Thinking about an ocean passage? PBO’s Laura Hodgetts shares some tips from sailors setting sail with the 30th ARC
And while you might strike it lucky in the club bar or on an internet forum, there are few people better placed to advise than those already doing what you hope to achieve.
Every November, if you head to Las Palmas you’ll find the largest collection of would-be transatlantic sailors you could ever hope to meet. Some of them are seasoned ocean cruisers; others are crossing the Atlantic for the first time.
What they all have in common is that they have decided to do it together as part of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), opting to take advantage of the support and experience offered by organisers World Cruising Club, and the security of sailing with a large fleet.
Choosing to cross the Atlantic with the ARC is no devolution of responsibility, however. Each skipper is 100% responsible for their own boat and the crew it carries.
The ARC team offer seminars and safety inspections, and will in rare cases refuse a boat entry which does not meet their safety criteria, but the decision to drop the lines and head west remains the skipper’s.
The key to being able to make that decision with confidence is preparation. I spoke with the ARC organisers and participants to find out how they had planned for their voyage, and what they regarded as the most important things to consider when taking on an Atlantic crossing.
There are two sides to preparation: the boat and the crew. Part of getting the boat ready requires that you think through how you are going to supply essentials such as power and water for such a long time away from land, but much of it, says safety inspector Chris Brooke, who has worked at the ARC for 16 years, is ‘checking everything you should check on the boat when you go to the Isle of Wight, but half of us don’t do’.
ARC provisioning guru Clare Pengelly points out that even with the boat in tip-top order, the crew needs to be in good fettle.
Clare, who advises the 1,200-plus participants on how best to survive up to 21 days offshore, said: ‘It’s not all about sailing, it’s also about the food, snacks and surprises, and discussing where the next meal is coming from.’
Power on board
ARC participants are allowed to use their engines, providing they’re not in the race fleet, but must record the time spent under propulsion. While engines in neutral are useful for charging batteries, they’re also noisy, and several sailors this year opted to try hydrogenerators – essentially revamped towed generators which hinge down off the stern like outboard motors.
Solar panels are also a popular choice. Wind generators, while great at anchor, notoriously underperform in the trade winds which the ARC is timed to catch, as with the wind abaft the beam the apparent wind is low.
Back-ups are vital. Most boats had more than one power source, which with modern reliance on electronics for navigation, lighting and communications is essential.
Less reassuring was that a lot of crews had pre-cooked all their meals, relying on a generator or engine to protect them. If you opt to do this, have a back-up plan in case the fridge or freezer fails.
Power failure will also render watermakers useless, and past ARCs have shown that these units sometimes fail, so complete reliance on them is inadvisable.
Chris Brooke advises having more than one tank, and using the watermaker to refill empty plastic bottles, rather than topping up a contaminated tank.
‘The marina water does have a slight taste,’ he said. ‘You can never be 100% sure your water tanks are pure.’
Bottled water is cheap in Las Palmas; One euro will buy around eight litres, so it’s worth stocking up.
In addition to checking that your insurance covers the crossing, make sure your liferaft is suitable to cross the Atlantic. It’s also essential to make sure that your navigation and interior lighting is in good order as sailing the tropics at this time of year means only 11 hours of daylight.
Chris said: ‘Many people are surprised that half the trip is in darkness.’
Communications are essential, both for the crew and for loved ones at home. The ARC regulations recognise this, with every boat carrying a YB satellite tracking device that updates the ARC website every four hours.
Many yachts have SSB radio and participate in daily sessions to share experiences and, often, just chat to people outside the boat.
WCC managing director Andrew Bishop said the ARC Radio Net Group was divided up into three yacht groups, and yachts equipped with SSB could join in with the radio net in their group at
the specified time. VHF plays a part too: sailors are warned not to be tempted to turn off or down the twice-daily VHF listening watch – ‘it might be you who needs it!’
With this in mind, the rules insist on a spare antenna for the VHF, which according to Chris can prompt protests. He explained: ‘People need to think outside the box. If you’ve lost the mast, the
mains VHF will transmit 25W, while the handheld’s only 5W. You get a much better transmission for a longer distance with a mains set.’
Any sailors with medication, particularly diabetics, are advised to put a week’s supply of medication in the grab bag.
Chris says: ‘A lot of people think, “why a week’s supply?” But if you’re rescued by a commercial
ship, they won’t divert locally – you’ll carry on to wherever.’
This warning became a reality for the British-flagged Moody Grenadier 134 Magritte, owned by Steve and Teresa Arnold. The four crew were evacuated by the cargo vessel SCL Basilea on 4 December after their cruiser began taking on water the previous evening.
On the advice of MRCC Falmouth, a Mayday was issued and the yacht’s EPIRB activated. SCL Basilea diverted to provide assistance, and with Magritte’s crew safely evacuated the ship continued en route to Spain, arriving 12 December.