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Lessons from a Circumnavigation Part II: Pros and Cons of Rally Cruising

By webmaster last modified Aug 18, 2002 06:17 PM

Published: 2002-08-18 18:17:21
Topics: Cruising Information


by Michael Frankel

There are several organizers of sailing rallies, but Jimmy Cornell is considered the undisputed impresario of cruising rallies. Over the past twenty years, his annual Atlantic Rallies for Cruisers (ARCs) from the Canaries to St. Lucia have attracted thousands of sailors. The 140 boat flotilla in the America 500 Columbus Rally from Spain to the Bahamas was, for many, the social and sailing event of the Columbus quincentenery celebrations. Jimmy has also organized several around the world rallies including the biennial Europa Rallies, the Hong Kong (turnover celebration) Rally, and what might be his last rally hurrah, the Millennium Odyssey.

So what makes sailors love or hate cruising rallies? Having participated in both the Columbus and Millennium rallies and a three-month Dutch sponsored rally through Russia, honoring Peter the Great, I have a few personal thoughts and observations.

Many cruisers put safety-in-numbers high on the list of rally benefits. Offshore sailing is riskier than a walk in the park (except maybe for New York's Central Park). Having a number of boats in the vicinity lessens the risk. This is true even for daredevil singlehanders. In several recent solo-circumnavigation races, there have been dramatic rescues by fellow racers. The sense of safety in a rally comes not only from nearby boats but also from rigidly adhered to schedules for radio roll calls and boat position reports to the rally office. Even family and friends appreciate this sense of safety from daily Internet web page updates with boat positions.

A measure of safety also arises from adherence to rally entry rules regarding safety equipment and procedures that must be aboard each yacht. This is reinforced by safety inspections prior to departure for such items as liferafts, EPIRBs, harnesses, jacklines, abandon-ship emergency bags, and so forth.

In case of a real emergency, the rally office has the available boat information, crew rosters, and the persons to be contacted on land for each of the boats.

Although boats may be hundreds of miles apart on a long ocean passage, there is a sense of community and a shared concern for everyone's safety. During the 3,000 mile Galapagos to Marquesas passage in the Millennium Odyssey, one of the boats developed autopilot problems, and the elderly British couple reported getting tired of hand steering. Immediately, a nearby Italian boat volunteered a couple of crewmembers and plenty of pasta to complete the passage.

Safety in numbers, however, has a flip side. Many offshore sailors pride themselves on independence and self-sufficiency. The fiercely independent Dutch sailors, rounding the desolate North Cape, were a prime example of this self-assured group. For them, these feelings are a large part of the sailing hobby being able to avoid problems and fix them when they do occur. This group may frown on calling the autopilot problem an emergency requiring outside assistance. They would argue that the tired crew should have been better prepared with spare parts or willing to hove-to and catch up on sleep at regular intervals.

The independent types consider the number of boats in the rally a false sense of security. It might tend to make sailors less rigorous in their preparations because help is assumed to be close at hand.

The feeling of community, safety aside, is probably the second most positive aspect of a rally. I think widespread camaraderie from a shared experience at sea develops more quickly and more intensely than in similar situations on land. This is in part due to the loneliness felt at sea, cut off from most social contacts, and from shared hardships in a hostile environment. The eagerness to engage in impromptu chat hours on the HF-SSB radio attests to people's need for human contact beyond their immediate crews. Rally participants even look forward to the dry, daily reports of position, engine use, and local weather conditions just to feel connected to a community.

I had two very special companionship experiences on the America 500 Rally between the Canary Islands and the Bahamas. Both convinced me of the special friendships that develops in a rally crossing.

My boat, SABRA, left Las Palmas ahead of schedule because we were a slow boat and I didn't want to miss any of the rally festivities planned for the finish in the Bahamas. For six days we had not spoken to anyone in the rally. Six-hundred miles of desolate ocean had passed without human contact outside of our small crew of three, not even a passing freighter.

For several days I called on the short-range VHF radio (SABRA had no long-range HF-SSB radio at the time) with a well-practiced plea:

"Any America 500 vessel . . . Any America 500 vessel. This is SABRA . . . SABRA." The transmission was followed by total silence. I sadly put down the microphone, to try again a few hours later.

Suddenly, one morning, in the pre-dawn stillness, the silence was broken by a woman's voice with a raspy British accent, "SABRA . . . SABRA. This is WITH INTEGRITY. Switch to six eight. Over."

I was overjoyed to hear a voice. A familiar woman's voice. It was Rosie. Sweet Rosie. She was one of the leaders. A tough, diminutive old salt, skippering the maxi-racer WITH INTEGRITY, and passing us unseen in the dark at twice our speed. It was a lovely sound, and all thoughts of loneliness suddenly melted away. I switched to Channel 68 and reached out to "touch" Rosie. I silently gave her a big electronic hug and asked her to relay our position at roll call later that day. She was all business and probably had her hands full commanding a 75-footer, hell-bent on winning the Atlantic race. I forgave her for not being chattier. I was just so pleased to have the rally boats around me again.

Later in that same crossing, about half way to the Bahamas, SABRA's foremast broke. Fortunately, we were able to sail quite well on the main mast, but I did let the rally know of our situation my schooner suddenly became a sloop.

Jim and Judy and their three kids on NONA ROSA made a special effort to rendezvous with us by following our announcement to rally control that we would be sailing a fixed latitude until San Salvador. We maneuvered our vessels until we were within a few feet of each other. Then, in the heavily rolling sea, Judy tossed us a bag of freshly-baked brownies.

NONA ROSA was a sight for sore eyes. SABRA's crew was tired of looking at each other. It was good seeing and talking to someone else for a change. We exchanged a few pleasantries and news of other vessels in the vicinity before drifting apart. We were back alone in our desolate patch of ocean again, but this time with a marvelous chocolate brownie after taste.

On all my rallies I have enjoyed meeting foreigners. British, Italian, Dutch, French, German, Finnish, Slovenian, and Spanish boats drawn together in a rally provide a wonderful opportunity to experience other cultures and learn something about their sailing habits. For boat equipment enthusiasts, it's a great opportunity to see what boating gadgets are available abroad that have not yet made it to U.S. chandlers.

The rally environment also provides a rare opportunity to mingle with different social classes in a way that is unlikely to happen on land. When boat values range from thousands to millions, they reflect the socioeconomic spectrum of their owners. Thrust together in a rally community, especially out at sea, barriers like country club memberships, exclusive neighborhoods, and elite schools are easily broken. None of these class distinctions hold at sea where how you sail and how well you can keep the boat functioning is what counts. It is truly a meritocracy. In port, the more affluent can have a new suit of sails flown in or have local experts repair their many problems or invite all their friends to an expensive restaurant. But back out at sea their status is generally the same as any other participant in the rally. The best sailor or cleverest repairman is king of the hill.

Again, the non-rally enthusiasts feel that sailing the open ocean is one of the highest expressions of solitude. To them, voyaging with a crowd is anathema to the sailing experience. Several times I was asked by these loners where the rally is headed next. They want to avoid that particular place. And mixing it up with different social classes is the furthest thing from their mind when they go sailing. They simply want to be left alone to enjoy a pristine environment uncluttered with people.

On shore, after a long passage, rally camaraderie continues as people share information on laundry facilities, Internet cafés, fuel availability, and other boater needs. In place of radio chats are meetings at sidewalk cafés and island pig roasts. Stories are exchanged over fish caught on the recent passage or the damn equipment that broke down, again. The sense of community continues.

If the rally is relatively large, it can sometimes overwhelm small anchorages and shoreside facilities as hundreds of crewmembers descend on a small village. One addicted e-mail junkie got agitated waiting her turn at the Bora Bora Internet café's single computer. The proprietor patiently explained that it would be a year before the next 'round the world rally would pass through, and in the meantime, one computer was more than enough.

Racing also plays a positive role in rally fellowship. It is hard to imagine a group of sailors getting together and not having the urge to race each other. All of Jimmy's rallies have a racing component, and most participants enjoy the competition. But here again there are detractors, and this time also from within the ranks of rally proponents.

The racing opportunity draws larger and much higher-tech boats than conventional cruisers. Light displacement boats with several large spinnakers of different weights are not uncommon in the racing group. Therefore, the fleet quickly separates, and on long passages it is not uncommon to have the leaders and laggards hundreds of miles apart. This makes communications more difficult, it lessens the sense of safety-in-numbers, and it makes it more difficult to schedule social events at the next landfall. Serious racers also form their own cliques, further diminishing the sense of community. These problems are not important enough to suggest eliminating racing in rallies, but they do highlight the difficulty in organizing joint cruising-racing events.

Finally, the most apparent and measurable benefit gained from a rally is in the hundreds of small arrangements made by the rally staff in each of the ports along the route. Among other things, they provide information and services for: best route to the anchorage, laundry facilities, the whereabouts of cyber cafés, best prices for fuel and water, land tours, bakeries and restaurants, and other cruising necessities. Often they can arrange speedier customs and immigration procedures due to the large number of rally participants clearing in or out for the same places. In the Millennium Odyssey, they were particularly helpful in assessing country conflicts along the route. For example, they were able to distinguish problems in Indonesia from the lack of problems in Bali. They also kept a close watch on continuing Red Sea conflicts and recommended tight convoys past several war-torn countries.

Those opposed to rallies feel that not making their own arrangements robs them of an opportunity to experience some of the adventure in foreign travel. It also isolates them from foreigners when all arrangements are made by an intermediary. The arrangements are also the things detractors itemize when they consider the high price of joining a rally. It is much harder to quantify the value of safety and camaraderie than the whereabouts of laundry services or cheaper fuel.

I calculated that the entry cost for the around the world Millennium Odyssey, about $15,000 for a 45-footer, was roughly equal to the price of a good hotel room for the number of days spent tied-up in each port along the route. Looked at that way, the entry price did not seem unreasonable.

On the Millennium rally between the Marquesas and Tahiti and again between Tahiti and Vanuatu, the dictates of rally routes and schedules were relaxed to give us opportunities to explore the many islands and atolls at our own pace. I felt strangely ambivalent over the freedom. It was good to be released from rally control, but I missed the scheduled radio chats and seeing my friends at each stop.

Rallies are not for all sailors, and there are obviously good and bad aspects for those who join rallies as well as those who shun them. Having participated in three lengthy rallies, I can vouch for some of the benefits, especially the friends I made along the way. However, I can easily understand some of the complaints. I voiced many of them myself. In the end, I think rallies are just one more way to enjoy cruising.