Ready to Rally

It’s the longest-running ocean crossing rally in North America, and the sailing adventure of a lifetime.

“This rally isn’t just on my bucket list . . . it is my bucket list,” said Michael Crossman from the cockpit of his Sabre 38 at Ocean Marine Yacht Center in Portsmouth, Va. It was a breezy Halloween afternoon, Crossman’s wife Barbara was stowing provisions in the galley, and the couple was making final preparations for the World Cruising Club’s 2016 ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) Caribbean 1500 rally to Tortola. It’s the longest-running ocean crossing rally in North America, and for the Crossmans, their sailing adventure of a lifetime.

“This separates the casual sailor from the intrepid yachtsman,” said rally manager Andy Schell. Schell is responsible for making sure the boats and crews are prepared for the next seven to 12 days of 24-hour sailing across nearly 1,400 nautical miles of open ocean. This is what serious sailors call a passage.

“You’re 250-miles from shore with no other vessels or landmarks in sight,” Schell
said. “You have to be prepared mentally and physically. Boats and crews have to be prepared for endurance and safety.”

Schell joined the World Cruising Club in 2009 after skippering several boats in the Caribbean 1500. He and his Swedish wife, Mia, log 10,000 nautical miles a year chartering their Sparkman & Stephens-designed Swan 48 IsbjÖrn (Ice Bear).

Nearly two-thirds of the 42 boat crews are preparing for their first major passage. The boats range from 36- to 63-feet and hail from five countries. There’s even a powerboat, the first in the event’s 26-year history. All equipment has to meet rigid offshore requirements. PFDs must be inflatable and they must include safety harnesses. Flares and liferafts must conform to International Sailing Federation (ISAF) or Safety of Lives at Sea (SOLAS) standards. A functional global communication system is required. Satellite safety beacons (EPIRB), radar and chartplotters are encouraged. A week of pre-departure lectures and demonstrations cover basics such as man-overboard exercises, liferaft deployment, flare detonation and vessel management.

Several first timers took advantage of the rally-sponsored circumnavigation of the Delmarva Peninsula to break in their boats and crews. The Delmarva voyage runs down the Bay from Annapolis, up the Atlantic coast and back to Annapolis through the C&D Canal. George and Beverly Gardner of Cambridge, Md., made the trip aboard their 40-foot Hanse sloop Breeze On. Now they’re ready for the 1500. Even if they do have a few reservations.

“It’s a big ocean,” George said. “It’s the unknown. We’ve never done it.”

Beverly’s more direct. “I’m a little freaked out. I might not be able to sleep. How uncomfortable will it be? Can I handle the nighttime watch alone?”

But, they’re focusing on the serenity and beauty of the Caribbean islands. “We see this as a first step to longer range cruising,” George said. Beverly nodded slightly and forced a smile.

Aboard the Montreal-based Hylas 46 Ambition, skipper Merrill Mant and wife Maryse Tetrault are counting on their Ft. Lauderdale to New York run for preparation. “We were a little apprehensive at first,” Maryse said. “But the event staff and the training have taken away a lot of the insecurities. Every day we learn something new about safety and preparation.”

“It’s a rally, not a race,” said Schell emphatically to a reporter. “We’re here to be safe and have fun. It’s not about competition.”

But there is competition. It’s the ancient one. Crew and boat against the unknowable ocean. And like the skipper said, “It’s a big ocean.”

—Jay Moore