Given the wet, rainy and overcast start to the day, while at anchor in Baie Hanamoenoa, Tahuata, in the Marquesas Islands, we decided there was no better time to sit and write this article, on this day, 1st April 2016.
A certain calm has descended on the anchorage after the last of the yachts of the World ARC fleet departed yesterday for a rendezvous in Nuku Hiva; one we have decided to skip in order to more fully enjoy our independent sailing time until the rendezvous in Tahiti. With their departure, our cruising life seems to have returned to an even keel, mirroring that which we had grown used to as full-time cruisers in the Caribbean for the past two years.
It would be an understatement to say that life has been completely hectic up until this point in the rally. We knew the World ARC itinerary was fast, for reasons well documented, but we never expected the level of stress associated with it and has certainly had us wondering whether we are indeed retired or have just changed roles and responsibilities in a more challenging environment.
We left Bequia, soon after our Christmas celebrations had come to a close, with the intention of spending New Year in Rodney Bay, St Lucia, before heading into the marina on 2nd January 2016, in time for the opening of the World ARC office. Knowing we were well prepared and with ample time to spare, we were looking forward to a fairly relaxed week, with only the last of our fresh produce provisioning to do, leading up to the start of the rally on 9th January 2016. We were aware that we had to complete the World ARC Safety Inspection, but other than a few get-togethers, a Skippers Briefing and a farewell function, we assumed we had plenty of time to arrange a dive to the Pitons as well as enjoy some of the sites that St Lucia had to offer. For this reason we had purposefully skipped this Caribbean island during our previous sailing season, expecting that we would have the time prior to the start of the rally. Well, best laid plans!
After introducing ourselves at the World ARC office, we were promptly presented with information detailing such a full itinerary for the remainder of the entire week, to the extent that we had to squeeze in and split our provisioning time over two days. It was bedlam to say the least, with neither one of us getting to bed earlier than midnight on a single night. It was so busy that we were trying to squeeze out time for cruising friends who had taken the trouble to come and see us off. Elaine was icing Roy’s birthday cake in the middle of the night so that it would be ready for his birthday celebrations the following morning. In all this mayhem, Elaine didn’t even get a chance to practice her Happy Birthday renditions on the saxophone. Needless to say, it was a disaster, when trying to play it for Roy on the day, in between getting Paw Paw ready to leave the marina for the noon start. Combine that with trying to remember boat names and the names of 150+ people so as not to embarrass ourselves when we next encountered a fellow participant on the dock. Although we were all issued with name tags and dutifully wore them, failing eyesight meant peering into someone’s chest to read them. What a carry-on!
It didn’t help matters that, after the time had lapsed to contest any of the handicaps that had been posted on the noticeboard, we learnt that two of the faster and larger boats had been given a better handicap than ours, after the fact. Although Elaine brought the matter to the attention of the organisers to no avail, it was rather disheartening to realise that no matter what we would do, we would never qualify for a prize. Although the rally is touted as not being a race, this seemed rather underhanded, since we only learnt of the change during the Skippers Briefing at the end of the week and left a somewhat sour taste in our mouths. It was more of a bitter pill to swallow when one of these yachts won the first Leg in the catamaran division – So much for: “It’s a slow and heavy boat hence the rating”! As with all these things, it’s always a case of “follow the money” as we discovered Lagoon is a huge sponsor of ARC events.
The highlight of Roy’s birthday though, was spending it with TiSento (Agnes and Bas), who stopped by to unload the last of our goodies that they had bought for us in Martinique and, of course, with nerves and excitement mounting, with each tick of the clock, we were commencing a lifelong dream – 35 years in the waiting for Roy, 8 years in the planning and preparation. It was indeed a dream come true and a very emotional time for both of us, especially when we heard the horns blowing from our cruising friends who were in the anchorage to wave us off as we presented Paw Paw to the “race” committee boat.
While the route of the World ARC Rally is well documented, the one leg that Elaine was not looking forward to was the leg from St Lucia to Santa Marta, Colombia, primarily because of the time of the year we were rounding the Colombian Cape and the notorious storms associated with it. Fortunately, we had the most benign weather we could ever have wished for and rounded the Cape in flat, following seas, glorious sunshine and fair winds. We were off to a great start! Unfortunately twelve hours out from Santa Marta we hit the compression zone with winds in excess of 35 Kts and flew into the anchorage of Santa Marta at 0230 with blinding lights everywhere, doing 10 – 12Kts and having to overtake one of the World ARC yachts, Giampi, within one mile of the finish line because they seemed to have stopped dead in the water. Our hurtle over the finish line resulted in us nearly t-boning a tanker, which, minutes before, was at anchor, but decided to berth and block the entire entrance as we approached. With Elaine about to jump overboard in fright and screaming to Roy that we’re going to end up toothpicks, Roy, in a very calm voice indicated that “now was not the time to panic”, following which he turned Paw Paw around and headed back towards the finish line, much to the dismay of everyone aboard Giampi, who by now, had surely deemed us certifiable!
Our entrance to the marina was relatively straight forward, given the assistance we received from the marina staff who guided us towards our slip via dinghy. However, the slip we were guided to turned out to be the incorrect one from that which was previously allocated to us and was completely inadequate for the size of Paw Paw. The problem was then compounded when Heidi 2.0, a 50Ft monohull, was placed alongside us on the other side of the tiny slip a few hours later. Unfortunately, by the next morning our allocated slip had been reallocated to yet another World ARC yacht and, instead of insisting on another more suitable slip, we decided to accommodate the situation. This proved to be to our detriment a few days later when the wind was so strong, we were awakened to the noise of Paw Paw’s bows hitting the dock. We spent the rest of the night with both engines on, trying to keep her off the dock, with the tiny slip creaking and swinging precariously from side to side with the weight of two oversized yachts attached to it.
As soon as daylight broke and the wind calmed, we headed out to the anchorage outside the marina and to safer waters. Soon thereafter though, having notified rally control of our situation and intention to stay in the anchorage to await the start of Leg 2 later that day, we were requested to return to the marina as the Port Authorities had closed the harbour. No yachts were permitted to leave for the next 24 hours, which included Barbara Jean who was instructed to return to harbour after having departed for the San Blas Islands earlier that morning. As we waited for a more robust slip, we were informed that the World ARC representatives were in intense negotiations with the Port Authorities, attempting to reopen the harbour and to allow the start of the Leg to commence as planned. As ex-meteorologists, having completed our assessment of the forecasted weather, we concurred with the Port Authority’s decision and, in fact, went a step further. When the port was subsequently opened the next day, the rally set off without Paw Paw and another yacht, Nina. As things transpired, we had made the sensible decision to avoid the 40 Kts of winds and huge seas on the beam which were encountered by the other yachts within the first half an hour of crossing the start line. Our patience was well rewarded, as we enjoyed a lovely sail to the San Bas Islands, arriving just in time for the rendezvous in Chichime.
We had already come to the conclusion, prior to our departure from Santa Marta, that we would not do the San Blas Islands any justice with the time we had remaining to visit these islands, given that the World ARC itinerary had added Colombia onto the itinerary for the 2015 rally, which reduced the time in the San Blas by a week and then subsequently deducted an additional day in order for the 2016 rally to remain in Santa Marta a little longer. Couple that with the delayed start and our self-imposed delayed start and we were down to 2 days to see the San Blas. What we weren’t expecting though, was the unkept state of Chichime, with garbage discarded everywhere, as well as the very unwelcoming and rude chief who essential told us to leave his island in no uncertain terms when we retuned via water taxi from the very laborious and completely disorganised clearing-in process.
The clearing-in process was compounded by the fact that we were first told by rally control that Paw Paw was part of the first group clearing in and should await further instruction while anchored in Chichime, only to find out later that afternoon that our timeslot had moved to the following day. That meant another night at anchor in Chichime as it was unsafe to navigate in the fading light to another island. Then the following day, the process was delayed because the immigration officer had lost a receipt book and would not issue another receipt until he was within 15 minutes of his lunch break and, surprise, surprise, wanted overtime. When we inquired as to the afternoon opening hours, we were informed that, due to his stress levels associated with the number of World ARC yachts he had to clear in, he would not be working that afternoon. This ultimately resulted in us having to pay the overtime charges, which was then ceremoniously pocketed, without a receipt, right under our noses. All of which resulted in us not seeing another island as we had to set sail for Shelter Bay, Panama in order to meet Keenan, Brooke and William, who were joining us for the Panama Canal transit.
In Shelter Bay, we encountered more frustrations and aggravations. We were informed we could get diesel on our arrival, only to be told the marina had run out of diesel and that the following day diesel would not be available as a mega yacht would be using the supplies. When asked if we could obtain diesel the day after that, we were informed that the individual would not be working as he would be working on his scheduled off day for the mega yacht and was, therefore, taking the subsequent day in lieu. This, of course, was in total contradiction to what rally control was conveying, but proved, nonetheless, to be the fact, so we had to leave Shelter Bay with quarter tanks of diesel and the understanding that we could get our tanks filled in La Playita on the Panama City side of the canal.
In the midst of the fuel fiasco and having resolved the confusion which existed around the various buses that were running to the grocery stores for provisioning and ensuring we were available to meet with the canal authorities to complete the necessary paperwork, as well as ensuring we were on board to have Paw Paw fumigated for the Galapagos Islands, we managed to carve out a slither of time to enjoy the pre-paid tours arranged by World ARC. These turned out to be godsend and allowed us some breathing time in between all the officialdom. Of course, by the morning of our departure, Paw Paw had not been fumigated, as our timeslot had been changed and not communicated to us, while we were in the middle of enjoying one of the tours instead. After several new timeslots had been agreed, but to no avail, Elaine had no alternative, but to hunt down the event manager and “stalk” him until the fumigating company arrived and completed the task at hand within minutes of our scheduled departure.
Additionally, as the transit loamed, we were not happy with the raft configurations that had been collated by the organisers, as we had understood that all catamarans are usually placed in the middle with a monohull on either side, primarily since the catamarans have more power and manoeuvrability with twin engines. We had also spoken to a few other yachts that had been placed in strange configurations and agreement had been reached amongst the captains that, between all the yachts affected, we could create new, more standard raft configurations. However, when Elaine approached the organisers to raise the concerns and present the new idea, it was flatly rejected. Needless to say, when the Advisors boarded they laughed at what had been dictated and changed the individual raft configurations, working with what they had by then. In our case, two catamarans and a monohull, placing us and the monohull on the outside and opening us up to the potential for damage from flying monkey knots which could crack solar panels or hatches. With that, we had to undertake what precautions we could.
Of course, while hoping for an uneventful canal transit, reality dictated otherwise. We had to abort our first attempt at rafting to the centre catamaran as the crew on this yacht had no idea on how to tie off the lines. Then the captain of this yacht steered us straight into a channel marker, scrapping the whole side of Paw Paw. On entering the Gatun Lake, after multiple attempts of having the monohull tie us to the overnight mooring ball, it resorted to Paw Paw having to complete the task, with Keenan having to jump onto the mooring ball, while trying not fall into the crocodile infested waters. Then we had the incident of our starboard aft cleat snapping while transiting the last lock, a situation that was totally avoidable had the Advisers actually been doing their job and had the crew members on the middle yacht accurately communicated the necessary messages across the raft to the yacht on the port side. Fortunately no one was injured, but the task of finding a replacement cleat still eludes us. Add the fact that the Adviser on Paw Paw nearly ate us out of house and home, with Elaine essentially serving this individual food and drinks every few hours – dinner, dessert, breakfast, mid-morning snacks and finally lunch. It is fair to say, we were definitely relieved to see the Pacific Ocean as the gates opened on the final lock.
However, by the time we arrived in La Playita, on the Panama City side of the canal, we were saying goodbye to the family and commencing the endless list of chores again – Provisioning, cleaning, laundry, etc. and the inevitable hunt for propane, petrol and diesel, the latter of which was only acquired through Roy having to jerry can 500L via the dinghy, since the surge in the marina was such that trying to refuel on the dock proved impossible. Petrol was also not available at the Flamenco Yacht Club as previously advised and required a taxi ride to a petrol station a few miles away. With our diesel tanks only three-quarters full, we resigned ourselves to trying to get diesel in the Galapagos Islands, as the sought after liquid was not available in Contadora, Las Perlas either, as previously advised.
By the time we reached the Galapagos and had to deal with all the superfluous officialdom there, stress levels were through the roof and the dream was definitely not living up to expectations. Every anchorage or marina we had entered to this point resulted in resources being completely overwhelmed with 30+ World ARC yachts descending like locusts - Anchoring space, slip space, grocery stores, diesel, petrol, propane, laundry services, restaurants. It had reached the point where yachts were racing to the next destination, burning fuel, instead of sailing, in order to have the first pick of what little resources were available. It felt like we had joined a motor rally, not a sailing rally and, in many ways, it felt like the World ARC organisers were doing this for the first time. This impression was created by the amount of inaccurate information conveyed or pertinent information not conveyed as well as the general sense of disorganisation.
But then, all of a sudden, the pace slowed. Our Pacific Crossing became a little like “Groundhog Day” as each day became a day sail and we strived, with each passing nautical mile, to keep ourselves and Paw Paw safe, fit and able. We sailed conservatively and only motored when absolutely necessary so as not to burn our precious diesel. In the end our strategy paid off, as we arrived in Hiva Oa, in the Marquesas Islands, with almost full tanks of diesel, no breakages and no injuries – More than that, we simply could not ask for!
During the passage we did, however, have plenty of time to reflect on our experiences thus far, as well as consider our options for the remainder of our circumnavigation with the World ARC. By the time we reached Hiva Oa, we had made the decision to leave the World ARC in Tahiti in order to enjoy the full sailing season and explore the South Pacific islands at a more leisurely pace. Once we reach Tonga, we’ll make our way to New Zealand for the cyclone season, following which we will rejoin the World ARC in Fiji next year to complete our circumnavigation.
Aside from the specific experiences noted above, there were other World ARC rally oddities. These:
• The T&Cs, where no refunds are provided for yachts deciding to finish earlier than expected or who leave the fleet for a period of time in order to slow down and where Crew Fees are non-transferable between yachts as crew moved around, but had to be paid again
• Events, which were advertised as included, but where the food and drink was completely insufficient in catering for the number of people in attendance or, in some cases, just being absent altogether or functions that weren’t provided at all although originally included on the itinerary. The first sign of trouble in this area was before the start in St Lucia, at the Farewell Event. In excess of 170 people swarmed the poor servers as soon as they exited the kitchen with a single tray of snacks because it had been under catered and everyone was starving. Between us we managed to obtain two to three canapes each for the night. What was infuriating is that we had inquired ahead of time as to what the eating arrangements were and assurances were given that it would serve as a dinner – It was ridiculous really! The second sign was the potluck lunch arranged for the Rendezvous in Chichime. At this event, although catered for by the participants, the Event Manager decided to hold the Skippers Briefing while telling everyone else to enjoy the lunch. Needless to say, by the time we got to the tables, there was nothing left to eat!
• Additional marina costs that were not conveyed prior to the start of the rally, but rather understood to be included in the overall rally fees already paid. In some instances, known expenses like Shelter Bay, Panama, where all the yachts had to be in the marina in order to get all the paperwork completed for the transit, as well as be fumigated prior to arrival in the Galapagos Islands and the known costs associated with cruising permits, immigration fees and administration fees for the San Bas and Galapagos Islands, were not included in the overall fees
• Being charged $105US for a duty-free fuel permit in Hiva Oa, which can, in fact, be obtained for free in Tahiti by undertaking a short dinghy ride to the customs office in Papeete and serviced by extremely friendly and informative staff
• Not conveying pertinent information ahead of time, like having to remain onboard after a long passage because the officialdom had to be completed and either the officials were overstretched by the number of yachts arriving simultaneously or the rally agent was unavailable
• Their bizarre choice of anchorages, like Chichime in San Blas Islands, La Playita in Panama, Contadora in Las Perlas and Raiatea in the Society Islands, when other, much better ones, are available.
While the above has documented our frustrations, we have thoroughly enjoyed the comradery and friendships that we have fostered with many of the other World ARC participants. Like most things in life, it is the people that make the difference to one’s experience and while we’ll say goodbye to many newfound friends in Tahiti, we will also see many of them in New Zealand again and some next year as they too take a timeout of rejoin the rally next year to complete their circumnavigation. Our blog is full of the amazing stories and experiences that we could never have imagined in our wildest dreams and have helped us keep our overall experience in perspective; always remaining grateful for the lifestyle we are afforded! We do, however, believe, that expectations need to be better managed in order to bridge the gap between perception and reality. Our hope is that anyone reading this article, who is thinking of joining the World ARC, will have a much better idea of what is actually involved and what challenges need to be overcome in order to get the most out of the experience