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Sailing with purpose at the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers

Thursday, 05 September 2013

Three masons in a boat

What happens when you’re half way across the Atlantic and the engine dies? With two fellow Freemasons as travel companions, Bob Clitherow recounts the ups and downs of life on the ocean waves

Once caught, racing yachts offshore is a condition that is hard to cure. No matter how unpleasant the previous experience, the next challenge is always hard to resist. Famous must-do races include the Fastnet, Sydney Hobart, Newport Bermuda and Caribbean 600 (C600).

Adrian Lower’s yacht, Selene, is a classic Swan 44, designed by Sparkman & Stephens and built in 1973. She has competed in many events and in January 2012, a telephone call between Adrian and I went something like this: ‘I’ve entered Selene for the C600.’ ‘Fantastic, I’m on for that. But, how are you getting her there?’ ‘You’re doing the ARC!’

Plotting a course

The ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) is a popular way for yachts to cross the Atlantic in company. In November 2012, more than two hundred and ten gathered in Gran Canaria with the aim of sailing across some two thousand seven hundred miles to Saint Lucia. Of these, Selene was one of twenty-three competing in the racing division. This was certainly going to be a challenge.

The usual route is to head southwest towards Cape Verde and pick up the trade winds across to the Caribbean. But a storm system in the North Atlantic meant that we would have to stay north. The first few days would see headwinds of thirty knots, causing a two-day delay for the cruiser fleet and an uneasy dockside atmosphere.

The original plan was to sail with a crew of eight. However, two dropped out a month or so before the start and on the night before the race, the sixth crew member took fright. So, it was a ‘grown-up conversation’ between the five remaining crew on the morning of the start. Our decision was to ‘sail with purpose’, rather than race hard, and keep within a reasonable comfort zone.

The three helmsmen would be Adrian, Rob Thomas – a student from Plymouth University – and me, and we would do a watch system of two hours on and four off. Rob would also oversee the bow and me the navigation. Kevin Artley and Lily, Adrian’s daughter, were to do three hours on and three off. This was a challenging watch system, but there wasn’t much choice.

Three of us are Freemasons. Adrian was initiated into Royal Sussex Lodge, No. 402, in Nottinghamshire. He is a member of the Lodge of Peace & Harmony, No. 60, Recorder of Grand Metropolitan Chapter, No. 1 (Rose Croix), and Scribe E of Australia Chapter, No. 6505. Kevin was initiated into Farringdon Without Lodge, No. 1745, and is now an active joining member of Carnarvon Lodge, No. 1739, in Derbyshire. He has also joined Australia Chapter, No. 6505. I was initiated into Old Malvernian Lodge, No. 4363, London, am a member of both Grand Masters’ Chapter, No. 1, and Grand Masters’ Lodge, No. 1, a member of Grand Metropolitan Chapter, No. 1 (Rose Croix), and a founder of Amici Concilii Chapter, No. 1204 (Rose Croix).

To say that the first few days of the race were pleasant would be a lie. Heavy seas caused damage above and below deck but by day four, the winds had gone around to the east and Selene was making good progress.

The ocean is a very large place and on leaving the Canaries, we only saw two other competitors and three ships during the entire trip. However, weather information and position reports were available via a satellite phone, and knowing where the opposition was proved to be a good means of encouraging us to keep pushing on.

As life on board settled, it became apparent that a storm system was developing ahead. Selene’s immediate rivals, Scarlet Oyster and Persephone of London, dived south. Determined to sail less distance, we carried on. When it arrived, the first front brought constant rain and winds up to thirty-eight knots in the squalls. At its height, Selene coped admirably in gusts of forty-eight knots and, not for the first time, the crew were thankful of her sound design.

Testing times

But the storm wasn’t the problem. The ‘Apollo 13’ moment came the next day when the engine refused to start. So, no more water maker or charging batteries. With one thousand two hundred miles still to go to Saint Lucia and seven hundred and fifty back to Cape Verde, the crew were more than a little concerned. Fortunately, there was just enough water on board, if used carefully, and the use of power was cut to an absolute minimum. The navigation system became a handheld GPS gaffer taped to the binnacle!

The winds hardly dropped below twenty knots for the whole trip. So, any plans we might have had for catching the odd tuna and making sashimi had to be forgotten.

After sixteen days at sea, five tired sailors arrived in Saint Lucia to be greeted with rum punch and the news that we had actually finished fourth overall. We had also finished second in class, sixteen hours behind Scarlet on corrected time, and eighteen minutes ahead of Persephone – a gratifying result.


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