CARIBBEAN 1500 RALLY: They Leave Without Me

Caribbean 1500 rally start 2011

I decided I had to pull the plug on my participation in this year’s Caribbean 1500 on Wednesday afternoon after rally HQ announced they were postponing the start once again until this morning. I was reluctant to do this, but the “squash zone” between my prospective arrival time in the BVI and the Thanksgiving holiday was getting a little too tight for comfort. I flew home yesterday, and today I’m following the rally start a bit wistfully via the tracking feature on the rally website.

I felt especially bad leaving Larry and Cathy on Katahdin short one crew member on such short notice, particularly after all they’d been through getting their rudder bearing repaired in time for the start, but such are the vicissitudes of the rally game. There were several boats that had to make last-minute crew changes after Wednesday’s postponement, and there was something of scramble as skippers tried to fill holes in their rosters. Fortunately, Larry and Cathy were able to find a replacement for me.

Anti-seasickness goggles
One reason I wanted to try these was because they make me look so cool!

We parted on good terms, and I look forward to seeing them next year when they return to Maine. Meanwhile, I’ve bequeathed them my new anti-seasickness goggles (endorsed by the French navy), which I had planned to try out for the comic during our passage south. Hopefully, they’ll have a chance to test them for me during their winter in the W’Indies.

Trop. Storm Sean surface analysis
Surface analysis as of this morning

The reason for the extra day’s postponement had to do, of course, with the storm named Sean, which parked for several days right on our rhumb line to Tortola. Soon after my last post it became an unambiguous tropical storm, and was even threatening to briefly achieve hurricane status when the final postponement was announced. In the end, the rally organizers decided they weren’t willing to send the fleet out in front of the cold front that was due to sweep the storm away.

NARC Fleet Drama

One of the things everyone down in Hampton was talking about on Wednesday was the fate of another rally, the North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC), which departed from Newport, Rhode Island, bound for Bermuda (and thence to St. Maarten) on November 1. It seemed clear from news reports online that portions of this fleet had been caught in strong weather and that at least one boat had been abandoned. Steve Black and Davis Murray were also spreading the word in Hampton that as many as three NARC boats might have been dismasted.

This morning I called Hank Schmitt, organizer of the NARC, who also sailed in the rally aboard a Swan 48, Avocation. He told me that when the rally fleet intially departed Newport, after waiting two days per the advice of Susan Genett of RealWeather, they had a good five-day forecast. He also confirmed that one boat, Elle, a 46-foot Beneteau, had been abandoned.

Sailboat evacuation
Evacuation of Elle/Photo by Christopher Melrose

Though there were reports the crew called for an evacuation due to a steering failure, Hank said the owner, Foster Ashton, told him after reaching Bermuda via container ship that the steering had been repaired prior to the evacuation. Hank said as far as he knows the boat was in good condition when it was abandoned, except that the mast was damaged when the container ship, Oleander, came alongside to take the crew off. One crew member was thrown across the cockpit and suffered some cracked ribs prior to the evacuation. Another slipped overboard and spent half an hour in the water, caught between Elle and Oleander, during the evacuation, but was successfully retrieved.

Another NARC boat, Riot, also suffered a steering failure, but its young crew, led by 23-year-old Coleman Bowen, succeeded in bringing the boat to Bermuda regardless. According to Bowen: “We lost steering three times in three different ways.” Unfortunately, the boat suffered serious damage after the local pilot boat attempted to take it in tow to bring it through the cut into St. Georges Harbor. In the end, the crew brought Riot into port unassisted.

Riot in St. Georges
Crew aboard Riot in St. Georges/Photo by Tamell Simons

Hank denied that any NARC boats had been dismasted, though a few diverted to the U.S. East Coast and one bypassed Bermuda and is now en route to the West Indies. (You can see NARC SPOT tracks here and a partial account of the rally’s fate from its shore controller here.) One boat, he said, is currently unaccounted for. Triple Stars, an Island Packet 38 with an experienced crew but no SPOT tracker aboard, is believed to be north of Bermuda, waiting for favorable wind.

Right now the consensus among NARC boats and others in Bermuda, according to Hank, is that volunteer weather-router Herb Hilgenberg was a fount of bad advice. The boats in the NARC fleet that had the hardest time reaching Bermuda were those taking guidance from Herb, Hank told me. This includes Triple Stars, the crew of which were allegedly advised by Herb to not sail south toward Bermuda when they had the wind to do so.

“Herb really blew it this year,” said Hank. “Herb gives great weather forecasts, but I don’t think people should listen to his advice on where to go.”

I reached out to Herb for a response to this and just received the following e-mail:

Hello Charlie.

I think you should talk to skippers of yachts that made the passage to Bermuda starting between November 1st and 2nd, such as Ghost Boat, White Wings, Cimmaron, Mantra, Relentless, still in Bermuda, to mention just a few, and NARC yacht ELLE which was abandoned, Boonastra and S/Y Triple Star (still in transit), of the NARC Rally.

The NARC Rally should never have started on Nov.1 to begin with, and I believe Hank Schmitt is looking for someone to take the blame for his bad decision. Ask him why NARC S/Y SONG was in severe storm condition at  33:34N/69:30W when he activated 2 EPIRBS requiring a Coast Guard C130 to head to his position. I was requested to give advice to get him out of the severe conditions which, I did. He should never have been were he was, possibly because he did not listen to my advice to others, to stay well east. I kept most yachts who I was in contact with well east and north of 36N-37N initially, with heavy weather to the south and they arrived safely in Bermuda. Some smaller yachts had to head west later to avoid T.S. Sean.

ELLE did not follow my advice and he admitted that to me in writing.

I have solid evidence to substantiate my actions and based on that, I firmly believe that Hank Schmitt should have delayed the rally altogether.



Fixed HF Marine Land Station VAX498

(Editor’s note: I should also mention that Hank told me that Song‘s EPIRB alert was accidental.)

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9 Responses
  1. Ducky

    Last year, the Caribbean 1500 was delayed just over a week, while waiting for Hurricane Tomas to make up it mind ’bout what it was going to do next. The same last minute hustling for replacement crew occurred. The boat’s owner upon which I crewed, listened religiously to Herb’s advice, when we had mercifully finally gone out to sea. We were not mistakenly led into any heavy weather. However, the owner rather foolishly decided to divert far from the rhumb for two days, in expections of more favorable wind which he heard forecast for that area, and of course never appeared once we attained that very out of way position.

  2. Marc Dacey

    Every skipper is responsible for the “go/no go” decision. I’m made a delivery through these very waters, exactly two years ago in early November, 2009. Some three Swan 53s were in the Carib 1500 within 50-75 NM of us and to my knowledge, two of them had to retire to Bermuda with broken stays due to the hammer and anvil effect of a very deep and extensive trough and Hurricane Ida.

    So while we certainly weren’t in the race, we were among the racers, and several of them became familiar voices on the SSB during Herb H.’s daily round-up and individual forecasts.

    Herb H. was a constant and reliable advisor and our skipper on his Bristol 45.5 did not consider him an infalliable god of forecasting, but rather as a very experienced and sober second opinion in conditions that were frequently squally and hard on boat and crew.

    (continued next message)

  3. Marc Dacey

    If any sailor coming out of this 2011 experience finds Herb inaccurate or misleading, they have only themselves to blame, as his forecasts are freely given (and I must emphasize that there is no cost to his services as he considers them a hobby) and are based on reportage from vessels already at sea. The quality of his individual forecasts for the small areas sailing vessels can cross daily is directly proportional to the quality of input he is getting from what consistute widely spaced, amateur weather observers.

    For us, he was a reassuring voice during a tough, if educational, passage to the USVIs.

    (continued next message)

  4. I participated in 2010 skippering OSPREY an Oyster 53, leaving Newport for BDA and St. M. We looked at multiple wx sources and decided to leave Sat. instead of Sunday with fleet. See my article, “What a Difference a Day Makes!” in Blue Water Sailing April for details. My trip went well, fast even. NARC fleet delayed a week or more with further complications. Moral: sail your own course, make your own decisions based on best info, and avoid adhering to schedules. A Yogiism.. is valid…. ‘When it’s time to go, It’s time to go!!’
    On Herb… I find his information useful though a bit too chatty for my taste. He is a bit conservative. If you are heading into the Ocean, don’t expect a lake. Some adversity comes with the territory, and should be welcomed as a challenge and dealt with in a seamanlike fashion. Fair Winds!

  5. Jim Gregory

    Again, (similar comment in another post), I believe that Herb has been the victim of others attempt to deflect blame from themselves. Those boats should never have been out there when they were.

    If as the organizers claim they had a good five day forecast, that forecast turned out to be far worse than any advice Hank had to offer.

    I was in Bermuda on my boat as the NARC boats arrive. None of them made it in before it got ugly offshore.

    Hank tried to help, but these people were the victims of very bad advice long before he got involved.

  6. Bill Fraser-Harris

    Just to clear up a few errors in recollections. I was skipper on Namaste, aJ54 DS in the NARC and was lucky enough to make it to BDA in 3.5 days and ahead of the storm. Two or three other boats did make it in before the ____ hit the fan. We were warned before the start of a yet unformed possibility of a developing low and the faster boats were given a clearer window. It was sheer fate and possibly a touch of hubris that landed so many boats in difficulty. No matter who’s company you are in you always make your own informed decisions with information from more than one source.

  7. eric freedman

    I left Long a day before the Narc Fleet and sailed as per Herbs Instructions.
    When the storm started heading our way Herb suggested we had east and not south. We almost mad it to 60 degrees west before heading south. Were the seas and winds high, Yes. were we prepared for this weather, yes. We experienced a few days of nasty weather but nothing terrible possibly gusting to 50. but mostly in the 35-40 knot range. After all it is the North Atlantiv in winter.

    I have been using Herb either on my boat or previously on other boats forabout 20 years and I find his advice spot on.

    Ulyimately I am the cptain of my ship and am responsible for what happens, however without herb, life would be much more difficult.

    We made it to St Maarten nonstop and about a week ahead of the NARC fleet. I will use Herb as my guardian Angel as long as he wishes to offer all of his free time to us ocean sailors.
    Fair Winds

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