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Pulling People Out of Their Comfort Zone - Sailing Rallies

From Yacht Club Cruising to Ocean Crossings

By Daria & Alex Blackwell

It can be quite scary ‘out there’


Humans are interesting creatures.  There are those who get a notion and immediately pursue it – risks and obstacles notwithstanding. Take Saint Brendan, Leif Erikson, and Columbus – each of them crossed the Atlantic to “discover” new lands. None knew for certain what, or if anything was ‘out there’. That took a great deal of courage; or density, or destiny. Matt Rutherford and all those who were first to attempt a feat in recent times, also fall into that category.

For most sailors, anchoring overnight might be adventurous. Doing an overnight sail would rarely be contemplated unless someone is there to hold their hand. For most, this first overnighter would be on a yacht club cruise. Someone else has made all the arrangements. There is safety in numbers, as other yachts make the same transit at the same time. The weather is checked by experts. The places to dine are pre-selected.  And there’s a party in ever port. What’s not to like? 

Like so many others, we started out sailing locally; going out for day sails, learning how to anchor.  But soon we felt the need to venture further. We wanted to see new territory.  A long weekend would provide the opportunity to sail as far as we could in a day, then hopscotch our way back after a wonderful night at anchor.

Then we had a week’s vacation. We wanted to explore new cruising grounds – further away. Worrying more about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see than how long it might take to get there, we employed the same principle as we did on our weekend forays. We picked a destination and then selected ports for the return leg. Only problem, that destination was 150 miles away; that is 30 hours at 5 knots! No way could we do that in a day. So we sailed right through the night and the next day. Our first lesson: “OMG! It’s dark out there.”

Having gotten ‘there’, we sailed back slowly, visiting a number of new harbours and towns on the way back. We were in heaven. We were cruising. Yet, by the third time we’d done ‘that’, we needed more. We wanted to cross the ocean. As it turned out we did this when we moved to Ireland years later, but that is another story.

So Ya Wanna Cross an Ocean

Crossing Oceans in Company

How do you go about crossing an ocean? There are people who jump into their boat and sail off to see what’s on the other side without passing another thought. For most mortals, however, cruising under the sun may be a lifelong dream, yet crossing the ocean to get there is a seemingly insurmountable step.  There are several ways to do this without feeling desperately alone along the way. 

Provisions loaded, so off we go! Or do we dare?

One way is to simply join up with other boats heading the same way in an informal cruisers’ network. This is often initiated by a couple of get-togethers on the beach and results an informal SSB net.  That’s what we did crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean one year. We heard from some cruisers in the marina that an informal net was forming and there was a BBQ planned to “organize” it on the beach.  We joined the BBQ and met a few folks, including the net controllers.  Essentially, the self-named MadLantic net allowed cruisers to leave when they pleased, but still stay in touch. As we sailed off, the first boats were already arriving on the other side. The net was all about sharing information about the weather, conditions, and general camaraderie.  It didn’t cost anything and it had its benefits. It was most amusing at times when calm conditions made life boring. The banter on the net livened things up. It was also a good safety tactic. When our steering failed, we had two boats divert to our position in case they were needed. One stayed on the radio with us for hours as we worked through the problem.  It ended well, we fixed our steering, and toasted with several net buddies as they arrived in Barbados at the other end. We were still staying in touch with boats underway long after we ourselves settled into island life in Grenada.

The ocean can be a big and lonely place,
particularly when there are approaching storm clouds.

Another option is to join an organization like Ocean Cruising Club or Seven Seas Cruising Association.  Such clubs often organize radio nets for members heading in the same direction. They will allow non-members to listen in on their nets and provide periodic position reports. Members of the OCC are all highly experienced sailors. They have all already done ‘it’. To join, one must have completed a 1,000 nm passage in a boat no more than 70 feet in length.  They have very well-known sailors among their ranks who are often willing to provide advice and assistance when asked.

There is another option. That is to join an organized cruising rally.  There are quite a few of them. The rallies differ in their degree of organization and sophistication.  Some are basically just informal nets that repeat every year; others cost quite a lot of money to join and are run more like yacht club annual cruises.  They might have formal training, boat safety inspections, feeder races, races across the ocean, blue water support services, crew vetting, radio nets with weather routing, and lots of social events and dinner parties with prizes. If this appeals to you, then here is a listing of some of the rallies you might consider. Caribbean 1500

The ARC Caribbean 1500 is the longest-running ocean cruising rally in North America.  The rally has two destinations: The Caribbean 1500 fleet sails from the Chesapeake Bay to Nanny Cay on Tortola, British Virgin Islands; and the ARC Bahamas sails to Bluff House Marina on Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos.

The start location and dates make the most of the available weather to maximize Caribbean sailing, and the week-long pre-departure program prepares participants for cruising.  Prior to leaving, sailors are treated to a week of social gatherings, safety gear inspections, and they are greeted and assisted with clearance procedures on arrival at the destination.

Boats begin to gather in Virginia in late October and head out early November (weather dependent). The awards ceremony takes place mid-November (12 days after the start). The Caribbean 1500 and the ARC Bahamas is now managed by World Cruising Club.

ARC Europe

The ARC Europe is an Atlantic crossing West to East. The rally has two starts: from the Chesapeake on the US East Coast and from Tortola BVI, with the two fleets meeting in Bermuda then continuing  on to cruise the Azores before the final voyage to to Marina de Lagos in Portugal. More than just a trans-ocean delivery, ARC Europe is a friendly way to start a European adventure or to end a Caribbean season. Their WCC team organizes shore activities including parties and tours, advice and support.

The ARC also holds rallies in the Baltic, Portugal and Scotland (they’ve taken over The Malts Cruise).  So once you get to Europe, you can continue the party in several directions.

Las Palmas, Gran Canaria,
Starting point for the ARC and ARC+

Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC)

For sailors that need to cross the pond from Europe to cruise the Caribbean, there’s the ARC. This rally can only be described as massive as there are typically more than 200 participating boats. The ARC has been setting sail across the Atlantic every November since 1986, making it one of the longest-running rallies. Boats gather in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the fleet heads out around Thanksgiving weather permitting. Most boats will arrive in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia by mid-December  and each boat is greeted with rum punch and fresh fruit. 

The ARC organizers provide a full itinerary of social events on both sides of the pond, and many ARC sailors continue to cruise in company after the event is over.  For cruisers with an interest in stopping in the Cape Verde islands, the ARC+ rally gathers in Gran Canaria and heads down to Sao Vincente before crossing the Atlantic.

World ARC

Starting from Saint Lucia and Australia, the World ARC is a 26,000 NM trade wind circumnavigation with the World Cruising Club (WCC). World ARC is a mix of cruising in company and free time to explore, although it is typically completed in one year so the pace is rather brisk. The best aspect is that they help to coordinate check-in at all destinations, smoothing the clearing process in places that may otherwise be challenging. Participants can complete a full circumnavigation or sail half a rally. The fleet stays together, enjoying shore-side activities as a group while pushing to sail with the best weather. As most shore based activities are staged by the WCC team in every stopover, it may not be the most authentic cruising experience. Families with children, those with limited time in a grown up ‘gap year’, or retirees who may not wish to cross oceans on their own may get the full benefit of circumnavigating with the World ARC.

Blue Planet Odyssey (BPO)

Round the World Sailing Event 2014-17

A round-the-world-sailing event spearheaded by Jimmy Cornell, the BPO aims to raise awareness of the global effects of climate change and the most urgent issues facing our oceans, as rising sea levels threaten to extinguish island communities such as Tuvalu and the Maldives by the end of this century.  Starting from Key West, Florida in January 2015 and allowing several choices of routes, participants are feeding in from Europe and the Atlantic Islands and Caribbean, while others will join in the Pacific.

Atlantic Odyssey

Jimmy Cornell has launched a new transatlantic rally for cruising sailors. What makes this rally different is that participants will have a choice of start dates and departure ports. The Atlantic Odyssey will leave from two ports in the Canary Islands—Lanzarote in November and La Palma in January—and head to Martinique in the Caribbean. The aim of this new rally is returning to the spirit of a non-competitive event for cruising sailors, with the emphasis on safety and the enjoyment of participation in this kind of amateur event.

Also from Cornell Sailing Adventures

Pacific Odyssey

Yachts joining the Pacific Odyssey will start from Key West, Florida and will head through the Caribbean to the San Blas Islands, where they will be joined by those who started from Martinique. From San Blas the combined fleet will sail the short leg to Shelter Bay Marina, Panama, to prepare for the transit of the Panama Canal. On completion of the canal transit the boats will sail to the Galapagos Islands. A 3000 mile long passage will then take the boats to the Marquesas, with landfall at Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa.

European Odyssey

Yachts joining the European Odyssey start in Hamburg in July and make their way south with stops in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. From Lisbon, boats bound for the Mediterranean sail to Gibraltar, while those bound for the Canaries sail from Lisbon to Rabat and then on to Lanzarote. Those planning to start from Lorient join the main fleet at La Coruña.

World Odyssey

The ten-month-long Odyssey will start in summer 2016 from a port in Atlantic France and follow the traditional sailing route around the three great capes of the Southern Ocean: Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn.

Salty Dawg

The Salty Dawg Rally is the most like an informal cruiser’s net and is run as a non-profit organization.  2014 marks the fourth running of this independent newcomer to the rally scene—and each year, it just gets bigger! The Salty Dawg Rally is free to join, and there are social gatherings in the week leading up to departure. Free weather routing is provided by Chris Parker, and other discounts are available to participants as well. The rally leaves from Hampton Roads, Virginia on November 4 (weather permitting) and winds up in warm waters—the bulk of the fleet heads to the Virgin Islands, but others head for the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and other destinations.


The Baja-Haha is the West Coast’s largest cruising rally (100+ vessels) and a whole lot of fun. The rally starts in San Diego, California and continues in three legs to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico at the tip of the Baja peninsula. The essence of the Baja-Haha experience lies in the beach parties, costume parties, barbeques and potlucks that the crews participate in.  Boats begin gathering in San Diego around mid-October, and Leg 1 begins at the end of October.  The paperwork difficulties in Mexico have made this rally more of a challenge in recent years.

Atlantic Cup

You can finish the Caribbean season with a friendly cruise in company to the US East Coast from Nanny Cay on Tortola, British Virgin Islands. They sail first to St George's on Bermuda, then on to the US when there is a good weather and a favourable Gulf Stream forecast.  The fleet joins with the ARC Europe fleet for social activities in Nanny Cay and again in Bermuda.

North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC)

A little different from the other rallies, the NARC is for professionally skippered boats. It departs from Newport, Rhode Island, stops in Bermuda, and winds up in St. Maarten. The Rally started in 2000  as a way to get the Swan charter fleet south. The rally is free to join and includes dockage and fuel discounts, a radio net, weather routing, social events and more. Offshore Passage Opportunities is the organizer behind the rally and, if you are looking for more sea time, OPO can place you on a NARC boat. The NARC leaves Newport on November 1 or when weather allows. The IGY Marina Group is sponsoring the rally finish in St. Maarten with a final party and two days free dockage at Simpson Bay Marina plus a 10% discount thereafter for those who wish to stay longer. Other Rally benefits include weather routing, Radio Net for SSB, fuel discounts, social events in Newport, and waiving of the head tax in Bermuda.

The Nereid’s Rally

This Rally goes from the Caribbean to South America.  Boats depart Trinidad & Tobago in September to take advantage of the favourable conditions when the currents, winds, and seas ease making it reasonable to sail to Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.  There are send-off parties and a formal welcome, as well as organized tour offerings along the way.

Stokey Woodall Atlantic Circuit (SWAC)

The main emphasis of SWAC is to offer an affordable rally for amateur sailors to cross the Atlantic, cruise the Caribbean and return across the Atlantic, all within one season, or for American-based yachts to sail Atlantic the other way, then spend a cruising season in the Mediterranean before re-joining the rally to re-cross the Atlantic. This is strictly a cruising rally and not a race.

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