With Percy across the pond.

Dick Bailey

I wracked my small brain to invent an arresting title for this account of the 1996 ARC race in Kibito – I failed, but at least I found one, courtesy of Steve Green, to make your toes curl!

Kibito (don’t ask what the name means – there isn’t time for the answer) is a new Oceanis 46, a replacement for Steve’s Beneteau 45F5. The emphasis is on cruising, with all the required ‘goodies’- furling headsails, lazy-jacks bow-thruster and a water-maker (an essential for those who take personal hygiene seriously); even so, the boat is no ‘dog’ and can turn in some good speeds given the wind.

The ARC(Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) starts in late November from Las Palmas in the Canaries and finishes at Rodney Bay in St. Lucia. As a race it is a bit mixed, the handicap system makes NECRA appear a model of scientific exactitude, and for many boat-owners it simply provides a most convivial means to get their craft across the Atlantic for a season in the Caribbean; however, as always, there was a sufficient number of ‘awkward sods’ who want to win to give the event a competitive edge. The target was Bruno Trouble, who was taking time off from single-handed racing to do the ARC with his family in a Frers 51.

The crew of Kibito consisted of Moira and Steve Green (the owners), Jimmy Swanston, Dave Jennings, Mick Toon and me; the first three had accomplished the onerous task of getting the boat from the Hamble to Las Palmas in preparation for the start. This trip was to prove more eventful than the race itself, involving a series of break-downs and gear failures which necessitated Ancasta Boat Sales flying experts out to Spain in order sort out the problems and placate the irate owners. The rest of us missed all of this excitement, arriving at Las Palmas three days before the start of the race – just in time to participate in the pre-race parties and complain about the excessive amount of stores we had to load on the boat (me!).

The first few days of the race proved something of a character test -a series of adverse events occurring while we were still within easy motoring distance of the start and a return to Las Palmas. A flavour of this can be seen in the following Log Notes:

Sunday 24th November start race 13.00 – blow out Spinnaker 16.05. All down the port tape and right across centre panel. This is the only spinnaker we have!.

Monday 25th November discover bilge full of water, take all day shifting stores from the bilges before we identify source of leak -broken bilge pump outlet in Lazarette; meantime mainsheet becket-block explodes.

Tuesday 26th November 07.30 main halyard parted, half-hour at mast-head in failed attempt to reeve ‘mouse’”

Cumulatively this represented a fairly depressing start; by Tuesday we had hardly covered 400 miles of a 3000 mile race and we were already reduced to sailing under head-sails. Never mind the food was great, we had enough for at least three months, and even at our rate of consumption the gin should last six weeks (well four anyway!) In fact from this point things started to ‘look up’. The twin-headsail system, set on two poles, worked well and gave us good speed in winds of 15 knots off either quarter. The visit to the mast-head had confirmed that the topping lift sheave would take the main halyard so we replaced the light topping lift with a heavier halyard. By Friday the wind was 24 knots on the beam and we were well pressed with plain sail doing 9 knots. At this point the GPS was forecasting an ETA at St Lucia for Sunday 7th. December and we consumed even more gin than usual during the ‘happy hour’(or two!).

There followed a week of great sailing Winds 15-20 knots on the quarter or abaft the beam, sunshine and good company. Always being one to complain, I think we would have benefited from stronger winds, and in spite of our best efforts the target of 200 miles in 24 hours kept eluding us. The best day’s run was 197 an average speed of 8.1 knots. The only remaining ‘disaster’ to befall us was the rapid deterioration of the vacuum-packed meat which the Spanish butcher had assured us would last for three months in the refrigerator, within six days it had gone rancid and 40lbs of beefsteak, veal and chicken had to be disposed of over the side. Fortunately, the smoked salmon (Vacuum packed in the UK) did not suffer the same fate, and we were able to celebrate the half way stage on the 1st of December with champagne, asparagus and smoked salmon. The loss of the meat was a considerable set-back for the cook, who, as usual, had planned a succession of cordon bleu meals and felt that her talents were wasted on ‘Walls tinned steak and kidney pies’. However, Mrs Green rose to the occasion and only resorted to the tinned pies for one meal! A great and enduring luxury was the daily supply of fresh baked bread; a clear sign that you were ‘in Moira’s good-books’ was when you were invited to knead the dough.

Communication with other boats and position reporting was a perennial problem. All boats were required to carry Single Side Band Transmitters and report their position daily to designated reporting vessels. Unfortunately, in spite of Steve’s purchase of a ‘top of the range’ SSB, it would not accept the specified working frequencies. We could receive other competitors positions but could not send ours except on the few occasions (three) when we were able to contact other boats on the VHF. This was not a problem to us, though it might have been had our leak turned out to be more serious. However, some competitors, notably Bruno Trouble viewed our silence as a sinister tactic and, true to his name, voiced his suspicions to the reporting vessel (he need not have worried!). The daily plotting of other boats positions was carried out (meticulously) by Jimmy Swanston who gave out a ‘daily position report’ every lunch-time. By the 3rd of December we had 999 miles to go(excuse for another party) and appeared to be well placed amongst the leading boats in class B. The Maxi’s and big Swans which made up class A were so far ahead that Jimmy gave up plotting their positions to save us from getting depressed.

The final stretch proved somewhat frustrating, the wind progressively moderated to 9 knots and it became hard work to maintain 6 knots of boat speed. In the last three days the wind became lighter still and veered to SE giving us a beam reach, the lack of a spinnaker became a serious handicap as our competitors began to edge ahead. In the worst moments, when the boat speed fell to 2 knots and the GPS reported an ETA of Christmas Day we even considered motoring, an act which is allowed in the race-rules but which is subject to an unspecified time penalty. The temptation was resisted and I am pleased to report that we completed the trip without recourse to either mechanical propulsion or the use of the automatic pilot.

We eventually crossed the finish line in Rodney Bay in the early hours of Wednesday 10th. December – 16days, 18hours, 10minutes and 25seconds after the start at Las Palmas. In spite of the unfashionably early finish time there was a rum-punch reception waiting for us at the marina and the sounds of revelry at the ‘early finishers party’ drifted across from the marina bar. Initially our result looked quite good but as lower rated boats came in we gradually went down the list, however, the more rum we drank the less we cared about the result. We eventually finished 6th in class and 38th out of 140.

Some final comments

(sort of technical things!):

Navigation – Life is easy these days, switch the GPS to ‘Great Circle Sailing’ and input your destination Lat. and Long. At least that is what we did and the box did the rest. We optimised courses according to the wind conditions and did not have any cross-track errors above 100 miles! There was some continuing debate as to whether this represented the best tactics for the race. Some thought that we should sail south towards the Cape Verde Islands instead of due west which is the direct route. Theoretically, by sailing south you can pick up the stronger NE trades and benefit from the North Equatorial current. We were amongst the small group of boats which opted for the more northerly great circle route and in the event, this year at least, it did not seem to make much difference which option was chosen.

Wind – The N E Trades and the Azores High tend to dominate the wind pattern in the relevant latitudes and we did not experience any wind to the West of North or South during the whole trip. We did not record any wind stronger than 30-35 knots, though some competitors did- two boats were damaged in violent squalls – one bending and the other losing its mast

Sails – It is a good idea to carry two Spinnakers, or a good sail-maker and sewing machine. We suffered badly from the absence of a spinnaker in the last 3-4 days of the race when we experienced light wind on the beam. Twin headsails on two poles proved to be an excellent down wind rig. We experimented with the main but found that we went just as fast without it, it tended to blanket the lee genoa and did much less damage when it was furled on the boom. We were not able to make comparisons between spinnaker and twins but experience suggests that the latter is much easier to handle when you are short-crewed, especially at night. The great advantage of down-wind sailing with twin headsails is that you can never ‘sail by the lee’.

Watch System – With the benefit of computer-simulations Steve devised a complicated watch system, which, in spite of pre-race misgivings from the ‘Jeremiahs’ was very successful. There were five watch-keepers, two crew per watch, three four-hour night watches and two six-hour day watches. Watch membership rotated such that each crew member had 24 hours off every fifth day (stand-by at night and cooks ‘little assistant’ during the day).Everyone looked forward to their day off, using the night watches to plan how they were going to use it. Jimmy got very worried towards the end of the race, concerned that, as he was the last person on the rota, we might finish the race before he had his third day off- he got it!

Captain’s Footnote:

Climbing the mast in mid Ocean is not a matter to be undertaken lightly. Dick felt constrained to volunteer for this activity as he felt that ” it is what I am here for”. Once he had returned to deck level following an extremely tiring exercise he was strangely quiet for a considerable time.

Food is an exceptionally important ingredient for a successful passage and its quality, variety and importance cannot be overemphasised.

The NE Equatorial current does not exist.

Steve Green