We arrived Las Palmas about one week before the start. We thought the boat was pretty much ready but having gone through our checklist, realised that actually there was still quite a bit to do. We tended to start about 0800 each morning, when it was a bit cooler and worked until the parties started at about 1800. I was pleased we passed our safety inspection first time (good for crew and self confidence!) We didn't attend any of the briefing lectures - we'd been to a weekend seminar some 9 months before and most of them were re-runs of these - and we didn't have time.
The atmosphere at Las Palmas was fantastic - everyone pleasant, sociable and up for a glass of two. An amazing range of boat (and crew) shapes and sizes.
The food shopping was a mammoth task - taken in small chunks over about 4 days. With limited storage and no freezer, we needed to plan every meal. The forepeak was converted into shelving and supplies stored into 'meals, week 1, treats week 3' etc. The emphasis for the first 10 days or so was fresh meat and veg before settling down to long life and pasta stuff. The same packing routine was used for the fridge, in order to minimise loss of cold air hunting for the right food. The meal plan was for 28 days, though we also had another 5 days worth as backup reserves. Vacuum packed meat OK for 12 days if kept cool but lamb steak obviously had a poor seal and was truly rotten after about 9 days. Onions and potatoes lasted the whole trip and surprisingly, having bought green and red tomatoes, these lasted 3 weeks too. We used the sunscreen to keep the forepeak darkish. After about 10 days, we didn't need the whole fridge so we used some foam and soundproofing material to isolate one half which hugely reduced amps.
I was suprised how many boats were going 'dry'. We opted for a two glasses of wine or small cans of beer a day regime, which was broken twice - once on Paddywackcocker's birthday and again when we'd spent hours changing sails and rewarded ourselves. Not wanting loads of wine bottles on board, we bought them in 1 litre cartons in Las Palmas. This was a bit of a disaster as the wine was foul and I'd suggest buying some decent wine en route in boxes next time. We ate pretty well, on a varied diet.
We operated a three on, six off watch with a rotating mother watch. Mother involved cleaning and cooking and was rewarded with 12 hours night sleep. Everyone felt this worked well.
We had a bit of a panic before the start with a dodgy autohelm which had been a long (3 year) saga. It made an irritating beep noise every 2 seconds or so. It worked fine but the noise could have become something of a torture in the cabins after a few weeks. Both Raymarine engineers and Whitlock blamed each other's kit. Getting a bit desperate, I bought a new control unit but it wasn't this. Eventually, the engineer from Raymarine arrived with a new course computer and wow, no noise! fantastic, and just 18 hours before leaving. It would need calibrating but that we could do just after the start. When we tried this, it wouldn't recalibrate but we found a dodgy connection and fixed it - all OK.
The start was a great day - bands on the pontoons and crowds on the rocks by the harbour entrance. We slipped our lines and sailed through the narrow start line which was a slightly bonkers time as we nearly crunched the transom of a boat ahead, needing quick reverse engine thrust to avoid collision - all good natured though. Ahem, creamed past Asterie soon after before stopping for the calibration thingie.
Bit surprised at the lively beat after the first few hours but this soon died away to nothing. Very frustrating 5 or so days followed with very slow progress. I was tempted to go West and take the Northern route keeping a bit South of the TS but chickened out. This was a good decision given the damage that some boats, much bigger than us sustained in gales and big seas. We were a small crew of four, two of whom were inexperienced so didn't much fancy that.
It was hugely frustrating virtually sitting, plopping about about in the water doing about 2kts for much of the time. A little gust would come and we'd say " ooh, here come the trades". The boat would accelerate to about 6 knots and then about 2 minutes later it would die back again accompanied by less polite comments from us. Looking at the daily positions, it was obvious many boats were motoring though. We needed our fuel for charging, especiually since the Duogen wasn't able to generate much at all in the absent wind. We had to run the engine for about 3 hours daily and each watch had to had steer for an hour to reduce power use. The upside was that the watermaker was able to keep the tanks full and we showered daily throughout the trip, enabling me to keep my promise to me missus! We fitted an amp counter and could see that the autohelm used far more than the manual said and the fridge too used enormous amounts. Daily consumption was generally 240amps and on some days (in bigger seas on the quarter) as much as 300!. We had a little solar panel but this was only any use of an emergency backup. We'd fitted LED lights through the interior and and LED masthead. Big consumers were the fridge, Autohelm, satcoms (a F33, which though mega expensive, was just great for emails (ISDN speed), getting weather maps and surfing), Laptop and er flat screen for DVDs. Once we were able to make a decent speed though, the Duogen was a great piece of kit, happily producing over 7amps, meaning we only needed to run the engine for about 90minutes to top up the batteries and produce some water. I was loathe to cut another hole in the hull for the watermaker so we used the engine intake instead. Since the watermaker needs about 10 amps, we needed to run the engine for this anyway.
We used 2.75 bottles of gas on the passage.
We saw very little of other boats. Big ships often called up on VHF. Once they knew we were on a long passage they were really helpful, asking if we needed anything, could relay messages, forecasts etc. Asterie's arrival on the horizon was something of a surprise. Not really sure about the overtaking bit ... !
We caught fish, but only fished before dinner so not really into the sport. Mostly 18 - 24 inches long but nothing bigger. Lost a lot of lures to obviously much bigger ones though. My rod disintegrated, bit by bit, during 40 minute fight with a whopper.
Squalls were a bit scary at first - mostly you can see them coming, but not always. Sometimes 90deg wind shift and up to 35knots in 10 seconds. Mostly came in the morning - sometimes we were hit by 4 in 3 hours. Each one only lasts about 30 minutes though. We tended to have a reef in and no twin headsails overnight to reduce crew panic. Throughout the trip, we tried twin headsails which were OK in moderate winds (didn't get much of that). We also had a cruising chute but this seemed to be too small to make much of a difference. Our best plan was poled out genoa and prevented mainsail, sailing in very broad reaches to avoid chafe on the swept back spreaders.
The nights were fantastic. The curtain was raised with typically great sunsets covering the whole sky, then moonlit nights, phosphorescence (not just twinkly bit but 2 metre wide explosions, amazing shooting stars and a sky so clear it was difficult to make out the constellations, there were so many stars.
The bimini was fab and we would have roasted without it.
The best bit, without a doubt, was the last 10 days. I'd been getting a bit irritated with the ARC weather forecasts promising 'jam tomorrow' windwise, which never materialised - and too many noisy nights as the boom crashed and the sails clapped in the swell, devoid of much useful wind. But once it did kick in, the sailing was great fun, reaching high speeds for long spells. The boat seemed relieved too and handled it all superbly. Once you start to coundown from the 1,000 miles to go mark, it all goes very quickly.
Just before St. Lucia, the wind died. But in a way this was useful since it meant we were to arrive at 08:00, in daylight rather than a night entry. We had a great beat into the bay and the atmosphere on arrival at the marina is fab after such a trip - a steel band to welcome you, fruit and iced rum punch on the pontoon and lots of folk clapping and waving you in - very touching.
It was only once the boat was safely tied up that I relaised just how tired I was. As skipper, I never slept for long. I always woke at the slightest change in boat speed, wind speed, or change in sea conditions and course, as well as navigating, writing logs, weather stuff etc. In St. Lucia (in comfy aircon hotel) I slept for days!
It was all a great experience. I wouldn't call it taxing sailing wise, apart from a few moments, but I learnt a lot and enjoyed oit greatly. I agree with others that the ARC should really be moved to depart Las Palmas Christmas week to be surer that the trades have settled in. It's also not clear whether it is a race or a cruise (it seems to be a bit of both).
We had motored (under propulsion) for 20.5 hours - far less than the average. This put us well up in the finishing table after handicap at 103 - not bad for 174th ranking in boat length. I think, contrary to the typo of their declared hours, we beat Asterie too!
The boat was fab to live on - always plenty of space and comfort. I remain an advocate of linear galleys! Nothing broke aaprt from a lost boathook in a squall and a rip in the cruising chute.
The crew. Yep, we may have cut a couple of days off with a more experienced crew but what the hell, we enjoyed ouselves and never forgot that it was meant to be fun.
The arrival in St. Lucia and start in las Palmas - fantastic atmospheres. Confirmation that the channel between Martinique and St. Lucia wasn't IOW and Hampshire was a relief too!
Kit - Duogen, Satcoms, bimini, watermaker, collapsable plastic crates and lock n' seal' storage boxes, bread mix.
Night sailing (though not all crew felt the same!)
Blimin' lack of consistent wind, particularly at the start.
ARC awards ceremony - too many prizes, far too long. We were particularly glad to be awarded the coveted prize for the best preserved basil plant, in true N. London style!
Invitation boats - mega boats - not really much in common and tend to detract from the 'spirit' of the event.
ARC people having most of the shoreside events before many, apart from the biggies, haven't even arrived!
I'd recommend the ARC to anyone wanting to cross the pond and make some friends. It's not ducklings in a line at all but the bits at either side make it all worth it!
Zefender, 'About Time' January 2006