ARC or not the ARC?
We crossed the Atlantic as part of a rally organised by the World Cruising Club called the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (or ARC for short). Would we recommend doing the crossing with the ARC now, having hesitated about paying the subscription fees for a trip which, at the end of the day, you make alone?
The greatest aspect of the ARC is the camaraderie of the event.
I will never forget arriving at Rodney Bay. It was only 7pm but because it was pitch dark with no moon, it felt much later. We had the adrenalin of rounding the cliff at Pigeon island in the dark, navigating the anchorage to find the finishing line (for this the photographer who met us in a RIB proved to be useful) and the final challenge of threading our way through the extremely narrow and crooked entrance to the head of the marina. I was in mild shock after so many days at sea, to suddenly be confronted with land, so many obstacles and unfamiliar territory. It was incredible to hear the cheers and fog horns of other boats welcoming us as we came in and to find our old neighbours and erstwhile sea companions, Mon
Ami of Sweden, next to us on the pontoon as they had been in Mindelo. Being part of the ARC certainly means that these seminal moments of departure and arrival are celebrated as events. We were greeted by the ARC yellow shirts who congratulated us and were presented with our gift basket and delicious rum punches which I made light work of. After 12 days at sea we were, of course, thrilled to set foot on land and of course went straight to the bar. I remember feeling disorientated seeing the novelty of Christmas decorations hung onto palm trees. The memory of this arrival will always be special to me and having other crews around celebrating the same experience made it all the more special.
We wish with hindsight that we had made a bit more of an effort to take part in some of the social events that were organised in Las Palmas but we were so incredibly busy with our final preparations, provisioning and boat repairs. Cathy spent her birthday taking the paper labels off tin cans and labelling them with a marker pen to be stored away for the trip. Simon didn’t manage to attend any of the seminars that were organised except for the first one as we had our visit from the Oyster team. It was a pleasure to finally have some time to enjoy the parties and social events organised in Rodney Bay, Saint Lucia.
The ARC organises a lot of different social events with free rum punches and live music, welcome parties, award parties, excursions and outings. There is something organised practically every day for those who want to take part. I especially enjoyed the outing to Anse la Raye, a small fishing town, for their Fish Fry. Because it was around Saint Lucia day, the tiny village put on an amazing show with dancers on stilts, fire performers and acrobats. They were incredibly welcoming and insisted that some ARC participants join them for some dancing and as part of the acrobatic show. I found myself part of a human pyramid as
an obstacle for a young man to somersault over. I was told to climb on top of the back of a fellow yachtie who I recognised from a boat on our pontoon. He was a young Sardinian (we had gone to compliment him on his excellent and huge Sardinian flag which reminded us of our trip to Cagliari back in August) so I happened to know that he was type 1 diabetic as the whole crew had proudly showed us that they were all on insulin. I felt a little uneasy climbing onto his back as he crouched down on all fours and wished for his sake that a lighter member of the audience had volunteered in my place. It all finished well though, despite the free rum punch and the generous pina colada that I had drunk earlier. Later, along with other tipsy yachties, I was encouraged to dance between the stilts of the fire throwers’ legs. The health and safety implications don’t bear thinking about! The atmosphere was always welcoming and although the village was basically a poor fishing village there was no attempt to capitalise on the party and to extract money from us. Limbo dancing on stilts with fire! The bar was high.
For long term cruisers like us, meeting other cruisers is a chance to build bonds for future cruising. We could barely think about starting to organise our return trip but it was easier when asked by fellow ARC yachties what our plans were to confess that we didn’t really have any, apart from a loose idea that we would return to the Med in May, probably without the ARC organisation this time. Moanna and Corryvechan both had the same idea and we made a rough plan to sail back in company. Other boats will surely be added to the list as we go along. As we cruise around the Caribbean with our ARC flag flying, we can instantly recognise our fellow ARC participants anchored up in other bays and feel to be part of a group.
The other aspect of the ARC which was a real added value was the focus on safety.
Each boat receives a file with, among other things, a list of the safety equipment and measures that all ARC participating boats are required to have on board. This includes serviced life raft, life-jackets, a dan-buoy and life ring or other Man overboard retrieval device and EPIRB (Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon) but also includes some other smaller details which are easily overlooked, such as having wooden bungs attached by a lanyard to every sea cock (this was time consuming in our case with so many through hull fittings) and having a lanyard attached to the washboards so that in really big seas they would not be washed overboard.
The ARC sends an inspector to each boat at the beginning of the week in Las Palmas with a long checklist and should there be any items missing or defective, the skipper has the responsibility to remedy the situation. In our case the inspector, an absolutely charming lady, was very polite about having to return. Whereas our crew’s brand new life-jackets passed the test at once, we found that the date had expired for the lights in ours and that we were missing a whistle. Attention to detail in all matters concerning safety is not to be sniffed at, and we were more than happy to welcome her back on board with new bells and whistles.
If ever we needed a reminder that safety equipment should never be taken at face value, it was with our danbuoy. A danbuoy for non-sailors is a simple piece of safety kit that lives on the stern of the boat and is often ignored for years. It is a device to be thrown over the side in a man overboard situation with an extendible pole and a flashing light to mark the position of the person in the water, comprised of an orange or yellow weight and a long flagpole. Normally the maintenance required on the danbuoy consists of checking that the battery still works for the automatic light and maybe replacing the flag. In our case however, the Seago danbuoy was practically brand new, having been purchased at the boat show that year. Roger wanted to show Ron how it worked and threw it into the water. It promptly toppled over and lay flat in the water. Had one of our crew’s lives depended on it, it would have been of no comfort to know that we had only bought it recently and that it still looked shiny and new on our stern.
We were shocked and Roger contacted Seago, who registered the complaint and promised to take action. They also promised to reimburse us for the purchase of a competitor’s product in Las Palmas and we promptly bought a Plastimo model (and tested it). We have yet to hear back from Seago about the action they assured us that they would take in carrying out quality control tests. It is a relatively inexpensive piece of kit, but as a safety device we had naively assumed that quality control would be impeccable and that it would not be subject to faults in the same way as any other common or garden household device. We were wrong. The adage is true that it is important to test out your safety kit and make sure that all is in order. Your life might depend on it.
Finally, the best thing about the ARC is also the worst thing about it. The ARC+ offices open in Las Palmas on November 1st and the rally leaves on November 11th. The boats on the ARC + leave the Cape Verdes on November 21st regardless of the weather forecast. Simon tried to start a mutiny in Mindelo as Predict wind was telling everybody that conditions would be flat calm for the first 24 hours after departure. Predictably, the first day was indeed a zero-wind day and put 22 hours of engine time onto our trip which would otherwise have been unnecessary. The revolt was a non-starter, of course. The rally have fixed dates, events pre-organised, places booked for other events, staff flights reserved and marina commitments to respect. There was never a possibility of leaving a day later, just because the weather forecast was more favourable.
However, the advantage of this is that it forced us to race to organise the boat on time, gave us a fixed framework to work towards and allowed us to set up dates to meet up with our crew which meant that we were in the Caribbean in plenty of time to enjoy the West Indian winter season which is sweet indeed! Would we be here now if we hadn’t raced to meet the ARC deadlines? Not a prayer! It is true that by the time we arrived in Saint Lucia we were exhausted. Simon particularly had been project managing, skippering and driving the expedition since at least the beginning of the year with only a few days in Majorca at anchor where he had simply relaxed, rather than doing a boat job or a boat trip. It is exhilarating and a dream come true, a real achievement and a success but it was also a far cry from the total relaxation that his old workmates imagined when they were told he was off sailing to the Caribbean. He hadn’t had time to read a book all year and even having arrived in Saint Lucia our crew naturally wanted to visit the island and make the most of their limited time there. We apologise for being terrible hosts on arrival in the Caribbean but the truth was that we wanted to put our feet up and just do nothing for a while. We finally got the chance to do that in Bequia, a very good place to just live at anchor and chill for a few days before getting in the water and scrubbing the coral worm off the hull!
In conclusion, the ARC was a great framework to undertake our first ocean crossing. Not only did the organisation provide support, information, a safety net and a way for family and friends at home to track our progress across the ocean and be reassured that we were still afloat, it also made the crossing into a real event to be shared and celebrated with others. We may not use it for the return trip, having gained the confidence and the experience to plan the next crossing but we would definitely recommend it for anyone who is making their first trans-Atlantic trip. It is possible to buy books, watch many YouTube videos and to glean a lot of tips and information on every aspect of transatlantic cruising in bars around the world but nothing beats the confidence that you get from making the steps yourself with expert guidance and in good company.