Items of kit and spares for an offshore or ocean passage are seemingly endless, but some are essential. Sophie Dingwall finds out what this year’s ARC crews made sure was on board
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) has supported hundreds of boats crossing the Atlantic Ocean for over 35 years. It’s become an iconic voyage, is one of the largest ocean rallies for amateur crews and is organised by the World Cruising Club.
Last year the docks in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria welcomed 143 boats from all over the world, of which 138 set sail for the Caribbean on 20 November 2022.
Participants had to navigate 2,700 miles of open ocean to reach their destination in Rodney Bay at the north-west tip of St Lucia. Most of the fleet took 18 to 21 days to cross the finish line, where they were greeted with fresh local fruits and ice-cold rum punch. It’s just one of the rewards for completing the rally.
In the 1980s, while talking to cruisers planning to adventure across the Atlantic, journalist Jimmy Cornell was inspired to organise a rally that focused on celebrating and boosting the community spirit and confidence of sailors, by implementing safety protocols to help develop strong bonds between entrants.
This idea led to the inaugural ARC in 1986, and since then, the ARC has made the often daunting task and lifelong dream of crossing the pond a reality for thousands of sailors of every ability.
Motivations for ocean sailing vary. Sailors Steffan and Julie from Berlin are sailing a Pogo 36 double-handed, embarking on an adventure to learn about themselves and develop their sailing. With a year set aside to build miles and make memories, Steffan tells us his most important considerations for their journey: ‘I think the boat itself is very important, I have faith in the construction and design. The boat has two sealed bulkheads and this gives me the confidence that even with significant damage, she will remain afloat.’
Crossing an ocean is an endeavour that demands maximum respect. Crossing thousands of miles of open water in a small vessel is a humbling experience when there is nowhere to hide from the changing conditions. In addition, sailing more heavily laden boats, in big seas and strong winds non-stop for days on end, places far more strain on the boat, rig and gear than is clocked up in years of coastal cruising.
You need to be able to trust your vessel, so preparation is clearly a serious matter.
Boats in the 2022 ARC ranged from 28ft to 85ft in length. The smallest was a French-flagged Vancouver 28 Oberoi, measuring a modest 8.35m, while the largest was a luxury 27m Oyster 885, Karibu.
Irrespective of size, all yachts undergo a rigorous safety inspection and must meet the minimum safety requirements. Experienced seaman and safety inspector Mark Barton says, ‘At the ARC, we ensure that the boat is prepared with enough safety equipment on board to give them the ability and facility to be safe on their way across.’
It’s one of, if not the most essential piece of equipment to carry on board, yet one hopes never to use it. Each year, the ARC demonstrates how to inflate, enter and, most importantly, survive in a liferaft.
Participants are encouraged to participate in the exercise in a local swimming pool. It has been described as claustrophobic, uncomfortable and seasick inducing, but it’s a fantastic exercise to familiarise oneself with what to do in a real-life scenario. It’s also a good idea to ask if you can see yours being packed at a service centre, and while basics will be included in the in-raft packs, additional items such as reading glasses or extra rations can be added.
Clearly, a lifejacket is the last line of defence and moving around in a way that minimises the risks of going overboard needs regularly going over with crew. You can never discount the moment when you are caught off-guard and go in, but you can increase your chances of survival by up to four times by wearing the best lifejacket for you.
The ARC requires all lifejackets to include sprayhoods, three-point tethers, reflective tape, a light, the vessel name or personal name, a crotch strap, in-built harness and a personal AIS beacon unit fitted.
Interestingly, a personal AIS locator beacon was added to the list of requirements in recent years. Once activated, the man overboard device (MOB) will transmit an alert to all AIS receivers and plotters, meaning vessels in the vicinity can see the MOB’s position, with the best chance of rescue from your own yacht. It’s essential for those sailing short-handed or running single watches.
‘We are sailing double-handed and we have confidence using an AIS beacon because it means that if either of us goes overboard, the other person will know immediately,’ said Steffan Otto, Pogo 36.
EPIRB distress beacons are a fast, effective way to initiate an alert in an emergency. They work in the same way as a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), but can activate automatically, float independently and have a much longer battery life. Once activated, it transmits a distress message by satellite to the relevant Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre. This shows the vessel’s location to the rescue authorities with no range limitation, meaning the vessel can send a signal and be located anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, several sailors have needlessly lost their lives because their EPIRBs were not registered – this oversight can add up to two extra hours for the message to reach the coastguard over the international satellite system.
ARC safety inspector Mark Barton said, ‘I think the development of EPIRBs and assurance of AIS units has made a massive change, certainly on the Atlantic circuit.
‘You’re probably only going to spend a maximum of 48 hours in a liferaft because we now have the facility to communicate really clearly with sat phones.
‘The EPIRB tells us where the vessel is and we, the ARC, can divert shipping or other vessels. When there are 138 boats on the ARC this year, we can redirect the boats close-by to assist.’
Traditional SSB radio was initially developed after the Second World War to enable better communication systems in military aircraft, and was later introduced to merchant ships in the 1960s. SSB radio allows communication between vessels, the high frequency reaching distances up to thousands of miles, and it’s free after the initial equipment cost.
To receive GRIB weather files and email is possible by adding a Pactor Modem into the system. An unrestricted amount of data and weather downloads are available for a yearly subscription and it’s a cost-effective solution for a long-term cruising boat, although the download speed and total amount receivable is fairly low. Satellite communications will be faster and without interference, but at a price.
The ARC organises the SSB Radio Net, and together 36 boats work in rotation to provide weather forecasts and updates for the fleet twice a day.
Thomas Clemens had an SSB radio installed for the ARC on his Halberg Rassy 352 and said, ‘I thought an SSB radio was necessary but in reality, I’m not sure it was.
I believe my Garmin inReach was my best form of contact with the outside world.’
Stu and Lana Holmes appreciated having an SSB radio: ‘It was a really nice way to stay in touch with other boats during the crossing. Instead of reading emails, we heard actual voices of other people (besides our crew) for three weeks! We exchanged weather reports, positions, happenings on board and breakdowns etc…’
Entry-level Sat Comms
Over the years, the ARC has gathered a number of commercial and sailing partners, providing a great source of information for participants from industry-leading figures, including meteorologist Chris Tibbs.
There are an increasing number of weather routeing programmes on the market, but they all come at a price, explained Chris. Regarding communications, it tends to be the more you pay, the faster the downloads, but none are cheap.
Having said that, Chris said, ‘As communications have improved along with the weather forecasts, I’ve seen weather routeing programmes become mainstream. Initially, it was the preserve of round-the-world racers but now it’s available to all at a reasonable cost.’
Satellite phones and the Iridium GO! are equally efficient for small downloads as they rely on very slow download speeds.
The Iridium GO! has become very popular, primarily because of a link with PredictWind, which allows a competitive SIM card with unlimited data download and limited voice time. Linked to the offshore app PredictWind, GRIB files from several models can be downloaded along with what’s known as ‘cloud’ routeing. The route is sent from a computer ashore directly to the boat, meaning routes for all six forecasts are quickly and easily displayed, saving you megabytes worth of downloads.
Stu and Lana Holmes were pleased with the performance of their Iridium GO! and said, ‘It was really helpful to get a graphical representation of the weather forecasts through PredictWind. With the multiple weather models they offer, it allowed greater accuracy for our position and therefore helped us route the most efficient path through the weather. We also received daily weather emails through the ARC and some general routeing advice. It was nice to double-check our forecasts with that, and get an overall mental image (via email) of the entire Atlantic Ocean.
‘Without land getting in the way of things, we can rely upon GRIB files for an accurate forecast, but we must remember that it will miss minor features such as squalls, and the wind speed will read as an average – therefore, it’s wise to consider the maximum wind to be much greater.’
Chris said, ‘I usually download a reasonably small area each day to see what to expect in the short-term and also download a large area at low resolution to run a weather routeing program. I would strongly advise downloading synoptic charts to get the bigger picture.’
Another recent must-have is the Garmin inReach, whether you’re crossing an ocean or not. This compact satellite communication device has global satellite coverage, allowing you to send text messages, receive basic weather forecasts and importantly includes an emergency SOS feature.
A subscription is required to access the Iridium network, but Garmin offers this as an annual or attractive month-to-month plan. Though the Garmin inReach has many useful features, the simple comms to friends and family back home seem most popular.
Thomas Clemens, owner of Petoya Too, a Halberg Rassy 352 which undertook a substantial refit in the winter, used a Garmin inReach Mini for the crossing. He said, ‘I purchased a one-month contract which made it possible to stay in contact with people at home. We once had some problems with SMS messaging but email was always possible. So all together it was an important part of our security. It’s a thumbs up from me!’
Crewmember Jonathan Heldt on a Sigma 400, Prime Evil, used his Garmin inReach Mini sailing from the UK to the Canaries and said, ‘I hadn’t realised how valuable it would be. The Garmin is easy to use and it’s compact. I can clip it to me without it getting in the way and it means I can send basic text messages home to the family.’
High speed sat-comms
If you’re looking for something significantly quicker, there are new options on the market to get you excited.
Ed Wildgoose explains, ‘This year I saw a big increase in users taking faster systems. This started with the introduction of the SkyLink Certus 100, which has been a gateway to still faster systems such as the 200, the 700 and other systems. However, it’s proved to be the step up which has encouraged users to pay a little more and receive a big step up in capability.’
Though it is considered expensive, flexible monthly tariffs are available, and the overall cost of data is reduced. With the promise of significantly faster download speeds, it’s a good option for more advanced routeing software such as Expedition, Adrena, or MaxSea. Above all, be sure to ask an expert. Communication systems can be tricky, and the support you’ll receive through a registered provider could save you time, money and hassle.
Navigation was a key topic of discussion, provoking varied responses to the use of digital versus paper charts. Generally speaking, it’s only in recent years that going to sea without paper charts was even a consideration. Ever more sailors now feel that they do not need paper charts to head across an ocean.
The accuracy and ease of use of GPS, electronic chartplotters and routeing software make it the default option on most boats. Once the only means of navigation, some ARC crews went so far as to dismiss paper charts as being a purely nostalgic item of equipment.
Sailing his Pogo 36, Klaus Hartkopf from Germany said, ‘I’ve never used paper charts and I have an electronic logbook that runs separately from the other electrics. I previously had a company for electronic products, which is why I know what I want and rely on these.’
Paper charts do, however, provide a comprehensive overview of an area that can’t be matched by digital navigation on small screens and has no chance of ‘failing’, unlike electronics. While it’s unlikely for all electronic systems to fail, it is far from impossible to experience a total power loss at sea, in which case, paper charts are the only fall-back for navigation.
The majority of the fleet said they would continue to carry and use paper charts, at least marking a fix once a day, and believed that paper navigation is still a valuable skill to maintain.
Gary O’Grady on board his 28ft Westerly Konsort had no option but to revert to paper charts when he suffered an electronic failure and made the decision to divert to the Cape Verdes to fix the electronic issues. He said, ‘The 300-mile trip to the Cabo Verdes was purely on paper with my first astro sights and compass. I had to use paper, as that’s all I had!
‘Funnily enough, the last thing I purchased was a chart of Cabo Verde (just in case), otherwise I’d have had no idea where to go. I’m pleased to say, I hit the waypoint I wanted just north of the Islands almost perfectly.’
Expedition, Adrena and MaxSea routing software provide some of the most advanced technology on the market and are mainly used by racing boats, including boats competing in the America’s Cup and The Ocean Race. However, the software relies heavily on the boat’s performance polars and weather forecast in order to provide accurate information. Therefore, the majority of smaller boats in the fleet tended to use PredictWind or SailGrib, ideal for any sailor after a well thought-out, easy-to-use and responsive weather routeing option that’s also great value for money.
Andy Bates used LuckGrib, another cost-effective option which added up to approximately £100 for the crossing on his Sigma 400. However, LuckGrib aims to provide a better understanding of the weather system rather than a path to follow. It allows the user to make an informed decision on which route to take and explore more navigation possibilities.
Andy said, ‘I liked the packages as they weren’t from a massive corporation – it’s a dude who is clearly a sailor and meteorology expert. But, to be honest we didn’t use the routing software all that much, though in less wind it helped affirm our decisions. Also, the files were compressed, so it used far less data than I thought.’
Stokey Woodall, the celestial navigation guru, has covered over 300,000 miles offshore under sail on other vessels while teaching celestial navigation. He’s worked alongside the ARC for many years and visited Las Palmas for the ARC 2022 start, delivering highly popular workshops and seminars for participants.
One sailor who was eager to learn from Stokey was Gary O’Grady, who was sailing his beloved Katy, a 28ft Westerly Konsort, the second smallest yacht in the fleet.
This is his first crossing and says he hopes to ‘crack the sextant and ultimately become a better sailor’. His sailing background is brief, but his passion and enthusiasm make up for his limited years on the water. He began offshore sailing a mere four years ago and said, ‘I enjoy the solitude of long-distance sailing, the peaceful nature and I get a great sense of accomplishment from it. I think offshore sailing suits me.’
To Stokey’s delight, it’s evident from the engagement that there is still a strong interest in one of the oldest forms of navigation. Although it’s not an obligatory requirement, many sailors are still keen to pursue the long maths equations out of pure interest in the subject.
Stokey said, ‘It is a skill that brings people back to nature. There’s a free sky subscription, just look up!’
Between the bustling pontoons with yachts rafted stern to, the increasing popularity of solar panels is apparent. Yachts today are taking advantage of this almost guaranteed ‘free’ energy. The number and power of solar panels fitted to boats is increasing and it’s been a hot topic of conversation.
‘Given all our equipment needs power, solar panels are key for our journey. We have increased the amount of solar on board by double and hopefully we won’t have to use any diesel,’ said Andrew Tucker, owner of Oyster 46 Voyager II.
For more serious provision of solar power, real estate on deck is always in demand. Stern arches or dinghy davits provide a convenient solar panel mounting option, well clear of the shadows on deck. Other locations include stanchion-mounted brackets, or sewing attachments for flexible panels into sprayhoods, sail covers and biminis, allowing for a variety of different configurations to suit each boat and situation. Many owners hope to offset the relatively high cost of solar panels against a reduction in their diesel costs over time, and enjoy sailing a little greener.
Having said that, portable solar panels to run devices such as mobile phones or a Garmin inReach are now easily available, cheap to buy and increasingly efficient. Andy Bates from Prime Evil, a Sigma 400 and his crew had a few of them lying about the boat soaking up the rays: ‘They’re great for us to use to charge small devices and don’t take up much room,’ he said. ‘We’re limited to the amount of batteries we have so having small solar devices really makes a big difference to our consumption.’
Steering failure is a common problem. It’s almost impossible to mitigate the risk of hitting a submerged object, though regular inspections and thorough maintenance should help you spot issues with bearings, seals and rudder posts. Corrosion inside rudder blades or shafts is much harder to spot. Being able to steer the boat in the event of steering failure adds significantly to your self-reliance.
There are various options when choosing an emergency rudder, and often master mariners have used intuition and what they had in dire situations, but it’s better to be prepared. Commercial systems for emergency rudders are available and well-engineered, but they are not boat specific.
Hand-crafted emergency rudders were common amongst the fleet and the advantages of building them yourself ensure you can take into consideration the weight and balance of your boat. Andrew Tucker, skipper and owner of Oyster 46, Voyager II built his to include usage for multiple purposes. The ply-constructed rudder attaches through a pintel at the stern, fixing it in place.
It doubles up as an onboard workbench which sees regular use. Andrew hopes it will never see salt water, but utilising such a large piece of emergency kit for dual purposes is a great idea and makes best use of limited space on board.
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