The ARC rally (they don't much like the appellation 'race') went over like gangbusters. One hundred and fifty boats lined up in Las Palmas for the starting gun on November 26th, 1988. Any boat under 80 feet with two or more crew could, for a fee, raft across the Atlantic cozened and calmed by the close presence of scores of sailing peers all about. It is a crossing without pain, since all of the arrangements are taken care of on both sides of the Atlantic by the ARC folk.
The success of the rally rests on the presumption of safety in numbers. For so many boats to gather and depart at the same time for an Atlantic crossing lends praise and honor to ARC's inventor, Jimmy Cornell, and his shrewd understanding of the psychology of part time sailors.
In the three years since its inception the character of the rally has changed. Out of the scores boats entered this year only half a dozen were crossing for the second time and, what is more interesting, the average size of the fleet has grown considerably. The ARC has become a conduit for one way westward traffic for ever larger boats which, preARC, might well have remained in the Med for the winter. Part time sailors of 40 and 50 footers (and more) suddenly discover the opportunity to do a transAtlantic that some may have been too shy to essay alone. The success of ARC clearly lies in the response of these large boats...and each year the boats get longer, bigger and more expensive. The largest this year was a Kuwaiti behemoth which flew an ensign bigger than some jibs in the fleet. ARC has come of age.
There is no implied criticism in all this. Each of us needed an assist in his own first ocean passage. Most made our bones on some one elses boat under a skipper who had been there before and who knew his way. But when you are in the Med on your own quarter million dollar boat, accepting the responsibility for a first time crossing does not come easy. ARC has invented a way to ease the passage. Hooray for ARC.
Jimmy Cornell is an interesting guy...not at all what he seems...perhaps a bit more than he seems. He bears a quintessential English name, what could be more Brit than Jimmy Cornell. But the minute you meet Jimmy you know that something does not fit. His accent is curiously Balkan and his looks tend to tall and rangy Slavic. Indeed, Jimmy was born in Romania, in the ancient castellated town of Brashov not far from the very house in which Prince Dracula, The Impaler was born. Brashov is Transylvania...Dracula country.
Born and bred in a country not known for maritime accomplishment, Jimmy became a sailor of occasion and a writer of no small talent. A curious and accomplished man.
East toward West across the Atlantic was Columbus's route. In the right season it is the gentlest and least threatening of all the sea voyages. (In pre-Feminist times, sailor's called it The Ladies Route.) But it is, after all, three thousand miles of open ocean and for sailors with little experience, or for sailors whose wives fear sea monsters and falling off the edge of the world, any ocean passage is a confront. As a result, many solid, ocean worthy yachts chose to remain in the gilded, crowded and polluted waters of the Med rather than head out toward the inviting Caribbean and, perhaps, the even more inviting Pacific. The barrier was an ocean passage that shut off sailors from their dreams of glory. Jimmy Cornell tore down the barrier...almost with his bare hands.
Few of the boats in ARC 88 have made any sort of long ocean passage. ARC is the beginning of a new world for these skippers and since you can only be a fearful virgin once, many having survived their maritime deflowering will stretch out toward the myriad islands of the glorious South Seas. For the gutsier sailors in ARC, the till now unattainable dream of a circumnavigation is beginning to jell from fantasy to reality.
Each of boat ARC had its own fascinating story. The whys and the wherefors of their being in Las Palmas, awaiting departure for Barbados, would fill an 800k floppy. There was precious little consistency in size or cost of the boats, backgrounds or justifications of the skippers. The boats were all there for good and proper, and different, reasons but, with only one or two exceptions, all were crossing for the first time. To a ship, they had been brought together by the magic of ARC.
Arc is a family affair. There was little 'roister doistering' and precious little heavy drinking. Wives and children far outnumbered sailing doxies. Among the men, there was, alas, more pounds of fat than of muscle. But on the whole an attractive and serious bunch who accepted the toilsome prospect of an ocean crossing with good cheer. They knew that, as grevious and uncomfortable as a sea passage can be, there is simply nothing else worth doing.
Before we left Las Palmas the ARC organizers laid on pot luck dinners, gala flag raisings complete with nubile and sinuous dancing girls who breathed new meaning into the word Samba, dinners with the Mayor, jumble sales, orientation meetings, weather analyses and so many other activities that some of us felt like we were on a luxury liner. The only thing they missed was organized calisthenics. Thank God.
The last word was had by Malcom White, the staff photographer of a Brit magazine. At one point in the festivities the yachts were asked to dress ship. Everybody rummaged about and dragged out every flag they owned. Looking about in the brilliant Canary sunshine at a hundred and fifty sailboats throbbing with a hundred thousand flags, Malcom put down his overworked cameras and sighed,
"Why the Hell didn't anyone think of this before?"
ARC En Route
We didn't sail across so much as we rafted across. There were blessed few moments when we were out of radar or radio range of at least one of the 150 cruising boats that passaged with us.
There was some loss in the clustering. The ineluctable delight of being alone, really alone, in a thousand miles of ocean was sucked out of ARC by the sheer numbers of the participants. Some of the sense of wonder at making a crossing on your own bottom was lost in lemminglike bunching. To those of us who had made the crossing before, not in the company of a flotilla, there were moments of selfish regret at the loss of privacy. The memory of our own quiet crossings, colored perhaps by Cloudland Revisited, during which the ocean world was truly our oyster, brought out a whiff of asperity at ARC. But this elitest condesencion was soon washed away in the lovely knowledge that three quarters of the sailboats about us would never have made the crossing were it not for ARC. Even more warming was the hope, nay the conviction, that some of our fellow, first time passage makers, might certainly seek more lonely oceans to cross.
The crossing from Las Palmas to Barbados, discovered by no less a navigator than C. Columbus himself, is not one which allows for much navigational creativity. The bands of winds are latitude sensitive and more or less fixed. They are well known so that, except within the narrow confines of a stroke of luck in blundering across an errant breeze, most of the ARC boats were compressed into a straightened roadway, almost a superhighway. MacDonalds and mileposts would not have been a surprise.
The contiguity was further thickened by WeatherFax reports. The information clattered out on these machines (many boats carried fax and on a few they even worked) was endlessly discussed on the radio nets and consensi of preferred routes were reached. Everyone sought the best winds so everyone went where everyone else went...a condition not without ennui.
The actual passage lived up to its reputation for gentility. The winds were exactly where they should have been and, out of concern for the tyros among us, were a half Beaufort less than expected. The seas never built up beyond extreme reasonableness and squalls were infrequent. The sun shone, the swells rolled ever so gently and the winds nudged us along civilly. A marvelous rest. A sensational introduction to ocean passaging, a welcoming fillip to sailing maidenheads and a great relief to Jimmy Cornell and the ARC organizers.
One unexpected bonus of the affable crossing was the number of folk who got around, finally, to celestial. On most passages seasickness and exhaustion defuse your commitment to haul the sextant out, prop yourself up on deck and chase a shooting star across a hazy horizon. But the skies were clear, the rolling was well within the bounds of nausea and, in the latter part of the passage, a powerful Jupiter rose majestically out of a clear horizon dead astern. It was like learning celestial from a video program. I was even inspired to attack a navigational computer which had lain whimpering with loneliness for a year in my chart table. Programming the computer, which had presented an unpierceable veil of electronics amidst salty spray and qualmish lurchings, became crystal clear in the bosom of a thoroughly tame Atlantic.
The Sea Change occurred right on schedule on the third day out. Grumpy crew members became more accepting of the personal foibles of others and those whose sea sickness was characterized by overwhelming exhaustion and the inability to stand their watch, started to emerge from their bunks. Appetites improved, the relieving watch appeared on deck a mite early and someone was even seen sweeping the cabin sole.
There is simply nothing like the Sea Change. For three days you ask yourself why the hell you are out here and for the rest of the passage you ask yourself what the hell you have been wasting your life on till now. It is the Sea Change that keeps crew from each others throats after a month or so and it is the Sea Change that cements acquaintance into friendship. An ocean passage shared is an indelible linkage...if, that is, you can get through the first three days without giving or receiving too much abuse.
By the time we turned right, at about 17'N, we five aboard Mitosis were bonded. The bond reached beyond the confines of our own vessel. The radio nets created another, more extended, bond. I will not easily forget Ted and Jim and Gordon and Fritz (I'll never forget Fritz!), the nice English physician on Blue Cornflower and the tough, capable woman (a Scot) who skippered Red Devil. They, and the four who shared Mitosis with me, have all become part of my private experiential menage. I am enriched by them.
There is blessed little to report on any ocean passage. One day is not unlike the next and retailing of small crises and large breakfasts has been better done by others and is, anyway, as boring as recounting a sitcom. It is the people that make the good stories. Solo sailors (of whom I disapprove) are not only a danger to navigation butdeny themselves the recherche opportunity to delve, uninterruptedly, into the psyches of others, an improbable adventure often full of delight and always full of surprise.
The best outcome of ARC 88 took place on Hermitage. Her skipper, Gordon, did not bother to sail across...nothing so dull as that...he wooed his way across and in mid passage, in mid Atlantic he announced to the world via the ARC net that he an Patricia had become engaged. (Engaged...a nice old fashioned touch, that.) Gordon hinted that the first born would be yclept Arc.
Before we left Las Palmas Jimmy Cornell reminded us and reminded us that ARC is not a race. ARC, said Jimmy, is a gentlemanly rally for cruising yachts. The purpose is to get across the pond safely and in good company. Who wins is not so nearly so important, Jimmy emphasized, as how elegantly the crossing is made. Races, said Jimmy, are for competitors...super competitors, which, of course, the ARC cruising types are certainly not, Jimmy said.
As a friend of mine from Texas would say, "Cow chips!" Even before the starting flag the 'gentleman' cruisers were edging and elbowing for upwind advantage and when the flag went up every possible rag and scrap of canvas was flung into 22 knots of breeze. The race, oops, the rally, was off and the devil take the hindmost.
You better believe it...we were in a RACE. Positions of other boats were recorded with the concentration reserved for stock market quotes and while a good day was often hailed with "Atta boy, Hoolimar," or "Go get 'em Sea Shanty," the 'Ole's' were mostly touched with wist.
Toward the end of the course, when the fleet was already tasting the fruits of accomplishment, the wind stopped. Splat. Just stopped cold. The ETAs, predicting arrival on the 14th and the 15th, suddenly began dickering with a Christmas arrival. Anticipation of elysian days ashore with flown in loved ones faded with the fading winds. The exhilaration of seven knots was replaced with the infestivity of slatting sails.
Before we left Las Palmas the fleet was brave with commitment to sail. No motors for us hearties. What's a few days of calm. Time to settle in, to catch up on chores, to loll about in the sun. In the event, it took only a couple of hours of calm before the engines started. First one boat then the next and, finally by the end of the first day, all of the boats we were in radio contact with had replaced the stately cadence of the sea with the importunities of getting there sooner. There were some who held to the purity of sail but they were by now so far behind that we had lost radio contact. We were entering the final funnel, the apex of which was Barbados, in a densing miasma of diesel fumes. We were being acclimatized back into the land, and we accepted the invitation.
Moitessier comes to mind. He was winning the first Round the World single handed race. He had rounded the second great cape and was angling northward toward England and Glory. It suddenly occurred to him that winning meant the press of other peoples schedules, the twisty agendas of land. Moitessier, being saner than most of us, knew that what he had out there was his own life. What he was headed into was the crush which would piecemeal him and take life from him. In a burst of pure rationalism, capable of only a certain breed of Frenchman, Moitessier called a halt to Glory, turned his boat south again toward the greatest Cape, forsook the winners laurels, and went around again.
But few of us in ARC were able to withstand the blandisments and excitements of an early landfall. We all wanted to be there to watch, with superiority that derived more from the length of our waterline than the exent of our sailorliness, the laggard boats come in. So most boats motored on till the last moments and as we spanked across the finish line ("Under sail, please, Gentlemen," begged Jimmy.) each of us stood bravely at the roaring helm of a 12 meter defending the Cup.
Ah. Dreams of Glory.
As each boat finished, in Shallow Draft Harbor, Bridgetown, it was met with a cascade of whistles, horns, firecrackers and the loud applause of earlier arrivals and dockside loungers. I was never made to feel so welcome in my life.
Spiffy Bajan lassies in short skirts and wild hats bore each victor a libation of the fruit of the isle...Mount Gay Rum poured over sorely missed ice. These were handed across even before tie up was completed and there resulted some interesting new developments in how a boat should be fastened to a dock. No one fell overboard but several who took the rum (sweet and insidious) too seriously fell out of grace. The lassies were joined by Jimmy Cornell (and wife Gwenda who, I suspect, picks up the pieces) wearing jacket and tie and looking as pleased as a Transylvanian cat who just ate the canary. Each arrival represented just one more thing that Jimmy had not to worry about.
The ARC had gone smoothly. A few engines had gone belly up, lots of furling gear refused to pirouette and pop riveted tangs clicked out of masts bringing a number of shrouds and stays down with them. A spinnaker boom clonked down on the head of one crew member with enough force to drive an ordinary mortal through the deck, but he was a Yale man and thus suffered no lasting effect.
The only real failure was the inability to spot the radar reflectors which had been mandated by ARC. Neither the contestants nor many of the passing merchant seamen had much luck in 'seeing' sailboats on their screens. The scams involved in selling radar reflectors to sailors are already well known but the concentration of invisible boats all about us simply added weight to the dawning realization that 'reflectors' do little more than reflect the need of manufacturers to make a profit. If the US military wanted to build an El Cheapo Stealth bomber all they had to do was to put a pair of wings and a couple of engines onto any fiberglass sailboat and mount a radar reflector on it. It would disappear like the buying power of the dollar.
The end of the Rally was a time of dispersal. Suddenly, we who had been welded together in the passion to reach Barbados, had fulfilled our dream. We were cut loose from purpose. Now what.
ARC 88 was over. We wandered about Barbados giving and receiving large handshakes and names and addresses. We swore we would 'drop by.' We waved farewell to the early departees and quietly packed our own bags. It was, I suddenly realized, like nothing else than the first of September in summer camp. The magic times were over...we were headed back to school.