A Tale of Two Rallies

A Look at Autumn U.S. to the Caribbean Sailing Rallies

Thinking of taking your boat south to the West Indies for a winter of sailing among the tropical islands of the West Indies? Each fall, hundreds do. Some go on their own schedule, but the majority, hundreds of boats, join a rally. There are two, the North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC) and the Salty Dawg Rally, that depart the U.S. East Coast in late October or early November, for the 1,500-mile offshore voyage to the Eastern Caribbean.

This past fall, those two rallies experienced different conditions, and therein lies a story.

The NARC left Newport for the West Indies with 19 boats, most of which were regulars. The NARC voyage south is made in two legs, with a stop in Bermuda. Five boats from the Salty Dawg Rally that departs the Chesapeake further south, elected to leave from Newport, so tagged along. Only one made it to Bermuda, two turned back before reaching the Gulf Stream, and two never left.  

The weather window for departure was, as usual, narrow. Leave too early and the seas in the Gulf Stream could be to nine to 13 feet. Leave too late and risk reaching Bermuda with the winds on the nose. The skippers at the Friday, October 28, weather briefing elected to depart Sunday, the 30th. The rally got underway and 24 hours later was in the Gulf Stream. The stream, always a serious consideration on any offshore voyage, was further north this year, and just at the right spot — 39 degrees N by 70 degrees W — it turned southeast, providing a two-plus-knot push toward Bermuda for 200 miles. Hank Schmitt, who has been organizing the NARC for the past 22 years, reported on arrival in Bermuda that Avocation, his Swan 48, spent 30 hours in the stream, cutting half a day off the five-day run. He made the 640-mile voyage in three days and 22 hours. Arrowhead, a J46, the only Salty Dawg boat to arrive, made it in three days and 19 hours.

Steve Burlack, skipper on Arrowhead, reported: “No major issues. Fun trip. Pretty much the same as the other four times I’ve sailed here. GS no major issue. One rough night with squalls, thunder and lightning, winds 30+. Then good reaching breeze filled in and we were flying the rest of the way. Mostly one reef in main and #4 on inner forestay. Then rolled out the 104% the last day. We were in good company of the NARC boats the entire trip. Four of us coming in pretty much together.”

Four boats left the Chesapeake to join the NARC in Bermuda, one turned back. SolanaV, Endeavoru2 and Cameo made it across in less than four days. Cameo, a 48-foot Leopard catamaran with Douglas and Ia Hauck aboard, reported: “First night in the Gulf Stream was rough, winds from north. One of the main sheets broke in the middle of the night, but able to keep the main up. Fixed the following morning.

“Day two – noticed one of the shrouds too loose. Able to fix same day. 

“Day three – nice sailing, but night very rough. Confused seas. Took main down during the night when it got squally. Motor sailed the rest of the way with full jib. Hit a 40-knot squall a few hours before entering the harbor. No issues entering the harbor in the dark with NNE winds.”

After a few days of the requisite partying, rest and provisioning, on Tuesday, November 8, half the NARC fleet got underway out of Bermuda for the 875-mile voyage down to St. Maarten. The rest left the following weekend.

On Sunday, November 13, just five and a half days out of Bermuda, Hank on Avocation arrived in St. Maarten. 

“Pretty easy passage down from Bermuda,” Hank wrote. “More rain than normal first two days, then motored for a day, then nice sailing in trades the last day.” 

All in all, this year’s NARC Rally was a cakewalk, without serious incident and fast voyages on both legs. But, some years it can be a cold, rough and dangerous voyage, especially on the way to Bermuda.

The Salty Dawg Rally
This fall’s rally from the Chesapeake was anything but normal.

A developing system in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle, right on the track to the Caribbean islands, had 120 yachts amassed in the lower Chesapeake on hold. That hold would last nearly two weeks. But conditions did allow for three boats to scoot over to the Bahamas, and sail south from there with the NARC rally. Chris Parker from Marine Weather Center, also told those boats heading south, not to the Caribbean but to Bahamas, they too could depart, provided they stay west of the trough and made it in to the Abacos before Friday, November 11. More than 30 boats elected this option and on Sunday, October 30, they left the Chesapeake, rounded Cape Henry, sailing southwest of the Gulf Stream. At 34 degrees N, most turned east, crossed the stream, turned south again toward the Bahamas. All made to the Abacos before subtropical storm Nicole. 

Most boats hunkered down in Marsh Harbor and rode out the storm on Wednesday, November 9. Mark Hill, on his Tayana 48 Oasis, who was tied into the docks at the Abaco Beach Resort, reported winds steady at 50 knots with gusts to 70. As the eye passed over the Abacos, Mark and his crew adjusted lines. “Wish I’d had more chafing gear,” he wrote. “The only damage was a cracked solar panel where the boom hit it. The topping lift had stretched, lowering the boom.” By Thursday, Nicole had built into a Category One hurricane, slamming in the Florida Coast. 

Another story to be told
Two of the 30-plus Salty Dawg Rally boats that left the Chesapeake on October 30, INO, a Catana 46 and Vanamo, a Lagoon 400, both ignored all predictions and warnings and just kept sailing south, bypassing the Abacos, and the entire Bahama chain. 

“We had no plans to stop in the Bahamas,” Mark Kerestres, on INO, told me on a phone call right after arriving in Puerto Rico on November 10. “We just kept going as far south and as far east as we could. The islands were there if we needed to stop. We kept west of the ridge that developed into a tropical storm, steering south, threading through the lower Bahamas at 10 knots in a south-southeast wind, 20 to 25, with higher gusts in squalls.”

INO, named after a Greek goddess, motor sailed along the north coast of Hispaniola, landing in Puerto Rico, with plans to sail east-southeast to meet the rest of Salty Dawg Rally when they arrived in Antigua. 

Vanamo, also elected to bypass the Abacos, and kept sailing south. They picked a more eastern leg, outside the Bahama chain, but did stop off at Cockburn Harbor in the Turks and Caicos for fuel. They bypassed Puerto Rico, stopped in St. Thomas for fuel, and arrived in Sint Maartin on November 12 — the same day the bulk of the Salty Dawg Rally left the Chesapeake. 

The rough weather that Chris Parker originally saw never developed and the 50 or so boats that left the Chesapeake on November 12 had a delightful trade winds romp all the way to Antigua. There were no serious problems reported. Waiting sometime is the wise decision. 

David H. Lyman, an author and photojournalist, has spent more than 20 seasons sailing in the West Indies.