News & Views

WEATHER WINDOW ROULETTE: Races and Rallies and Rolling the Dice

Mini Transat start

We all know how this goes: the very worst thing you can have on a boat--worse than women, bananas, or priests even--is a schedule. Yet most of us sail to a schedule, for various reasons, and sometimes suffer as a result. This fall has been particularly interesting, as the usual gamut of cruising rallies here in the U.S. and shorthanded ocean races over in Europe have sought to evade the clutches of the coming winter.

Exhibit A: the Caribbean 1500. For the second year in a row my SAILfeed compadre Andy Schell, who now wrangles the rally for the World Cruising Club, has had the cojones not to postpone the rally start, but to "prepone" it (so to speak) by setting his ducks loose upon the waters a day before the scheduled start (on November 2 instead of November 3) so as not to miss a promising weather window.

Caribbean 1500 start

Happy campers in the Caribbean 1500 start

This approach is admirably reality-based. When trying to find a weather window for sailing south from the East Coast in late October or early November, setting a fixed departure date is mostly delusional. What you want is more of a departure zone, and you should be willing to go early or late as conditions dictate.

Which brings us to Exhibit B: the Salty Dawg Rally. This loosy-goosey Caribbean 1500 breakaway group, which prides itself on not really sailing to a schedule, somehow managed to miss the weather window that Andy took advantage of. As you've probably heard, a number of Dawgs got wedgied by a cold front while crossing the Gulf Stream, resulting in five distress calls to the Coast Guard, a helicopter evacuation, one presumably sunken vessel, two dismastings, several broken rudders, and one broken arm.

This, I think, says something about group psychology. That is: if you are determined to sail in a group offshore, you should understand that a group of people can make a bad decision as easily as an individual can (see, e.g., the U.S. Congress), and that it therefore might be wise to join a group that enjoys some adult supervision.

Over in Europe, meanwhile, what we've seen is two major ocean races that have endured major postponements so as to keep competitors safe. The Mini Transat, featuring a very large fleet of tiny 21-footers sailed by singlehanders, was set to start October 13 out of Douarnenez, France, but was postponed for an entire month and didn't actually start until November 13 (see photo up top) due to an incessant string of gales that swept through the Bay of Biscay.

The Transat Jacques Vabre, meanwhile, with a smaller fleet of larger boats, saw its start out of Le Havre postponed from November 3 to November 7.

Transat Jacques Vabre start

The TJV fleet, including 26 Class 40s, off at last

Frankly, I find this incredibly encouraging. For many years, the standard operating procedure in these big Euro events that start out of or near the Bay of Biscay in the fall has been to send big fleets of boats out into the teeth of fierce gales, then wring hands over all the casualties suffered in the first 48 hours. Race organizers are to be commended for finally accepting that there is no disgrace in delaying a start.

Next maybe they'll figure out that they should start their races from somewhere further south.

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