Every year hundred sailing vessels set out from the Canary Islands, or from southwestern Europe, with the aim to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Caribbean Islands or the American Continent. The World Cruising Club provides a frame for this yearly migration, known as the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers). Around 200 boats and 1’000 sailors from all over the world join this event every year. The ARC provides a frame for additional guidance, security and community and is very popular for the less seasoned ocean sailors. But also some veterans enjoy the social aspect and the networking of this event.
The participants and sailing vessels of the 30th edition (2015) ARC are as diverse as their reasons for joining. The vessels range from single handed 28ft (8-9m) mono-hulls, to racing crews with up to 16people. It’s fantastic to find boats with half the number of sleeping bunks as they have crew on deck, some who will have to deal with 3-5 liters of fresh water per day (including drinking, cocking, washing up and probably no showering), just to find next to them a floating “catamaran-hotel” with a high-output water marker, which can produce thousands of liters of water, so they can run their dishwashers and showers. Due to my previous sailing adventures I am used to the “basic” boat life: shower with a bucket of salty seawater and share the few square meters with strangers, whom you will know better than your friends, after some weeks of “shared privacy”.
I am lucky to find one of the few vacant crew spots. Mainly due to my previous sailing skills, travel experiences and being a vegetarian (sometimes it can be an advantage). Jonathan, who runs a property company, planned to cross the Atlantic Ocean with his 44ft Island Packet already in 2009, but had to postpone it to the current year. Together with his cousin Paul and Ole who holds a PhD in Chemistry from Norway we are a crew of four people. As Paul and Jonathan are Jewish, the boat promises to be a kosher place, with lots of Jewish traditions, a topic I didn’t know anything about at that point. Between the four of us we should find sufficient skills to be able to handle all the situations that might be thrown at us in the weeks to come.
Provisioning for weeks at sea takes some planning and its seldom without misunderstandings. The local vegetable and fruit deliverer misreads our order and deliveres bags in kilos instead of pieces. A mistake that becomes fairly obvious once the truck starts to unload 25kg bags of Oranges, Apples and Avocados. At least we know have a vegetable marked on our pontoon. We fill all the tanks with water, top up on diesel, store all the provisioning and spares away in the boat, and we get ready to leave the marina next day.
The Atlantic welcomes us with a good smack on the back, almost as if it wants to enforce some predigested meals as a toll to cross. A toll that seldom falls short to be paid by the ones short on sea legs, even if they pay rather unhappily. The wind acceleration zone south east of Gran Canaria funneled the wind force just short of a force 8, followed by wave swells of over 4 meters. A rather rough start, but everyone knows, there’s no turning back now.
Leaving Las Palmas 200 miles to stern we transit from offshore to ocean, the line where the rescue service won’t be able to reach us anymore, neither with their helicopters nor ships. It’s from here on where we are “on our own”. This was definitely valid a few decades ago, when communication was limited to visibility or VHF Radio range of a couple of miles, but maybe not so much anymore nowadays. You are still on your own as far as any immediate assistance would be available, nevertheless with current technology you can get Voice support over Satphone or HF Radio and in case of an emergency of life or boat, the rescue service can redirect other vessels from your premise to help you. This shouldn’t take more than 72 hours (or less) but from there it can be still up to another week to any shore based hospital. In any case, out here, you and your crew have to be able to deal with problems yourself. Broken sails, generators, rigging, pumps, you name it, the ocean will make sure to keep you busy fixing things which can’t withstand the daily pounding, wear and tear of the seas and mishandling of its crew. Over the ARC Radio Network we get the daily news regarding the well-being of the other vessels heading across the Atlantic. Medical emergencies, cut off fingers, lost sails, broken spinnaker poles and even an abandoned ship are reported from the other sailing vessels around us. To me, it’s part of the beauty, to be responsible for so many tasks, which we are so keen to outsource in our daily lives. Even as it gets uncomfortable at times. And its not as they woudn’t happen on land, its just that someone else takes care of it.
In our constant pace at 7kn (12km/h), it’s almost like jogging over the saltwater. The sun overtakes us with ease on her daily labs towards the west, but every day she returns on schedule with more intense radiation, just to leave us sweating in her peak hours, before disappearing again with a colorful farewell on our bow’s peak. Jackets find themselves soon unemployed in the lockers in exchange for shorts and sun cream.
The oceans seems to have little interest for counting days as those merge into a long memory of repetitive rolling waves, dancing clouds and empty horizons while the boat is pushed with the trade winds in a dead run for days on end. The fishing lines find the dorados, the galley gets busy, the sextant keeps oneself occupied and the crew settles into the watch system with time and a mindset to contemplate.
Soon enough one becomes aware of an unknown perception of solitude. Even having hundreds of other boats somewhere in the vicinity you won’t see anything further away than 6 nautical miles with your eyes before the horizon curves away, as far as your senses are concerned there is nothing out there but ocean. The beauty to this becomes apparent when the sun sets and the Milky Way parades over your head. You know you are up for a treat if you can’t see the star constellations anymore because there are too many visible celestial bodies bombarding you with photons. With binoculars the Andromeda Galaxy became visible and later in the night; Venus, Mars and Jupiter hunt each other in the hours before sunrise. It’s fantastic to be on night watch, to enjoy the night sky, undistracted and lone, and to become more humble about what feels important.
We made it almost across without any bigger issues, it hit us the second last night before reaching the Caribbean. It was a dark night when the squall (rain clouds who release a lot rain and wind) hit us. Paul at the helm can’t keep the course and accidentally gybes (turning through the wind with the back of the boat), we almost gets catapulted out of our bunks downstairs. Just when I get into the cockpit, the preventer line snaps and the boom swings around under 35kn of wind and disappears into the dark night with a horrendous pounding noise. Before we can interfere, Paul swings the helm back to the original course which causes us to gybe again, the boom comes back and this time hit the other side even harder with a loud crack. Something broke, but its too dark to see! Was it the boom? We manage to prevent any further gybing until we can sort out a flashlight to see the cause. The spinnaker pole that held out the genoa got torn of the mast and now tangles and banges around the foredeck. The wind and waves now hit our beam to make things even worse. It takes us a while to stabilize the boat and secure the pole to prevent any further damage, while the adrenaline is still pounding our brains. It made me again realize, that the interesting part about adventures like this are not the good days when everything goes according to plan, but those days when things go south and to find out how we deal with them, maybe its just me but this was exciting.
After nineteen days at sea, the island of St Lucia becomes visible in the first morning hours. Our emotions change between euphoria and sadness: we made it and it its wonderful to reach land after weeks on sea, being thirsty for other visuals than blue salt water. On the other hand we knew that this adventure was about to end, one that we will remember for our lifetime. We are welcomed with a punchy “Rum punch” that takes a little ease on our sea legs, trying to stand on that motionless land, that our brain has to learn to deal with again.
When Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean some 523 years ago, the main cause of death wasn’t the roughness of the seas or the seaworthiness of their boats but the lack of Vitamin C that causes a terrible disease called “scurvy”. Today, GPS navigation, autopilots, water makers, electric winches and other assistant tools allow today’s seafarer to sail across oceans with very little restriction and manageable risks. This is fairly visible in the cruising division of the ARC, as the average age is just around the retirement age, the sailing skills mediocre and the health and fitness level rather low. This is neither a complaint nor a disappointment, rather an observation what scientific knowledge and material abundance allow us to achieve. That leaves us with no excuse to go on such adventures, if it is something we are keen to do. So, lets go!