Rethinking the Rally Concept

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 10:26AM - Comments: (5)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.




Comments (5)

There have been many thoughtfull comments here. At the end of the day, we all sail at our own risk. I also believe that schedules can be dangerous. Last summer we participated in the Marion Bermuda race. I promised myself that if the weather report was very concerning, we would not depart or withdraw. There is an advantage to having a deadline for having the boat ready. We spent a year and a half getting our boat ready for an offshore voyage. The quandary would be if one did not make the deadline.

Posted by: GARY N | December 23, 2011 10:07 AM    Report this comment

I have just completed the 2011 Caribbean 1500.

A month before we left on the C-1500, I met a couple at Westmarine in Annapolis and told them we were preparing for the rally. They looked concerned. One of them said, "Oh ...I'm sorry to hear that". When I asked about their concern, they seemed to find it hard to put it into words. Finally, he said, "You will be sailing on THEIR schedule". And that, as I discovered, was the problem. The C-1500 makes you dance to their tune, adhering to their schedules for everything from safety inspections to departure and arrival schedules. This is understandable to an extent as it is necessary any time you join a collective, By definition a collective necessitates a group mentality. But the benefits in this case were VERY limited.

I was unable to prepare on my own schedule, this means I was unable to prepare according to the needs of my particular boat and situation. In that sense I was actually LESS prepared for the trip than I wanted to be. The supposed "safety in numbers" benefit was virtually nill as we quickly out-sailed most of the fleet and were 30-50 miles ahead of them. Our long range communications (2 different satphones) failed constantly so communications with the fleet and the rally office were nill. In short, aside from some weather wisdom, there were no real benefits that would, in hindsight, cause me to ever repeat this rally. It ended up costing more, and creating so much schedule-driven tension that the whole experience of the cruise was horribly marred, even driving my poor wife to tears at one point.

I will not likely repeat the experience of sailing in any organized rally ever again and I will join the C-1500 about 6 weeks after hell freezes over.

Posted by: Brian H | November 18, 2011 6:39 AM    Report this comment

I'm deeply saddened by the loss of Jan. I will not jump to any conclusions regarding links of rally participation to her untimely death.

I've only participated in one rally, the Baja Ha-Ha. It was great in that it gave us a firm date to be off the dock. That said, I wouldn't have left or continued with the fleet if I had any reservations about conditions. In our case, the rally organizer actually suggested boats stop prior to the first destination and anchor due to weather conditions. We made a decision to keep going and I think about a dozen other boats did likewise. We had a great ride on our Amel, but I probably would have ducked in if I was on something less substantial. George S's analogy to the BMW motorcycle rally is spot on. Maybe that mantra should be "only sail with the herd if you'd be going anyway."

Rallies are not the only factor that can induce people into making a poor departure decisions. We witnessed a 42' that departed La Cruz for the US the same time we did, make a series of blunders that could have ended his "Baja Bash" in ugly fashion. Fortunately a good samaritan bailed him out. He was in a hurry to meet up with a girlfriend who was flying into San Diego.

Bottom line is not to mix sailing with schedules or any outside pressures. I'd always rather be sitting at anchor wishing I was "out there" rather than being "out there" and wishing I was still peacefully at anchor.

Posted by: DAVID B | November 17, 2011 2:55 PM    Report this comment

That is a very interesting and thought provoking post. The best of sailing is "Plan, Sail, Party, Repeat." Besides coastal cruising, we also ride motorcycles. I find a similar issue in group events in both recreations. We ride to several BMW club camp out rallies each year and participate on some shorter group rides. A major safety concern is always the variation in skill levels and bike condition and design. Safe speed for one rider on one bike can be beyond safe limits for others. The overarching mantra is "Ride your own ride."
In both cruising and riding we have found that the best policy is to plan to meet up at the major rally points, plan our own course and schedule, then see what fits with others going the same way. We are not comfortable with making the pace of the group our major focus.
Group sailing has even more variables; boat size, condition and equipment, crew size, skill and experience, and many permutations of each. Each permutation results in an individual optimal safe, comfortable and enjoyable passage. Pressing those elements either way compromises the trip. Sometimes it's pushing too hard, sometimes it's having to lag that removes the enjoyment.
I'm sure there is a nautical mantra similar to "Ride your own ride" but I haven't heard it.

Posted by: George S | November 17, 2011 11:46 AM    Report this comment

Jan and Rob Anderson were very good friends. We spent time with them in Newport before they left on the NARC rally to Bermuda. They waited for a good weather window in a period of bad weather, but during the voyage Tropical Storm Sean because a serious problem, possibly the cause of the 30 ft rogue wave that hit them. Was the NARC rally derelict in their duties in planning this voyage? I think November is a bad time for such a trip. Setting to sea is always hazardous no matter how experienced and prepared one is. Many will miss Jan and mourn her loss. -Ross

Posted by: ROSS H | November 17, 2011 10:49 AM    Report this comment

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