I’ve made it, my first Atlantic crossing is history.
After a year of anticipation of the ARC (Atlantic Race for Cruisers), the time had finally come. On the 20th November at 12:45 P.M. local time, the start of the 31st ARC rally was held in Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria. Every year, two or three hundred boats meet there to undertake the nearly 3,000 nautical mile journey to St. Lucia. As the name indicates, the race is primarily for cruisers, but there are always top-class racing yachts at the start. This year’s top pick was the Rambler 88, an 88-foot carbon yacht with canting keel. In order to give all boats a fair chance, the sailing time is calculated with different handicap factors depending on the type of boat. For example, the sailing time of the Rambler 88 was multiplied by a factor of 1,902, compared to our boat, the Challenge 93, which had the sixth-worst factor of 1,352 (Fisher & Paykel). Along with Rambler 88, two Volvo Ocean Race 70s (the Trifork and the Sanya) and the 82-foot yacht, Ammonite had worse factors than ours aboard the Challenge 93. In an optimal race, we would also have one of the upper-most positions. Even though our boat was built in 1988, it is by no means slow. The Challenge 93 is one of the first carbon-crafted racing yachts; the hull is entirely made of high-tech fibre and the two-mast rig is made of aluminium. The masts stand at 35 and 27 metres, with a gauge is 3.85m and the length 83 feet, just under 25 metres. This slim beauty currently weighs 30.8 tonnes, a heavyweight compared to racing yachts of a similar size today. The “Fisher & Paykel” came in second in the 1990 Whitbread race behind her sister ship “Steinlager”.
Back to the present, just an hour before the start. It was a time marked by anticipation, as well as uncertainty, not knowing what would happen to us. We packed enough food and our gear was brand new. We had a complete crew, but only few of us knew each other and there was effectively no time for training before the ARC. The group dynamics would develop in the first days and show whether and how well the group would function. There were 20 sailors, including two women, all between the ages of 18 and 80 years.
The start went off without a hitch, we got on well, aside from the standard squabbles and quickly left the bulk of the fleet behind us. Our navigator and skipper Sinbad Quiroga opted for the northerly route and just outside of the Canary Islands we took northeastern course, while the bulk of the fleet held a fairly direct course toward St. Lucia. We took a risk and paid for it the next day with a dead calm, likely because we chose a course too close to Tenerife. Often dullness is harder for a sailor to handle than a storm and so frustration spread. The only positive thing was that we were able to watch a giant turtle eating. When we finally had consistant wind from the desired direction and the frustration gave way to joy, our direct competition also turned north.
In the subsequent days, now without land in sight we had relatively constant wind and we kept up a good speed. We had winds peak at 30 knots, but it mostly blew between 15 and 20 knots. As expected, we were able to sail primarily with the wind. Reaching the halfway point coupled with the fact that we advanced further south, sailing became more challenging. The temperature increased, but the winds were less predictable due to numerous local storms known as squalls. Specifically, this could amount to the wind increasing suddenly from 15 to 30 knots and changing direction. This meant that we had to change sail frequently and at short intervals, so as to prevent any damage. Doing this with two masts and five sails of such a large size made this quite a job, which was exacerbated by the fact the Challenge 93 lacked hydraulic winches. Additionally challenging was the fact that squalls do not always occur during office hours. Of course you want to sail as long as possible with the maximum sail area and only at the last moment save the spinnaker, if necessary. This generally worked, but we took too much risk at times and three spinnakers did not survive the journey. It should be noted that this ship has years of sailing under its belt, so the sun and the sea most certainly damaged these sails. Like the wind, the temperature also rose. As we neared the finish line, the air in the boat’s hull had a sauna-like atmosphere, ensuring only our Finnish shipmate could enjoy a good night’s sleep. On the final nights, part of the crew slept on deck, with lifebelts securely fastened, of course.
As the weather changed over the course of the race, so too did our food. At Gran Canaria, we have packed an estimated tonne of food, including lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. To keep ourselves strong, we cooked daily, everything from vegetable stew to tuna pasta, the latter we had to do with canned fish, as we did without fresh fish completely because of the race. Periodically, we would enjoy an irregular bonne bouche, so we had plenty of Spanish ham, guacamole or Swiss chocolate.
Throughout the race we very rarely saw other ships. But occasionally we would have some visitors. We saw several dolphins, which accompanied us a little ways. We were also impressed by the whales, which hunted flying fish around our boat. Unfortunately we could not determine the species type of the approximately eight-meter long marine mammal, since they did not very close to the boat. The turtle, which passed us at the beginning as it ate, we then later saw again. Towards the end of the race, we were also visited in the air, mainly by frigate birds.
As we only used our satellite phone to update the weather maps, we only knew at the beginning near the Canaries and near the end in the West Indies where the competition was. For the most part, we had no choice but to focus on our own race, so I can barely report on the developments of the others. In the course of the race, it was fortunate that the team was able to work through initial fears well, the mood on board was good and this culminated on the last night. Euphoric as to our imminent arrival, practically no one slept. On 3 December shortly before 1 in the morning the time came and we were the third boat to cross the finish line. Twelve days, sixteen hours, six minutes and 53 seconds after the start, my first trans-Atlantic crossing is history. After applying the handicap factor mentioned at the outset, our achieved time means we placed fifth, an impressive result when you take into account the fact the competition was tough with multi-million dollar racing yachts crewed partly by professional sailors.
It should be noted that the Rambler 88 required only eight days and just over six hours to as to complete the 3000 nautical mile journey thus undercutting the ARC record from the previous year (Team Brunel) by an hour—congratulations on this point.
By the way, this regatta has nothing to do with the project “The Race of My Life”. The actual project will start in the next months with training in England. Then in August, the starting shot will commence the 11-month race around the world, which will be done in stages. I will give you detailed information on trainings and the race.