We participated in the Caribbean 1500 (Norfolk to Tortola) in 2004 and plan to do so again this November. I will admit to having been somewhat skeptical that paying $1000 to join a group of other sailors headed south was worth it. We had previously crossed the Atlantic (as crew), and had many short 1-2 day passages, but this was my first time as skipper on a long offshore passage in our boat. I debated joining with myself and my mate, and eventually we decided to try it. I'm glad we did.
You've probably heard the list of advantages, but let me add my first hand commentary.
First, there is safety in numbers -- two days out of Norfolk, on the other side of the Gulf Stream in the middle of the night and with a major-league cold front due to pass over in 48-60 hours one of the boats hit the NOAA weather bouy. (The statisticians out there can advise us on the odds of that happening.) The front end of one of the pontoons on this 40+ ft cat was stove
in and the boat was taking on water. Within an hour two other Carib 1500 boats were circling the disabled boat, standing-by to help. One of the bystanders put in the Mayday call while the crew of the cat worked the pumps
and their damage control drill. (BTW: The USCG was magnificent -- a C-130 out of NJ was overhead in the third hour. They dropped a pump
to the damaged boat (the parachute landed in the cockpit) As we sailed by the scene, a cutter out of NC was just arriving. They'd steamed at flank speed for many hours to get there. They immediately put a damage control expert aboard the cat. It was determined that they could attempt to motor back to the coast, which they did under CG escort, arriving in Norfolk just as the front passed with 50 kts from the NE hitting the Gulf Stream.)
In the end, the other rally boats offered little but a morale boost, but it we'd been another 300-400 miles down the track and the flooding could not have been stopped, it would have been another story. With the rally underway no one was more than 12-18 hours away from another boat.
Now to less dramatic benefits:
-- in the week leading up to a well-organized / well-run rally a daily diet of presentations is on offer -- everything from looking after your engine to offshore first aid for the crew. Good rally operators will also insist on inspections of all participating boats. While you're still responsible for the condition of your vessel, it helps to have an experienced sailor looking over your shoulder with check list in hand as you think through the final preparations. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I've been asked to be one of the vessel inspectors at the '08 Carib 1500).
-- rallys usually have daily weather briefings broadcast to the fleet (the Carib 1500 requires everyone to have an SSB
) usually prepared by a contracted weather service. I've since acquired the gear and skills to get weather info on my own while at sea, but having a professional forecaster working for you is of value, particularly in the North Atlantic in November. The weather service has "got your back", so to speak, when it comes to keeping an eye on emerging systems in the tropics or the cold fronts that march across the US at that time of year and which can intensify as they approach the coast. (Note: somewhat negating the value of this benefit is the fact that boats in the Atlantic with an SSB
can get free wx info from Herb Hilgenberg, "Southbound II", 12359 KHz, at 2000Z).
-- rally organizers insist on daily (sometimes twice daily) check-ins with position, course, speed, etc. When we did the Carib 1500 this info is then posted on the website so friends and family could 'ride along'. Last year the 1500 put transponders on every boat that automatically fed positions to the website every few hours. Obviously, this info on your track is also of great value if a SAR situation were to develop.
-- rallys often have 'resident' experts riding along with the fleet -- of particular value at the 1500 was the medical doctor ("fleet surgeon") who was available for consultations over the radio
. No serious medical emergencies arose during our 10 days underway, but there were several instances where the MD was called upon. Same for the diesel and electrical experts who helped several boats deal with issues over the radio
-- probably the greatest value to us of our participation in the rally was the people we met and got to know during the nightly social gatherings the week before and several days after the rally. We've made lifelong friends from among this group of sailors. True, you will meet people outside a rally, but I think the bonds of friendship are forged more quickly among a group of sailors who are couped up together for a week before the start facing a common challenge, and who then celebrate together when all have safely arrived.
Now a couple of disadvantages:
-- rally organizers won't advertise the fact, but they do have a schedule to keep. They've booked facilities at both ends with a schedule in mind and delay of more than a few days can begin to mess around with either their arrangements or their economics or both. Because of that, there is some incentive on their part for the rally to start and end on time. The end is most often dictated by the start -- and we all know that you don't want to be on a fixed schedule when departing on a long offshore passage. In 2004 the start of the Carib 1500 was delayed several days for weather -- it was a precaution, if memory serves, it was either to see how a tropical "disturbance" developed, or to watch how a front was developing....in any event we left on Tuesday vs Sunday. Several boats went ahead and left on time...while the fleet stayed in Norfolk. My sense is that rally operators have become more cautious in recent years having learned their lessons with serious storms developing with their fleets underway.
As with all other things, the choice of departing or not is up to the skipper, but you need to be aware that the organizers will probably do their best to keep things on schedule and all the boats together.
-- cost is a disadvantage. In addition to the rally fee (I think the '08 Carib 1500 is $1200), there is the cost of dockage at a marina at the start and finish of the rally. Having invested good money in ground tackle
, we normally don't spend much time at a dock. I suspose you could anchor
out and motor to the rally functions, but that might take something out of the overall 'atmosphere' of the event.
The other more hidden costs involve prudent good seamanship, but are costs that many of us often choose to postpone. Rally organizers won't let you leave without your life raft
in certification, nor with your flare inventory even slightly out of date. These two things alone can accelerate your expenditure of a thousand or more dollars. (I know, you'll eventually get around to doing what's right, but who among us hasn't gone to sea with a raft or flares 4 months past their "due date"?).
There's also the pressure of 'group think' when preparing for a rally. When all the boats around you have a state-of-the-art thingamagigie that's absolutely critical to safety at sea, try telling your wife you really don't think you need one. There was a standing joke at the reason the "2004 West Marine Caribbean 1500" (sponsored that year by WM) was so titled was that, in addition to the entry fee, every boat had to spend at least $1500 at local West Marine.
For us, the costs are reasonalble given the value provided by the rally. As I mentioned, we particularily valued the people we met. Everywhere we went in the Caribbean that season we found people flying the pink Carib 1500 burgee. When you saw it, you knew an invitation for drinks (that usually turned into dinner) would shortly follow. My wife resisted moving aboard primarily because she places very high value on having a sense of "community". She was afraid that if we went sailing we'd have no community to be a part of....she found her community among the people we sailed south with that year. And for a fellow who sails with a reluctant mate, as they say in the MasterCard commercial: "Priceless!".