The ARC Sets Sail

With additional text, in italics, by Jill
Once again we are in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria for November. This is the island’s busiest month. WOMAD, a free four-day world-music festival, starts on November the 11th and people from all over the Canary Islands get on the ferries and come to see it. The anchorage fills up with almost 60 boats, instead the usual two or three. But most of the yachtsmen have not actually come to listen to the Creole Choir of Cuba or to hear the Tuaregs, in their long robes and turbans, playing electric guitars. They have come because winter is the season for crossing the Atlantic to the Caribbean and the Canary Islands are a stepping stone on the way. Most of the people sailing to the Caribbean will set off alone, at the time that they choose, but some don’t like the idea of being a little tiny insignificant dot all alone on the great wide ocean. For them there is the ARC.

Mollymawk in the anchorage in Las Palmas

The ARC, or Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, was first organised 25 years ago by Jimmy Cornell. Cornell was in Las Palmas and he noticed that a lot of the people just about to make the crossing to the Caribbean were very nervous and lacking in confidence. So he invented a fun way for these people to make the journey. They would all leave on the same day and cross together, keeping in touch by VHF and SSB.

Beneteaus, Hallberg Rassies, et alia, preparing for the ARC

The first rally was so popular that the second one, in 1986, had 209 entries. This year’s race has 239 entries. Although the event is organised by an English company only 40% of the fleet (91 boats) are British. There are 27 boats from Norway, 17 from Germany, and 15 from France. There are 12 from Holland, 10 from America, and 9 each from Italy and Spain. (The Spanish are keen sailors but they do not tend to go cruising – we very seldom see Spanish yachts outside of Spanish waters – so this is a surprisingly large entry. And, for the first time ever, Las Palmas has entered a boat.) There are also yachts from Belgium, Sweden, Russia, Croatia, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Portugal, Slovenia, and Turkey, and there is one yacht each form Monaco, Malta, Ireland, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

ARC participants packed into the marina at Las Palmas

30 of the yachts are Beneteaus and there are 19 Oysters, another 19 Swans, 19 Jenneaus, 18 Bavarias, 12 Hallberg Rassies, and 10 Moodies. There are 15 catamarans, of which 6 are Lagoons. The smallest boat is a 33 foot GRP production yacht, and the biggest is a 115ft gaff schooner, built in 1921. (Most of the yachts are less than 10 years old, and 23 are brand-new.) The prettiest, in our opinion, is Peter von Seestermuhe, a gorgeous German yawl which has joined in the rally many times before. Like several of the other boats she is a charter yacht, carrying paying crew.

Texel, the biggest boat in the race, sails past our dinghy.

Although it is generally seen as a family-orientated event, only 17% of the 1,300 people taking part in the ARC this year are women. Between them they have brought along 40 children of whom the youngest is only 8 months. Under-twos are quite a handful at sea, so we hope that the parents have taken some extra crew to help with the watch-keeping.
The other boats are crewed by groups of men, most of whom have taken time off work to make the crossing. 25 years ago most of the yachts sailing to the Caribbean would have gone on through Panama a few months later. The Atlantic crossing was the first leg of a four or five year circumnavigation. Nowadays very few of the ARC participants go on around the world. Some crews leave their boat there for a year or two, flying out to spend their winter holidays in the Caribbean. Most are making a round trip similar to the one which we made last year. Some don’t even have the time to make the return passage across the North Atlantic; they will pay to have the boat carried back on the deck of a ship or sailed back by a delivery crew.

Crowds gather on the seawall to watch the flare demo

For a fortnight, during the run up to the start of the race, the marina in Las Palmas is fluttering with multi-coloured flags which are strung all over the rigging of the 239 yachts. Special events have been organised for the Arcies. There are talks about navigation and about how to provision, and there are opportunities to practice climbing into a liferaft (in a swimming pool). On one morning, a couple of days before the start, a helicopter arrives and the people line the wall to watch a rescue demonstration. Afterwards they are shown how to fire flares. (This is actually a very good idea. Everybody carries flares – of course – but most people haven’t a clue how to fire one.) Last year the crews were given a lecture about how to jury rig a rudder in an emergency, in case the proper one was damaged. The fleet was only just south of Gran Canaria when somebody’s rudder actually did break. But they hadn’t been to the talk and so they didn’t know what to do. They had to abandon the boat!

Taking a last look at the rigging

It goes without saying that amongst a fleet of over 200 boats there are bound to be problems of one kind or another. On average, two yachts are abandoned each year. The second casualty of the 2009 rally was a yacht whose rigging had failed – or so the crew said. Seemingly, someone noticed a strand out of the inner-forestay, and so they called up a passing container ship and all hopped off… Yi-i-i! Events of this sort have given the ARC a bad name. Jokes abound about crews who abandon ship because the light in the heads failed, or because they have run out of beer.

People also assume that the Arcies are a bunch of tyro sailors who haven’t the nerve to go out of sight of land on their own. For most of us, an ocean crossing is a very solitary event – and we wouldn’t want it any other way. The idea of sailing hand in hand with a whole fleet of other boats is anathema to the Mollymawks; but not everyone feels this way. As one participant said, “I can’t imagine the solitude of crossing the Atlantic alone. I wouldn’t like it at all.” Each to his own, hey?
Other folks don’t mind the thought of crossing on their own; they just think that crossing in a crowd is even better. One told us, “I used to think the Arcies were a bunch of w——. I just couldn’t understand it. Why would anyone want to join in with them? Then I happened to be here, one year, at the same time as the ARC, and the penny suddenly dropped: this isn’t a fleet of no-hopers;
this is a party! Now I’m part of it. In fact, this is my twelfth Atlantic crossing and my second with the ARC. I like it so much I’m going to do it next year, too. It’s a hoot!”
Partying is, indeed, one of the key features of the run up to the start of the ARC. Past participants always rave about the organisers’ talent in this department (and, for that matter, in every other department) but if the set party for the day doesn’t appeal there are probably a dozen alternative ones taking place around the marina, on various boats.

Big boats (with flash dinghies) preparing for the start of the 2009 ARC

One of the most famous pre-start ARC activities is the Dinghy Race, a rather ill-named event which is actually another party. The Dinghy Race is open to all-comers, and the marina staff make a particular point of rounding up crews from the anchorage. After all, the Arcies themselves tend to be sailing Beneteaus, Oysters, Swans, and Hallberg Rassies, and their dinghies are usually flash-looking RIBs with 15hp outboards. Outboards are outlawed from the Dinghy Race and so we boating bums, with our motley fleet of home-made prams, soggy ducks and suchlike are very necessary. First timers generally send along their kids. Sometimes they even dress them up as pirates. In reality the dinghy race is a rough and tumble event in which the wildest party animals charge around (under oars) hurling buckets of water, bags of flour, and rotten fruit and eggs at everyone within range. And I do mean everyone. Last year I saw an over-excited Spaniard – dressed in a pink tutu and inflatable boobs – lob an entire bucket of salt water at an innocent Swedish woman standing on the jetty taking photos. In one flash, her SLR was derelict.  Meanwhile, close by, a couple of small children were howling their eyes out while their pirate flag hung limply over the side of their craft.
This year Roxanne skirted the edge of the fray in our inflatable kayak, but Caesar – competing with a bona-fide ARC crew but in our old Avon – entered into the heart of the battle and came out again covered in ink. (Ink! – I ask you!) His command was subsequently awarded an unsightly marble trophy, but he has no idea how they came to win it. So far as he is aware there was no race, as such.

They leave together, but will they still be in sight of one another in a few days time?

Although the ARC is supposed to be for people who don’t want to sail on their own, some people report that they did the whole crossing without ever seeing another boat! We can see how this might be. Last year we sailed in company with another yacht. We set sail together one evening and never saw each other again until we arrived on the far side of the Atlantic. Then, we sailed into the anchorage at almost the same moment!
On the opposite extreme, two friends of ours sailed two catamarans across the whole Atlantic keeping so close to each other that on one night they very nearly collided.

The ARC fleet - four hundred white triangles sitting on top of the blue sea

Yesterday we sailed our little dinghy out of the harbour to watch the ARC leave Las Palmas. First went the RORC racing fleet, in their fast boats. Then the next start was for any cruisers who have decided to race properly, and not to use their engines. Then the guns were fired again and the rest of the fleet poured over the line. The nervous ones kept to the back.
The tugs fired their water cannons, and thousands of people lined the shore, a mile away, to watch. Helicopters and microlights whizzed around just above us. We saw the 239 boats set out downwind with hundreds of different sized triangles of white, and dozens of different coloured spinnakers.
Within twenty minutes one of them had turned back, and this morning two others came back into the port again with broken gear. It must be very disappointing to set off in such excitement and then to have to turn back. And very probably two more of the crews will give up during the crossing and their boats will be abandoned and left to drift. This year all of the ARC participants are carrying satellite trackers, so if anyone wants to go and salvage them it should be fairly easy!

If you would like to see the current positions of all the boats in the ARC, visit the organisers’ Yellowbrick tracking page.
Taking a look at the positions on day 3 makes us very happy not to be out there in the middle of that tightly-packed throng!

To keep in touch with what’s going on out there you could take a look at the blog written by Matt, skipper and owner of the 50ft catamaran Mojomo. When we last checked, he and his crew were conducting original research into the melting properties of butter as an indicator of when to turn west.

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