Like many people who may be reading this, I have a dream of circumnavigating the world by sailboat. There are many ways this can look, but for me - proper preparation felt like the key to having a safe and enjoyable experience. One of the most valuable things I did to prepare for sailing, was to take a sailing course with Cruisers Academy. This is more than points of sail, knots and telltales. I felt like it was post graduation from high school and I was out in the real world learning hands on from people who have been doing it for years. Not only do they know sailing, but the folks at Cruisers Academy know every detail of what it’s like to live and travel on a sailboat. Whether you're sailing around the world or taking the family on a sailing vacation, Cruisers Academy is the best place to learn to sail.
After my sailing course, I had my eyes set on crossing my first ocean. I had heard of the ARC Rally from some of my sailing friends throughout the years, which led me to a website called www.oceancrewlink.com which is specifically geared toward matching crew members with boats for rallies such as the ARC.
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is an annual rally for sailors looking to make an offshore passage. It starts in the Canary Islands on Gran Canaria, crosses the Atlantic Ocean and ends on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. The passage totals about 3,000+ nautical miles and takes 2-3 weeks. The rally originally started in 1986 and has since evolved into a popular way for folks to find like-minded people to safely cross an ocean with. Joining the ARC allows individuals to make their offshore sailing dreams come true while staying safe and having an abundance of support. The World Cruising Club helps organize safety, training, tracking and a number of other valuable ways to make the passage a memorable experience.
Long story short, I used this site to become a member on a Hanse 505 out of Great Britain, with a crew of nine. All together we had one Canadian, one Norwegian, six Brits, and I was the solo American. We had a successful passage in the ARC in November/December of 2022, so I thought I would share my ARC experience from the point of view as a Cruisers Academy alumni. I could get into all of the stories and details but will instead stay focused on the “What to Know” for those looking to join offshore passages as crew.
1. Time - Don’t count on it!
First, it’s imperative to know that this is sailing and you have to hope for the best but expect the worst. Sailing is centered around many elements inherently outside of our control. The wind, weather, Neptune, and many other factors dictate how each moment of a multi-week adventure will go. One should always prepare for a longer-than-expected journey. Many people get caught in unfortunate planning scenarios when they make assumptions on a hard end or return date from an offshore passage. A prime example of this in our case, on the ARC, was one of our crew members had to reschedule his flight home three times using only text-based satellite messages through his Garmin InReach. Instead of our expected 18-day crossing, we were at sea for almost 23 days. This factor is noteworthy because many people have jobs they need to get back to but sticking to exact dates for long passages is nearly impossible. Therefore it is wise to make a plan for your passage that accounts for this and includes extra time buffers to accommodate predictable changes based on weather and boat mishaps.
2. Do you need to know how to sail?
Prior experience on a sailboat, or any boat for that matter, is valuable yet not always required to join an offshore passage as crew. It can be very beneficial and clearly contribute to the passage, but is not always the determining factor of what makes a good crew member. Certain skippers will require it, but many recognize the value in other skills and experience that can contribute to a positive team dynamic on an offshore sailing passage. Crossing an ocean has a lot to do with sailing but it also involves lots of cooking, cleaning, communicating, dealing with odd sleep patterns, fixing things, having thick skin and a sense of humor. This is why it’s best to always be honest about what sailing courses or experience you have, as well as any other skills that may be valuable on a small boat in the middle of an Ocean. To this point, one of our least-experienced crew members (in a sailing-sense) was one of the best members of the crew. This is one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my Cruisers Academy sailing course, is that each person can have their own speciality that when merged with the rest of the members, leads to a very strong crew.
3. Mindset is key!
A quote I learned in my Cruisers Academy sailing course, is to “leave your ego at the dock”, a statement that continually gained meaning for me along this trans-atlantic voyage. Approaching everything with a beginners mindset means you will get the most out of the experience. This includes being open minded, positive, optimistic and knowing nothing will go perfectly. Asking questions will also show interest and will prevent misunderstandings and potential mistakes in fast-paced moments. Almost nothing will be perfect during a passage. There will be highs and lows and you must know going into the ARC, or any offshore passage, and having a positive mindset will make the trip not only enjoyable but safe for you and the other members of the crew journey but for all the necessary tasks involved in making the trip worthwhile for you and the other members of the crew
4. The art of packing…
On a sailboat, one’s goals should be to pack light but be prepared. That means having the following: a headlamp with extra batteries, your own lifejacket or PFD, knife, deck shoes, watch, quick drying clothing, sunglasses, sailing gloves, foul weather gear, etc. Do some research on the general weather patterns and the area at that time of year. You will be surprised how many people don’t bring a watch or headlamp and constantly ask you what time it is or if they can borrow your headlamp. This can also be something worth checking in with the skipper before making an offshore passage: what things do they have available on the boat and what gear is expected of the crew to bring themselves. Sidebar: Check to see if the boat has working fans, I just assumed that my boat would but I was wrong. It was the first sailboat I had ever been on that didn’t have fans and the crew paid for it. It was hot and difficult to get airflow which affected our sleep.
5. Clear expectations lead to success!
Know what is expected of you and have a conversation with the Captain well before you agree to join the ARC or an off-shore passage. This will give you a better idea of what your daily routine on the boat will be. Are you expected to cook, clean, do boat work? Will you be trained and trusted for night watch and weather routing? Will you be actively involved in decision making for the offshore passage or be directed what to do without an explanation? My favorite part about my Cruisers Academy sailing course is that every sail plan, anchorage, sail change, and decision was discussed by the entire crew and decided upon together.
Other discussions that need to be clearly defined are knowing what financial contributions are needed. For example, my ARC passage was structured as sort of a charter type meaning you pay upfront and everything is included (ARC fee, food, etc.) Be sure to ask if you can stay on the boat for the days leading up to the passage and be clear if you are able to stay on the boat for a few days after you arrive in port. In my ARC experience, this was an issue for our crew. Every crew member was told that they could stay on the boat in Saint Lucia until our departing flights. That ended up not being true and people had to find accommodations off the boat. Some port towns can be very expensive, as was the case with Saint Lucia, and if you are a poor backpack-style traveler like myself, the food can be expensive and there may be zero hostels on the island.
6. Starter pack of good questions to ask:
Here are some questions I did ask, and some I wish I would have asked before sailing in the ARC, if you have any you’d like to add, please add them to the comments below!
What is the sailing experience of the Captain? How many nautical miles do they have? A Captains license or similar qualification isn’t a must but doesn't hurt.
What is the safety equipment aboard? Never go on an offshore passage in a boat that doesn't have a life raft (that isn’t past its service date), ditch kit, and EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon).
Will we be doing man overboard drills and other safety checks before we leave the dock?
What sailing courses or sailing experience do you expect from me?
Is there a functioning water maker aboard?
Are there any upcoming repairs on the boat I should be aware of?
Do we plan on using the autopilot? We hand steered the entire ARC, 3,380 miles!
What will the watch schedule be? Will we be solo or in teams?
Do you have fishing gear? Can we fish? What condition is your gear in?
Be sure to share any dietary restrictions you have.
Will there be drinking/smoking underway? Red flag if so!
Will we have an opportunity to swim in the ocean during the passage?
Will we have to wear our life jackets at all times?
Are we required to wear shoes on deck at all times?
Finally, know that this is an adventure that you will remember for the rest of your life, so be good to your crew members. They are like family and even though families fight, they make up and they will be with you forever. I still text and call most of the crew members and will have them in my life for a long time to come.
Since writing this blog, Terry has also crossed the Pacific and beyond! Follow his adventures on Instagram at Couch910
If you'd like to join a Cruisers Academy sailing course in the Sea of Cortez, click here to see available dates or join our offshore waitlist!