Monthly Archives: November 2020

The gang is all (mostly) here, or should I say in Antigua.

Most of the boats in this year’s Salty Dawg Rally fleet have arrived in Antigua.  There are still a few underway and some had to stop elsewhere because of gear issues.

All and all, the fleet had a good run and made pretty good time in spite of a bit of a pounding due to strong winds and a tight wind angle.  However, most were able to make it to Antigua with plenty of fuel to spare unlike some years when winds were light and nearly on the nose.

Astrid Deeth, of the Admiral’s Inn, in English Harbor  and someone who has been really supportive of the rally from the beginning, has a home overlooking the anchorage in English Harbor and took this photo of the Dawgs at anchor when the first of the boats were arriving.  This time of the season the bulk of the boats are from the rally.  I’ll admit that I was quite moved when I saw this photo knowing how it feels to arrive after a long journey and wishing I was with them. A number of boats stopped in Bermuda, one in Puerto Rico and several in the USVI, only long enough to fix stuff and lick their wounds before pulling up their shorts and heading out yet again for Antigua, their destination.

One boat stopped in Bermuda due to a crack in their crash bulkhead, left for Antigua after a few days only to be forced to turn back due to additional issues that came up.  I understand that they remain determined to continue on to Antigua, in spite of everything.

The boat that stopped in the USVIs only stayed there long enough to sort out multiple issues and yesterday finally arrived in Antigua to join up with the rest of the fleet.

And yet another, that arrived overnight, will be putting their boat in a marina for a few weeks to fly back to the States to attend to the funeral of the skipper’s mother.  I recall some years ago when Brenda’s mother died a few hours after I left cell range on my way south.  Being as sea can be tough enough but to be separated from family under those circumstances is particularly difficult.

This is the fourth year that a destination for the rally was Antigua and it seem that this year nearly everyone “got the memo” on all that Antigua has to offer.  For several years now I have been preaching that Antigua is the place to begin and end the cruising season and I am beginning to feel like word is finally getting out and it is very rewarding to see how determined skippers were in getting to the island.

It has been four years since we first decided to offer Antigua as a destination. The first year was catalyzed by the devastation that was done to the BVI by back to back hurricanes.  We had a few cancelations that year but most everyone quickly switched gears and headed to Antigua.

Year two, the rally offered both the BVI and Antigua as destinations and the fleet was split, in part because the winds were particularly difficult and by the time the fleet got close to the BVI some had had enough and just decided to skip Antigua.

This year, however, seems to be different and nearly everyone who had decided on Antigua as a destination has been single minded about getting there, which has been very rewarding for me.  After putting so much work into arranging more than a dozen events spread over a nearly two week period, and preaching the virtues of cruising the southeast Caribbean,  I am just so pleased that the fleet headed that way.

This year preparing the fleet was the most complicated yet from an organizing standpoint, with restrictions making it impossible to have any group events in Hampton prior to departure.  All participants in the rally were required to adhere to a strict quarantine protocol prior to departure and submit to a PCR virus test before even leaving the dock.  It is tough enough to prepare for an offshore run but to be confined to the boat for nearly a week before leaving makes for some very complex logistics.

Rally planners met many times and communicated closely with the authorities in Antigua to establish a plan to keep skippers and crew safe and to allow for smooth clearing in process upon arrival.   Our greatest fear is that one of our boats would be offshore and have someone fall ill, which would have been tragic.  Happily, none did.

All of the issues of planning for a run were even more complex during the pandemic when the risk of infection are added to the sort of normal weather issues encountered on a long journey.  Add to that the usual equipment and electrical issues, made the run south this year the most complex yet.

As always, stuff broke but happily there were no outbreaks of the virus on any boats, which is good news and proves that if you are careful, and take reasonable precautions, you can stay safe.  I am hopeful that by the time of departure next year that everyone will have been vaccinated and things will be under control here in the US and that our run south will be more routine.

The real change this year is that it seems we are beginning to get the word out about all that Antigua has to offer.  Antigua remains an underdawg (pun intended) and fact is that when sailors think about cruising in the Caribbean they think of the BVI as that’s where most if not all of them have chartered while vacationing.

The reality is that the BVI is a near perfect place to take a short holiday of a week of two, with a variety of islands to explore, all a short day sail away.  It is easy enough to get up in the morning, have a leisurely breakfast, set sail and get to your destination in time for lunch.  That sort of leisurely week long vacation really isn’t possible elsewhere in the Caribbean where the distances between islands is greater.

However, if you are cruiser, out for the season, the BVI does not, in my opinion, offer as much.   Most businesses are focused on the one week charter trade, for whom a $50/night mooring isn’t a big deal.  While they are visiting, everyone  eats out most nights, spend lots of money and then fly home.   Cruisers, on the other hand, spend less per day and yet spend a lot more over the course of a season.  With a constant stream of vacationers booking those charters, it makes perfect sense that local businesses would focus on those who offer a more lucrative spending “per diem”.

Cruisers, in spite of the large spending over the course of a season, just can’t compete with a constant flow of high spending vacationers in the BVI who are in and out in a week or two followed by yet another group of vacationers.

Antigua, on the other hand, can’t compete for this segment of the market as it’s just not practical to charter there, especially when the strong “Christmas Winds” are up from mid December through much of January, when travel between the islands is “sporty” at best.

Additionally, many sailors just don’t know much about the southern Caribbean as the area doesn’t receive much attention from the sailing magazines.  Editors and publishers know who “butters their bread” and tend to write about topics that are in line with the interests of their advertisers.  And the charter companies, especially from the BVI are one of their biggest categories sothat’s what they write about.

The simple fact is that most cruisers just don’t know much about Antigua and the islands to the south so when they decide to “cast off the dock lines” the first thing that they think about is “well, we had fun when we chartered in the BVI, so let’s go there”, and they do.

It seems to me that that a lack of information about what the islands outside of the Virgins is the biggest hurdle that cruisers have needed to get over in deciding where to go.  I still remember the pressure I felt from crew when we were considering where to make landfall the first year I headed south as the were pushing hard for the BVI.   Getting information about St Martin and Antigua, the two spots I was considering, was very tough to find.  It wasn’t until I actually showed up in Antigua that I understood why knowledgeable captains from the really big yachts chose Antigua as the island as home for the winter season.

Interestingly, this year fully two thirds of the boats in the rally are first timers at long distance ocean cruising, many more than usual, and the fact that the bulk of them chose to head to Antigua suggests that they are finally getting the message of all that Antigua has to offer.  I have to give a lot of credit the rally director Sheldon for helping everyone understand that Antigua was a great place to visit and not that much farther then the Virgins.  We even had a few captains that were considering other destinations only to switch to Antigua at the very last minute.

For me, after pounding that Antigua drum for years now, it has been very rewarding to see that the bulk of the fleet decided to head there and most have arrived or will be there soon.

As is nearly always the case, weather plays a big factor in where boats end up and this year is no different.  As you can see from today’s tracker, there are a number of boats that are spaced along the southeast US coastline where they have ended up given the drumbeat of difficult weather that they have faced in trying to get to The Bahamas, their choice for this season.  As the map shows, there are persistent NE winds, fairly typical for this time of the year, making it impossible to cross the Gulf Stream.  So far, only two have made it to their destination of choice.  Hopefully, things will improve but the waters of the coastal US and Bahamas have been particularly hard hit by the remnants of a parade of hurricanes and tropical storms in what has been the busiest year on record.

Arrival events in Antigua are going really well and for the first time the bulk of the fleet arrived in time to participate in the very first one.    As all of the events will be held outdoors, being safe is fairly easy, with a constant flow of tropical tradewinds blowing at all times.

My friend Bill on Kalunamoo posted some very nice photos of the pool party at Boom at the Admiral’s Inn in English Harbor.   It looks like it was a very nice day. Bill’s view as he surveyed the activities and slept off lunch I expect.  Yup, that’s Bill, the guy. And, just to prove that all the folks in the rally aren’t as old as Bill (it takes one to know one), some younger Dawgs enjoying the day. Of course, one of the key questions you have to ask yourself about is the wisdom of being in a country like Antigua, with very limited medical facilities, if you were to fall ill.   When the rally was preparing for departure, everyone was very aware of the possibility of infection and the importance of staying safe.  Now that they are in Antigua and likely free of infection because of their time at sea, they are once again ashore and it is possible that they will come in contact with someone who is ill.  At least those who made the run are part of a large “Dawg Bubble” and probably safe.

This is the current “dashboard” for Antigua showing the rate of infection currently on the island.  There have been a very limited number of “community infections” with most coming in by air from other countries.  Fortunately, the bulk have been captured shortly after landing and with good contact tracing, the virus has not been able to gain a foothold on the island.In the last two months, the number of confirmed cases has increased from 95 to 139 and there have been a total of three deaths.    In spite of all that, the death rate by thousand residents is still a fraction of that in the US.  As of yesterday we passed the sobering milestone of 250,00o deaths, with some experts predicting that we could log yet another 200,000 deaths before a vaccine is widely available.

The question that has to be asked is if the tradeoff of a lower case load in Antigua verses better medical facilities in the US, with out of control spreading of the virus, is a good bet.  I’d say that it is a tough call but the alure of warm breezes and the ability to do most everything outdoors is sure appealing to me.

Only time will tell which is the best approach but when I got up this morning and saw that it was 20 degrees out, I have to say that sitting by the pool in English Harbor seemed mighty appealing.

In spite of my obvious self-pity, it is rewarding to know that the Salty Dawg fleet is now in Antigua and are having a good time.

As jealous as that makes me,  at least I can take solace in knowing that the weather will get better in May.   That’s me, ever hopeful.

Ocean sailing just isn’t just a walk in the park.

Many of the boats that are heading to Antigua this year in the Salty Dawg Rally are getting close and it looks like the wind that they face from now on will be fairly steady in the high teens and just forward of the beam.  Conditions are pretty sporty but at least they are heading toward their destination.

Last fall it took me 11 days to make the run and for several days we were heading due east, never getting closer to Antigua, something that I found to be extremely frustrating.   For us the problem was not enough wind and persistent SE winds that made it tough to head in the direction we wanted to go.

However, rough or not, well not too rough, I would definitely prefer to be heading in the right direction and not toward some imaginary waypoint somewhere to the east, waiting and hoping for a favorable wind shift.

This year’s run has indeed had it’s share of challenges but it is nice to see that the bulk of the fleet is doing well and heading in the right direction.   Unfortunately, there are always a few that are unlucky enough to break stuff along the way and this year is no different.  One boat developed a crack in a crash bulkhead and is now in Bermuda having the damage diagnosed.  While I have had plenty of stuff break on passage I have never had to deal with structural issues, but whenever I am on passage, I have always worried about something big failing, especially when I am hundreds of miles from anywhere.

And speaking of being miles from anywhere, I happened upon this video of the always flamboyant ocean racer, Alex Thompson of Hugo Boss, who is competing in the Vendee Globe.   In this video I was struck by the spartan interior of his yacht.  Aboard Pandora, I worry a lot about salt getting down below.  A simple spray with a hose would clean up both Alex and his boat.  Even this early in the race the fleet has already encountered conditions that are worse than most of us will ever see.

The communication technology aboard these boats is amazing.  In the case of Hugo Boss, based on how the video angles are shown, it appears that Alex has multiple cameras on board.  Pretty sophisticated stuff.  And, I guess he has plenty of bandwidth to send it out. As these powerful machines, each with only a single person on board, make their way around the world non-stop, it will be interesting to see how things develop and how much stuff breaks.  There is no way that I could do such a voyage if for no other reason than I can not bear to be alone for that amount of time, much less endure the continual discomfort.  No full enclosure on these boats.   See Brenda, it could be worse.

And speaking of the boats competing in this remarkable race, this video gives an excellent overview of what makes these boats tick.  The increasing sophistication of ocean racing today and the idea of foiling along at super-fast speeds, makes me wonder and it seems that others are wondering too.

There many will be watching to see if these boats will hold together when things get really rough or they encounter “things that go bump in the night”. I mention all of this as my boat Pandora, launched in 2007,  is considered a pretty fast ocean cruiser and yet she is a total sloth when compared with some of the more modern cruising boats, much less the super exotic boats in the Vendee Globe. Here’s a large part of the fleet as of today, Thursday morning, north and east of Puerto Rico.  The bulk of the fleet is still days away from arriving in Antigua but are moving along well.  I would be quite happy to be aboard Pandora and moving along with this group about now, with good if brisk sailing on a direct run to Antigua.
And, when it comes to crew, the bulk of boats in the rally take on extra hands for the run.  Remarkably, Iain on Fatjax, a go-fast carbon flyer, made his run as a single hander and arrived only a week after leaving Hampton, a remarkable accomplishment.  I caught up with Iain earlier today on a call and learned more about him and Fatjax.  I’ll be sharing what we talked about in a few days so stay tuned.   For now, here’s a shot of Fatjax anchored in English Harbor awaiting clearance.  Ocean voyaging is a big deal and to sail alone around the world, like the boats competing in the Vendee Globe, especially without stopping, is a very big deal.

An interesting fact is that more people have been up in space than than have sailed around the world alone.  It says something about how tough you have to be to accomplish such a feat.  Sure, Hampton to Antigua alone isn’t quite like circumnavigating but it’s still a big deal, especially for mere mortals like me.

One thing for sure is that the Vendee Globe and even the Salty Dawg Rally to Antigua, single handed or not, isn’t just a walk in the park.

Ocean sailing is a pretty big deal, if you ask me.


Mom (and your weather router) knows best.

As I sit here and watch the Salty Dawg fleet, heading to the Caribbean and points south, I recall my trips over the years and am imagining the questions that are going through the minds of captains and crew of the many boats underway.  Being far out at sea and knowing that there is a hurricane bouncing around the Caribbean, first heading west to Honduras, on to Cuba and now up the west coast of Florida does give pause for thought.

It’s been a very busy season for hurricanes and may very likely end up being the busiest on record, with nearly 30 named storms.   As the fleet left the US to begin their run, there was at least one comment on Facebook questioning if it was a good idea for everyone to head out with a hurricane moving through the Caribbean.   Now, days later, Hurricane Eta (they ran out of names and had to start all over again because there have been so many storms), continues to bounce around the Gulf and is not expected to threaten the fleet.  Chris Parker, of Marine Weather Center and the router for the rally, felt strongly that the storm would not be a threat to the fleet and it seems that he was right.

Three years ago, I decided to leave Beaufort NC much later in the season than I would normally, January verses November.   After speaking with Chris his observation was that the weather leaving from south of Cape Hatteras was often more predictable in January than in November, when the summer and winter winds are still duking it out.

As we approached our anticipated departure date, I spoke with Chris and we settled on January 5th, if I recall, to head out.  There was a developing ridge near Puerto Rico and as long as I was able to maintain a speed of at least 7kts, I would pass the area before the feature moved into my path.  By taking this approach we assumed that I would pass the area ahead of the ridge and avoid the gale force winds north of the ridge and instead, be south of it and enjoy trade wind sailing with 15kts on the beam.

However, it didn’t work out as planned as I was slower than anticipated, averaging only 6.5 knots and the ridge moved into my path about 12 hours earlier than anticipated.   As a result, instead of our enjoying trade wind sailing, we had 4.5 days of running before a gale with nothing up but a double reefed main.  It was not a fun experience as we crawled up the backside of 20′ waves at 4-5 knots and surfed down their face, sometimes at 20+kts while we all lived in fear of an uncontrolled jibe or something breaking. The autopilot steered the boat very well but ultimately a linkage failed and while someone was able to take control quickly, but before things were under control, we slewed nearly broadside to the waves.  It was a very hairy moment, and one that I don’t want to repeat.  I was able to repair the broken linkage but it took several hours and after the failure, we really didn’t trust my fix and someone stood at the helm every moment for the rest of the trip.  It turns out that the prior owner had experienced this exact same failure multiple times over the years.  Great to hear, after the fact.  I was determined to avoid a repeat and re-engineered the linkage assembly.  Now, thousands of miles later, no breakage.

The point of bringing up this experience and why I ran into terrible conditions,  is that I underestimated my speed and the ridge came in early.  What I learned from this trip is a clear understanding that I need to always need to take into account how the forecast might change and build in contingencies.  Or as my wife Brenda likes to say, “prepare for the worse and hope for the best.”

It’s pretty clear to me now that I should have just waited a few days instead of assuming that everything would go according to plan.  Chris’s forecast wasn’t off by much and had warned me about the possible variables, but a small change in the weather and my underestimating my speed made a big difference in our experience.   There I was in Beaufort, crew on board, itching to get going and so was I, so we left.  Fortunately, those 40+kt winds were behind us instead of us having to close reach in a gale, which would have been much worse.

So, all of this brings me to the topic of this post and that’s what’s going on with the fleet who are participating in the Salty Dawg Rally to Antigua.

For several days in advance of the fleet leaving each year, Chris conducts an evening briefing for skippers and crew to help them better understand the developing weather picture.  In spite of what the weather expected, he always stresses that with a trip of 9-14 days, it’s very hard to anticipate what will happen after the first few days.

In this case, Chris recommended that boats leaving from the Hampton VA area should head NE for the first few days before tacking and heading for Antigua.  The point being that by making as much easting as possible early in the trip, they would likely avoid having to beat into strong easterly trade winds later in the trip.   This advice seems to be playing out as the fleet gets closer to their destinations, some of skippers that are a bit west of the bulk of the fleet will have a tough time making enough easting to avoid a stop in the USVIs or perhaps Puerto Rico.  Chris is anticipating, and the current maps show, that winds will be a bit south of east as they approach the Caribbean and boats that are not far enough east will have a rougher go of it.

Chris is sensitive to the needs of many of his clients, often older folks, like Brenda and me, who are looking for easy conditions and adjusts his forecasts accordingly.  In this case, recommending that boats put some “easting in the bank” by heading to the NE early in the trip would give them a more favorable point of sail as they passed east of the Virgins.

Boats that are farther east will have apparent wind on the beam verses being on a close reach or worse and as the wind is expected to increase into the 20s ore higher.   The closer to the wind the more uncomfortable the run will be.

Note that I have marked Antigua, the destination for most boats, with an arrow below.  Of course, some boats were headed to the Bahamas and a few to the USVIs so it is expected that some may be on a track that takes the west of the rhumb line to Antigua.  However, those who are west of their intended track may very well find that making it all the way to Antigua could be a challenge.   To see the fleet in real time, and see how this all plays out, click here to go to the Predict Wind Salty Dawg Page.

The point is that when Chris recommended that the fleet head to the NE, and most did, he wanted to allow for a possible subtle but important shift in the weather days down the road that would avoid the discomfort of beating to weather.  Chris is not always right but he works hard to allow for unanticipated changes in the forecast, an opportunity to “prepare for the worse and hope for the best.”

It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next few days and I am hopeful that the boats that are more to the west won’t have to abandon their goal of arriving in Antigua with the rest of the fleet.

From my perspective all of this and my own experience over the years and from my youth, is that sometimes “mom, and your weather router, really does know best”.

Trust your mother, or at least your router, and more often than not, your trip will be more fun.

And, as they say, “gentleman and cruisers never beat to weather”.

Good luck with that!

And they’re off! The Salty Dawg Rally to Antigua begins.

After months of planning and a never ending series of questions about what the state of the pandemic will be in the Caribbean, the Salty Dawg Rally is underway, with most boats leaving from Hampton VA this morning.   Most of the 50+ boats are heading to Antigua with some opting to head to the Bahamas and a few to other destinations.

Chris Parker of Marine Weather Center, is the official weather router for the rally and has been doing daily video briefings for skippers and crew for the last week to help everyone understand when it would be safe to leave for the run south.

I have not been privy to the details of these discussions except to say that the weather systems that boats will encounter are complex, not unlike departures in prior years when I participated in the rally, when we all spent the days leading up to departure not sure exactly what we would be getting ourselves into when we headed out.

This is a shot of the Predict Wind tracking map from this morning showing that a good number are heading out as I write this.    Most of the boats are leaving from the Hampton VA area, with a few from Beaufort, just south of Cape Hatteras.   As you can see by the box, the wind speed is in the low 20s out of the west, north west, a good point of sail and the boats should make good time, at least for the moment as conditions will surely change as they make their way south. And, there is a lot going on weather-wise, with yet another late season hurricane off of Honduras.   The blue areas have light wind and dark red, lots…

See a mark, again with the box indicating moderate trade winds from the east, Antigua, the destination for the bulk of the fleet.  I hope to be able to provide more commentary in the coming days and will follow weather alerts from Chris to share what I can regarding the conditions that the fleet is experiencing along the way.   I clipped these images from my iPad but they don’t offer as much functionality as you will get on a PC, where there is a list of individual boats along the border so you can more easily see who is who.

I encourage you to follow this link, now and often, to keep track of who is where and how fast they are going.   By placing your courser over any given boat, you can see what their speed, lat/lon and direction are.  And, the same applies to wind speed and direction as I have noted on the image above.

So here I sit in my office on election day and I have to say that with all the negativity in that “race”, I am happy to focus on the Dawgs heading south for the winter.

As we sit here in the US, with infections on the rise and months cooped up inside, the Salty Dawg Fleet heading to Antigua, is going to what is arguably a better place for the season. I’m jealous.

Skippers and crew have followed a detailed quarantine and testing regime, preparing for departure to ensure that everyone remains safe and arrives in Antigua free of infection.    And, with a mind toward keeping everyone safe, as Port Officer for the rally in Antigua, I have organized a long list of arrival events to help everyone feel welcome in Antigua.   Click here to see what’s in store when they arrive. 

After so many months of planning, it’s exciting to say.  “And they’re off!”

The America’s Cup: This isn’t your father’s yacht…

Recently, we had our first hard frost here in CT and I’m feeling pretty anxious about getting Pandora out of the water and properly winterized for the coming cold weather.

The need to protect Pandora from the cold is in sharp contrast to the Salty Dawg Rally, about 50 boats strong, as they prepare to head south, with the bulk of the fleet heading to Antigua.  No winterizing needed for them.

Most of the boats are leaving from the Hampton VA area again this year and conditions in the North Atlantic suggest that they may have a challenging time getting south this year.  With so much “easting” to make before heading south to the islands, leaving from Hamption brings with it a whole set of complexities.

Some would suggest that just leaving from New England makes sense given the fact that the run to Antigua is nearly due south, avoiding the hundreds of miles of easting that the boats leaving from VA must make in order to get into a position to enjoy the persistent easterly trade winds.

In fact, the course from Montauk to Antigua takes you just west of Bermuda and avoids a lot of beating into the trades from a start in VA.  However, given the number of gales, and there is one going on now, north of Bermuda this time of year, it is very difficult to get a proper weather window to make the run from New England to safer waters south of Bermuda.  As a result, lots of painful easting or not, most folks opt to leave from farther south and avoid the uncertainty of leaving from further north.

I am feeling a mixture of sad and excitement for the coming weeks.  Sad, because Pandora comes out of the water and excitement for the fellow Dawgs that will be heading south.  Hopefully next winter I’ll be feeling only excitement.   I’ll be posting again in a few days with the details of what’s in store for the fleet.

Exciting yes, but that enthusiasm will have to be tempered by the reality that moving from island to island will be quite challenging this season given the threat of infection.  The much promoted Caribbean “bubble”, promising “easier” travel between islands seems to be breaking down with several islands opting out of the agreement even before the season gets going.   With infections spiking all around the world, and more tourists visiting the islands, often from hard hit areas, it seems likely that moving from island to island will become even more difficulty.

Having spent weeks longer in Antigua last spring than we wished, often strictly confined to Pandora, I am wondering how much fun being there will be when compared to a “normal” year.   However, my position on all that might soften when compared to being here in the frigid north over the winter.

Ask me how I feel in about a month…

When I am “home” I always struggle to come up with ideas of what to post and I am sure that this winter will be more of the same.  However after some 950 posts over the years, I somehow always come up with something to write about, so here goes.

And, the next installment of the America’s Cup ramping up, and the defender and challengers alike, launching boats designed to the AC75 rule, we are learning more about what these remarkable boats, if you can call the boats, will be like.

I found a very interesting clip where the host describes the theory and technology behind these boats.   But first, this short piece about the history of the cup is worth watching to give better context to what sort of machines are competing today. And this, a nice piece about the 1934 race in big classic J class boats.  We see quite a few of these classics in Antigua each season. This description of the new A75 boats will dramatize just how much has changed in the competition for the America’s Cup.   Today’s yachts seem to have more in common with airplanes than boats.  Are these the proper direction for the sport?  You decide. I am sure that you would much prefer to hear about  what’s going on in the cruising community but for now we will all have to settle for an “armchair” look at what others are up to.

Well, at least those of us that are stuck in the frigid north for the winter.  For now, we can just watch and I guess “watching” boats, and they are barely boats at all, compete for the America’s Cup, the oldest international sporting trophy, will have to do.

Damn, it’s getting cold…