WEATHER WINDOW ROULETTE: Races and Rallies and Rolling the Dice

16 Nov

Mini Transat start

We all know how this goes: the very worst thing you can have on a boat–worse than women, bananas, or priests even–is a schedule. Yet most of us sail to a schedule, for various reasons, and sometimes suffer as a result. This fall has been particularly interesting, as the usual gamut of cruising rallies here in the U.S. and shorthanded ocean races over in Europe have sought to evade the clutches of the coming winter.

Exhibit A: the Caribbean 1500. For the second year in a row my SAILfeed compadre Andy Schell, who now wrangles the rally for the World Cruising Club, has had the cojones not to postpone the rally start, but to “prepone” it (so to speak) by setting his ducks loose upon the waters a day before the scheduled start (on November 2 instead of November 3) so as not to miss a promising weather window.

Caribbean 1500 start

Happy campers in the Caribbean 1500 start

This approach is admirably reality-based. When trying to find a weather window for sailing south from the East Coast in late October or early November, setting a fixed departure date is mostly delusional. What you want is more of a departure zone, and you should be willing to go early or late as conditions dictate.

Which brings us to Exhibit B: the Salty Dawg Rally. This loosy-goosey Caribbean 1500 breakaway group, which prides itself on not really sailing to a schedule, somehow managed to miss the weather window that Andy took advantage of. As you’ve probably heard, a number of Dawgs got wedgied by a cold front while crossing the Gulf Stream, resulting in five distress calls to the Coast Guard, a helicopter evacuation, one presumably sunken vessel, two dismastings, several broken rudders, and one broken arm.

This, I think, says something about group psychology. That is: if you are determined to sail in a group offshore, you should understand that a group of people can make a bad decision as easily as an individual can (see, e.g., the U.S. Congress), and that it therefore might be wise to join a group that enjoys some adult supervision.

Over in Europe, meanwhile, what we’ve seen is two major ocean races that have endured major postponements so as to keep competitors safe. The Mini Transat, featuring a very large fleet of tiny 21-footers sailed by singlehanders, was set to start October 13 out of Douarnenez, France, but was postponed for an entire month and didn’t actually start until November 13 (see photo up top) due to an incessant string of gales that swept through the Bay of Biscay.

The Transat Jacques Vabre, meanwhile, with a smaller fleet of larger boats, saw its start out of Le Havre postponed from November 3 to November 7.

Transat Jacques Vabre start

The TJV fleet, including 26 Class 40s, off at last

Frankly, I find this incredibly encouraging. For many years, the standard operating procedure in these big Euro events that start out of or near the Bay of Biscay in the fall has been to send big fleets of boats out into the teeth of fierce gales, then wring hands over all the casualties suffered in the first 48 hours. Race organizers are to be commended for finally accepting that there is no disgrace in delaying a start.

Next maybe they’ll figure out that they should start their races from somewhere further south.


  1. Pingback: Armchair critics | Hurrah, here we go . . .

  2. Greg Leonard

    This post does a significant injustice to the Salty Dawg Rally and, at least with respect to any lessons learned from this year’s East Coast Fall departures, does a disservice to your readers. The Salty Dawg rally this year was not an example of “Weather Window Roulette” or “Rolling the dice.”

    You criticize rallies that sail to a schedule and, despite acknowledging that the Salty Dawg Rally doesn’t sail to a schedule, criticize the supposed “group decision” not to leave when the Caribbean 1500 left. You say “setting a fixed departure date is mostly delusional. What you want is more of a departure zone, and you should be willing to go early or late as conditions dictate. Which brings us to Exhibit B: the Salty Dawg Rally.”

    We can agree on this first part of that statement, but using the Salty Dawg Rally as a bad example is misinformed. I participated in the Salty Dawg rally. There was no group decision to leave or not to leave on any day at any Salty Dawg meeting I attended or any Salty Dawg communication I received. A little research from the Salty Dawg website suggests that boats left from 2 November to 8 November. This is a “departure zone” if there ever was one. Suggesting that the Salty Dawg rally fits your mold of a bad example is absurd.

    Further, the decision to leave on Saturday the 2nd was far from clear and your purported “promising weather window” was seriously questioned by Chris Parker at the time. Whether you personally like his services, he is a well-respected and widely-followed professional forecaster. Late Friday evening, his forecast called the conditions for a Saturday departure “stiff” and reported “you’ll have 3 days, possibly 4 days, of roughly 30g38k winds and seas building from 10’/7sec to 13’/11sec”. I do not personally know how the conditions turned out for boats leaving Saturday, but that is far from the “promising weather window” you suggest.

    In fact, a number of boats signed up for the Salty Dawg Rally did leave Saturday. Yet, however the conditions actually developed, not leaving Saturday was hardly the result of “somehow manag[ing] to miss the weather window that Andy took advantage of” or of not being part of a “group that enjoys some adult supervision.” Those are outrageous misstatements.

    Chris Parker gave a significantly better forecast for boats leaving on Tuesday and Wednesday. Along with at least a dozen or so other boats, we left Tuesday the 5th also missing the “promising weather window” and had 2.5 days upwind in 10-30kts with gusts in a few squalls in the 30s. It was lumpy, but the waves weren’t especially large and the conditions weren’t extreme. Knowing what I know now, I would leave again on Tuesday rather than Saturday with the Caribbean 1500.

    We made our own informed decision on when to leave. The Salty Dawg organizers through Chris Parker made a lot of weather information available. It informed our decision, but my crew and I alone own the decision on when to leave. That is how it should be. I would have to overcome significant misgivings before joining any rally that wanted to make that decision for me by setting the date and time for departure. Far from “loosey goosey”, the Salty Dawgs tried to run a rally as you described you wished for. I’d sign up again.

    You and I agree that folks should make informed decisions about departure dates and not sail to tight schedules. If you want to criticize the Salty Dawg rally, take the time to research the facts about what happened and the specifics of the boats that had problems and then provide some reality-based commentaries. It was a rough passage for many and a number of boats beyond those you cite apparently suffered damage. There might be real lessons to learn. I realize that one of Sailfeed’s contributors runs the US rallies for the World Cruising Club, but please take the time to correct this post.

    Note that other than my participation in the rally, I am in no way affiliated with the Salty Dawg rally.


    Greg Leonard

    SV Hurrah

  3. Erik Schaefer

    Hear, hear Charlie. Even among cruisers unassociated with rallies, we consistently observe that the same kind of group-think develops. In mid-to late October in the South Pacific, packs of anxious cruisers begin forming in local bars with wifi connectivity. They huddle around computer screens, work each other into a lather about weather windows and convince themselves that it’s absolutely necessary to venture out prematurely into the southern Tasman Sea. Perversely, a lot of the most idiotic schedule anxiety appears to be driven by insurance policies with coverage restrictions designed to reduce risk to insurers by keeping boats out of cyclone-prone areas during statistically risky months of the year. The math on all this works out well for the insurers, since lots of minor damage on a rough passage is probably below the deductible level or at least less costly than a periodic cyclone loss. However, it condemns a lot of folks to bloody miserable passages south before things start to settle down in Mid-November. No doubt similar foolishness occurs in the Caribbean. Cheers, Erik

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