From the Jan, 2014 SAIL
A rough rally passage and the questions it inspired
By Peter Nielsen
It’s old news by now that back in early November, a half-dozen boats entered in the Salty Dawg Rally from Hampton, Virginia to the British Virgin Islands got into all sorts of trouble in the Gulf Stream. A couple were abandoned, and others were dismasted or had steering problems. I remember that night vividly (though certainly not as vividly as those who suffered through it), because while the proverbial stuff was hitting the fan a few hundred miles south, I was sitting in a multiplex watching a lethargic Robert Redford trying to save his damaged boat in the movie All is Lost. Life imitating art?
I don’t know all the facts surrounding the dramas in the Stream that night, and I have always tried not to spend too much time second-guessing other sailors’ decisions. Even on drama-free passages, there is always something you would have done better or differently, given the benefit of hindsight.
There is nothing unusual or new about boats being lost or damaged on this notoriously fickle stretch of water at that time of year; I’ve crewed on a half-dozen late-October deliveries from New England to Bermuda, and received a royal Gulf Stream spanking in 45-50 knot winds on two of those, so I know the odds of a slow-moving sailboat being overtaken by a fast-moving weather system are depressingly high. Scarcely a year goes by without someone getting into serious trouble out there, and the only thing different about last November was the number of boats that got into serious trouble at the same time.
There were two rallies—the Salty Dawg and the Caribbean 1500—whose boats were en route from Virginia to the Caribbean that first week in November. The C1500 organizers, with their European risk-management-style insistence on strict safety protocols, started their rally a day early, on their weather router’s advice, to beat the two fronts bearing down on the Chesapeake. The Salty Dawg people, whose rally was founded in response to the rigid safety requirements of the C1500, take a laissez-faire approach that places the onus for preparation and decision-making on the individual skippers. Rightly so, you may say, and I would usually be the first to agree, as the ultimate responsibility for a boat’s safety rests squarely on the shoulders of its captain.
But of all the reasons to join a flock of other boats in an organized bluewater rally, surely the notion of safety is one of the strongest. I suspect that the passage that lay ahead of the skippers in the Salty Dawg and the Caribbean 1500 would be the longest most of them had undertaken, and faced with the unfamiliar, there is the certainty of comfort in company and at least the illusion of safety in numbers. The truth of course is that you are never more alone than on a howling black night with spray lashing your face and the white tops of cresting seas bearing down on you out of the murk. It is then you question your own decision-making, and ponder the state of your rig, your bilge pumps, your steering system. You might even wish you were snug in a movie theater watching a fictional sailor in a Hollywood storm.”