Over the last few years we have been involved with several rallies and offshore sailing events and have literally seen thousands of sailors take off on passages. We are one of the founding sponsors of the Salty Dawg Rally that last fall had 116 boats in the fleet. For years we were the sponsor of the Caribbean 1500, but are no longer affiliated with that group. We have been sponsors of the Pacific Cup and the Chesapeake to New England Rally. And recently we joined forces with Jimmy Cornell to be an official media partner with the Blue Planet Odyssey around the world rally.
All of these events take their participants offshore in a rally format that provides for camaraderie, communications and some measure of safety. All of these offshore rallies involve a fee for the services they provide with the exception of the Salty Dawg Rally, which is free.
Rallies attract a wide range of sailors and in some instances an offshore rally will be a skipper’s and crew’s first long blue water passage. That makes sense since rallies offer a great way for novices to learn from their more experienced peers. Yet it is surprising how many crews show up without having made even a two- or three-day passage offshore to shake down their boats, practiced with their radios and other communications, and got the beginnings of their sea legs.
Being involved with the Salty Dawg Rally, we have had a lot of discussions about whether we should allow sailors with no offshore experience to join the rally. It is a 1,350 mile passage in the North Atlantic in late fall with the first 36 hours being a crossing of the Gulf Stream—a challenging stretch of water. Should that be a crew’s first blue water experience? In the end, the SDR is a free rally for cruisers so all we do is suggest they go with anther rally or get some more practical experience before they set off for the Caribbean.
The real issue is sea time. If you want to get your 100-ton commercial captain’s license, you have to prove to the Coast Guard that you have 360 days operating vessels. The point of that requirement is simply that it takes a lot of time—sea time—to become a truly competent, self sufficient sailor or seaman who has seen a wide range of weather conditions and boat problems.
So, what should new cruisers do to get the same kind of experience? The very best way is to make many short passages aboard the boat you will eventually sail offshore. Take long weekend “sails to nowhere” by setting off on Friday straight to sea, sail for 36 hours offshore and then turn around and sail back home on Sunday afternoon. Consider making a non-stop circumnavigation of the DelMarVa Peninsula or around Catalina Island and back. Go out sailing when it is blowing 25 so you can learn how your boat behaves in wind and seas and how to get it to heave to.
If you are thinking of heading offshore in a rally or on your own, don’t make the first step the big one. Learn to walk before you run. And that takes sea time. A lot of it.