wear a watch.”
I was thinking about that moment earlier this week when I heard about the tragic mishap in this year’s North Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, an annual rally from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda with an optional leg on to the Caribbean. Twenty-two boats participated this year, the event’s 10th anniversary.
Ten days after departing Newport on Nov. 1 with most of the rally boats, 59-year-old Jan Anderson, sailing with her husband Rob aboard their 38-foot Island Packet (Triple Stars), was washed overboard on Nov. 11 in 30-foot seas.
The fatality came less than a year after 46-year-old Laura Zekoll died in a similar rally from North America to the Caribbean, the Caribbean 1500, when the boat she was crewing on foundered on a reef while trying to enter the Bahamas, where the boat had diverted due to bad weather.
Since leaving California in 2007 on another rally, the Baha Ha-Ha, Jan blogged about their travels from California to Rhode Island, via the Panama Canal. The sequence of blog posts leading up to the accident offer an insightful peek into the mind of a cruising sailor faced with the tricky challenge of picking a weather window, and then finding it slam shut. Here are excerpts, beginning on the day of departure, Nov.1.
11/01 –“Looks Like Today Might be the Day”
“Weather meeting in 45 minutes....Scheduled departure mid-afternoon and what looks to be a SMALL weather window.... We are the 2nd smallest boat in the fleet, so we will definitely be bringing up the rear.”
11/04 – “We Are in the Safe Zone”
“We are staying as Far East of the Nor’easter that is coming from the U.S. towards Bermuda and points south, as we can . . . So while we will have strong winds (30-35 knots) it’s nothing we can’t handle.”
11/06 – “So Here We Sit”
“ . . . the weather has been . . . STINKY . . . the past couple of days have been tough, but we are ‘hove to’ and resting today . . . in talking with our weather guru guy on the SSB . . . HERB [Hildenberg] . . . who has been doing this for many years, we are in good shape and there are a few boats all spread around this region just hanging out waiting for this Storm Low pressure before we an move any closer to Bermuda. It apparently stalled producing 40-50+ winds, high seas, stormy conditions some of what we saw on Saturday! . . . DO NOT WORRY . . . two boats from the NARC fleet, who some of you might have been tracking with the “Spot” tracker, neither of which are really close to our location, had to call the Coast Guard. . . A few of the faster boats did make it to Bermuda on Saturday.”
As it turned out, it was not the nor’easter that wreaked all the havoc. Tropical Storm Sean, which officially formed on Nov. 8, came rolling in from the south, leaving Triple Stars 285 miles short of its goal, reeling in the confused seas and tropical storm strength winds. Rob was picked up by a passing freighter that assisted in the search for his wife. Triple Stars was abandoned at sea.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and I’ve always hated post-disaster at sea discussions because of that, but they are a necessary part of this trade. In my view, it would be wrong to blame the rally mentality for Zekoll's death and Anderson’s presumed death, but these recent accidents do call for a heightened awareness of the dangers—as well as the benefits—of traveling in groups of boats, organized or not. Though they might seem obvious, they are worth restating here.
- 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 the sort of conditions that the Andersons encountered, there was no chance that a fellow rally participant could help with the search.
- More importantly, filter your information through the eyes of your boat and crew. The Andersons rightly recognized that their boat was much slower than the others, and that they would be at the back of the fleet. An acceptable weather window to a fully crewed Swan 48 is clearly not the best benchmark for a couple in an Island Packet 38. Although the NARC is a “no pressure” rally, in which each boat chooses its own best departure date and time, I wonder if the Andersons had not been connected with the rally, would they have left on the same day? It is worth pointing out that speed alone is not the measure of a seaworthy boat and crew; some “faster” boats in the rally also ran into trouble.
In our years cruising in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Asia, my wife and I preferred not to “buddy boat” with other sailors. It was not always the best decision, but after sitting in on several planning sessions when cruisers gathered to discuss a passage, it was clear that we all operated on a different wavelengths, and that my wife and I were outliers. Most of the other boats were much faster than Tosca, crew experience ran the gamut, and they often had schedules to keep. Tosca was gaff-rigged with block and tackle with only an SSB receiver and an unreliable GPS for navigation. Most of the other boats were better equipped, having at least some means of long-distance communication.
Sailors are social beings, so it is only natural that we would want to share our adventures with other, like-minded souls. But this very thing that brings so much happiness to our lives can also stand in the way of knowing ourselves better. And this, in my view, is one of the strongest reasons of going to sea in the first place.
Rallies like the NARC have offered many cruisers that extra nudge they needed to realize their aspirations, and this is something to celebrate, but it is important that every participant enters with a clear picture of the risks as well as the rewards.
My heart goes out to the Andersons, it is sad to see a dream, which Jan so poignantly recorded in her blogs, come to such a tragic ending.
More about the Andersons journeys can be found on their blog.