Sorry, we've sailed on our own too long to give up control.
Friends who had recently participated in the New England 600 Rally to Maine insisted the upcoming Snowbird Rally offered by the same group would be the perfect way for Gil and me to kick off our fall trip to Florida. And that, my friends, is how we came to be at Block Island, doing something as frivolous as readying for an offshore cruise to the Chesapeake area.
In a grand escape from the dreadful world news regarding escalating tensions in the Middle East, our rally group representing six boats—others had been forced to drop out—gathered for breakfast registration to enjoy mounds of leftovers—golden rally sweatshirts, canvas welcome bags, and untouched platters of Danish pastries, fresh fruits, and French toast; all sore reminders of friends we might've met.
The sparkling fall days belied the news our hired weather routing service predicted, a storm system fraught with tumultuous seas and angry winds. If we had stuck to our original itinerary, we would have hit that bad weather head on. We scrutinized reports—each skipper signed off on them—and made a communal decision to wait the extra day for the promised pleasant weather window. Lightning cracked around us, and rain tumbled in buckets from the sky on the morning of our departure, but by noon the last weather cell had passed though. Lisa and Ron, our remaining crew, arrived by ferry, bedraggled and wet, attesting that the seas were so unfriendly they had been forced to fortify themselves with Bloody Marys. The winds were abating and the waters were relaxing as Falcon, Lady Daphne, Early Out, and Joy For All Seasons tossed off their dock lines and set a southerly course, tailed by staff vessels Mahina Aka and Entre Nous.
Our group was content to sail and tack at a leisurely pace, but aboard Joy For All Seasons, we prefered to hold course and motorsail. Two US F-16 fighter planes roared overhead, as sinister-looking as Darth Vader, reminding us that the US was at war. Many of us trailed fishing lines and attempted to win the Fishing Award. Of course there was much radio banter about "the ones that got away." By the end of our journey, Lisa and Ron had filleted, and iced-down several fine Bonita Tunas.
We slapped each other on the back for being hours ahead of the other boats, but paid the price of speed in the wee hours of the morning as we crossed the New York shipping lanes. It's amazing how a simple dot of light on the horizon can so quickly become a fast-moving ship illuminated like a Christmas tree when it draws near. Our friends comfortably navigated this danger zone at first light. "Ambrose pilot, Ambrose pilot…" A foreign ship continuously hailed for help as it was denied port entry. Our timing was just as bad the following evening as we approached Cape May. The shipping channels there were less distinct than New York's, and at 0300 we found ourselves dodging one monster tug-towing barge after another. So we sought safe haven on a sand bar until dawn.
With one short leg remaining to our first rally, a storm was brewing. Our parade set off like a fleet of ghost ships in the early morning fog, racing the rains to the Chesapeake. Twin navy seal boats zoomed eerily past us as we cleared the CD canal. We split off to protected harbors, and all made landfall without incident. We later learned that across the bay, a tornado lifted and killed two teenage girls driving home. The following evening, at Nautech's Arrival Party in Annapolis, Early Out brought a computer show of their northward trip, which had included a stopover in New York Harbor. The sight of the twin towers standing tall and glistening was, perhaps, the only sobering moment of this celebratory evening.
I suppose if we had experienced a storm at sea or a life-threatening adventure, I'd have a more fascinating tale to tell. I remember apologizing to our new friends that a non-eventful trip means no story. Nonetheless, due to the foresight and careful planning of the rally organizers, this whole excursion was pleasurable. Had we stuck with our original plan, we would've been tossed about in the wrath of severe thunderstorms. Without giving up control, Gil and I had the comfort of knowing folks who cared were within hailing distance. The social events were grand fun. Joy For all Seasons won the fishing award—one of those singing Billy Bass plaques—and we've made friends for life. Those things alone are reason enough to sign up for a rally. And we've always talked about sailing to Nova Scotia, so, maybe we'll do it again.
Rally-O-RamaA rally can provide education, hard information, and resources that would otherwise take weeks to assemble on one's own; and traveling with a knowledgeable group can be an on-the water safety net for assistance with mechanical or medical problems.
Understand, however, that when you are out there, you are on your own. In the larger, more expansive rallies one can travel for days without seeing a sail on the horizon. The ultimate responsibility for the boat and crew lies with the skipper, not the rally organizers.
All rallies aren't created equal. Choose one that will be well tolerated by your boat, your crew, your boss, and your bank account. Talk to former rally participants and follow chats on rally web pages, and you will quickly realize that some rallies are geared to coastal cruisers who want to try offshore sailing, and others are intended to satisfy the thirst for challenge common to intermediate and veteran sailors. While we'd all like to think of ourselves as up to the challenge of any cruising task, that's not the reality. Have you embarked on an overnight sail? Ever been out of sight of land without freaking? We suggest you learn to "walk" by doing short offshore passages that won't take you into known turbulent waters or hundreds of miles offshore, before "running" on longer, more involved passages. And keep the following items in mind:
After you've resolved all of that, here's a list of prospective rallies to get you started:
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