Heading South in November. A great time to be at sea? It’s for you to decide.

After my “boisterous” run from Beaufort to Ft Pierce FL a few weeks ago, I have found myself wondering about the insurance company restrictions on travel south prior to November 1st due to hurricane risk.  Yes, I get the need to avoid hurricanes.  However, to head out into the North Atlantic as the gales of winter are heating up carry it’s own risk.

I would very much like to take Pandora to the Caribbean in a few years and have attended a few seminars sponsored by a new rally “The Salty Dawg Rally” in conjunction with the Annapolis Boat Show.  This rally, like the Caribbean 1500, are designed to connect sailors who wish to take their boats south with others who are doing the same thing, either for the first time or again after many years.

While participants travel in company in each rally, each boat is really on it’s own out on the ocean once the “fleet” leaves port.  One of my friends crewing with Pandora on our way south this fall remarked that when he had done the Bermuda race he had only rarely seen another boat once the fleet had spread out after the first day until they approached the finish line.  And this, in spite of there being literally hundreds of boats participating.  Other than that, they were on their own for much of the race.

In the case of a rally, you hang out with others prior to the start and again at the finish and yet, during the run you are really all by yourself with know one around for most or all of the trip.

While Pandora was never more than 25 miles from shore for the 550 miles between Beaufort and Florida, we only saw a few ships and no small boats at all, during our three day trip.   It seems that the “comfort” of traveling in company on a voyage will only get you so far.  If you think about it, the difference in boat speed of only 1/2 knot will leave the slower boat over the horizon in a half day.  That’s not a lot of time to be out of sight and matching your speed to another vessel isn’t very practical, especially if the boats are of very different design.

This November the Salty Dawg Rally left in early November from Hampton VA ahead of a cold front to make the run south to the British Virgin Islands.  In spite of careful preparations, a number of boats got into trouble.  According to the US Coast Guard, they assisted a total of five vessels, rescuing the crew of one.  The amount of CG hardware used to assist and rescue was impressive and include helicopters, 100′ cutters and airplanes.

Here is a video, taken by the US Coast Guard out of Elizabeth City NC.  It looks to me like the couple rescued were in their 60s.  Pretty frightening.  I sure hope that I never have to hitch a ride with “Coasties”,

As competitors, the Salty Dawg Rally and the Caribbean 1500 differ from one another in a number of ways.  Perhaps the biggest differences include the fact that the SDR doesn’t require participants to have their boats inspected by the rally organizers which the 1500 group does.  Instead, they take the position that participating boats re responsible for being certain that their boats are in condition for an ocean voyage and that they have to make the decision to leave on their own based on weather information provided to everyone equally.  The 1500 has an “official” start while the SDR tells skippers to leave when they feel that they are ready and that the weather is appropriate for them and their boat.  The SDR rally is also free as opposed to the 1500 which charges a pretty steep entrance fee in exchange for additional services.

This year both the SDR and 1500 left from Hampton at about the same time that I had my rough run south.  However, the boats that ran into serious trouble were all from the SDR with no major reported problems from 1500 participants.

I agree that the decision to leave port needs to be made by the skipper and that the condition of the boat is also his or her responsibility.  Having said that, my experience with the rigger in Beaufort who declared that Pandora’s rig wasn’t “offshore ready” and the conflicting advice that I received in Florida and from the rigger in Annapolis that had redone my rig a few years ago, made me realize that getting good professional advice about Pandora’s condition is critical and that knowing if she is ready for an offshore run or not, is clearly beyond my personal expertise.

So, who’s right?  Is the Salty Dawg Rally, with their “skipper is totally responsible” position or the more “hand holding” approach of the 1500?  It’s not for me to say except that getting a full review of the boat’s condition and readiness is a complex question and to get full assistance from a rally organizers may be just what is needed for many.

All I know is that in spite of the fact that the fleets in both rallies left from the same port and at about the same time, that the only boats that suffered major gear damage and needed outside assistance was from the rally that didn’t require independent seaworthiness inspections prior to departure.

I expect that there will be considerable debate about these two rallies in the coming months and it will be interesting to see how things develop.

Me, my recent experiences have made me even more aware of how much can go wrong when the “going gets rough” at sea and I am resolved to continue to be sure that Pandora is the best possible condition before we head out into the great blue.

Even more, as the winter gales begin to heat up and the threat of hurricanes is behind us, the time that insurance companies say it’s OK to be at sea, there is no question that being at sea is always serious business and any offshore voyage should’t be taken lightly.

What do you think?


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