Cruising in company

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Rallies, cruises induce confidence

Rallies and other organized cruises give less-experienced boaters and veterans alike the confidence to stretch their horizons.

Dick Petrait has for decades dreamed of cruising Alaska’s Inside Passage. It’s no wonder. From Canada’s Gulf Islands north to southeastern Alaska, the region is replete with snow-capped mountains, lush forested islands and 3,000-foot cliffs. The picturesque coast and pristine waters lure cruisers year after year.

Read the other story in this package: Cruising - Trans-Atlantic log

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flown over the area between Seattle and Alaska, and every time I think: Gosh, it’s so beautiful. I’d love to cruise that passage some day,” says 58-year-old Petrait, a business owner from Seattle.

But in the five years Petrait and his wife, Kathy, have owned their Grand Banks 42 Classic, Solar Star, they haven’t strayed far from their home waters, venturing only as far as Desolation Sound off Vancouver Island, about 200 miles north of Seattle. Petrait says the major obstacles to making the passage are the time it takes to plan and prepare for the cruise, and his concern about being able to fix a mechanical problem should one occur under way … that is, until now. The Petraits are going to participate in Grand Banks’ Grand Tour 2006: Inside Passage, an organized three-week cruise for Grand Banks owners that kicks off in mid-May.

“If it wasn’t for the tour, we wouldn’t be making the passage,” admits Petrait. “I know a little about boats and about mechanics, but I have difficulty sometimes fixing certain things on board. On the tour we’ll be with a knowledgeable group of boaters, some of whom have done this before. I think it’ll be nice to have that helping hand, and maybe we’ll make some new friends, too.”

Organized cruises — whether sponsored by boatbuilders, yacht clubs or owner associations — help first-time cruisers broaden their horizons while in the company of their peers. “There’s definitely comfort in numbers and confidence-building for first-timers,” says Susan Bland, executive director and organizer of the Grand Banks event. “Organized cruises offer social advantages, and they provide a real adventure for everyone involved.”

Despite the “safety net” of voyaging en masse, participants still need to hone their seamanship skills and make sure their boats are properly prepared before getting under way.

“There is the perception that going in a group creates a safety net from perils of the sea, breakdowns and more,” says Tom Neale, Soundings technical editor, who has lived aboard and cruised full time for more than 25 years. “Sometimes this perception gives a false and dangerous sense of security. This is an unrealistic perception. When bad weather hits, for example, you’ll probably be very much on your own. No one should go on a cruise unless he has good seamanship and related skills, a good boat, good equipment, and knows how to use them and deal with the problems.”

From exploring the Bay of Fundy and America’s Great Loop to crossing an ocean, here’s a look at four organized cruises and one cruising association that continue to inspire boaters to weigh anchor and follow their dreams.

Nordhavn Atlantic Rally

Arguably one of the most ambitious organized cruises was the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally, which saw a fleet of 18 trawlers (mostly Nordhavns) cross the Atlantic in 2004. Two groups of boats — a “slow” fleet and a “fast” fleet — made staggered starts out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in mid-May, stopping in Bermuda and the Azores before finishing more than 40 days later in the Straits of Gibraltar.

Nordhavn executives had hoped the first-of-its-kind 3,800-mile rally for powerboats would encourage more people to expand their cruising horizons. And it apparently did. Ken Williams and his wife, Roberta, had cruised the Pacific Northwest and the Mediterranean aboard their Nordhavn 62, Sans Souci, but had never attempted a run of longer than eight hours. (They had the yacht shipped to and from the Mediterranean.)

“We had been boating for decades but never out of sight of land,” says Williams, 52, a retired software entrepreneur from Seattle. “The rally allowed us to take on a greater challenge than we would have considered on our own, and now that we’ve done it we have no hesitation to venture out on our own again.” (See companion story on the Williamses.)

One way Pacific Asian Enterprises — the Dana Point, Calif., builder of Nordhavn trawlers and organizer of the event — helped ease fears during the cruise was by providing a number of services, including daily weather briefings, emergency fuel reserves for boat-to-boat transfer, towing, a diver for underwater repairs, and daily roll calls. PAE also had physicians on board a number of the boats in case of medical emergencies, as well as shore staff to assist with governmental formalities, provisioning and on-shore group activities.

All boats were required to pass an inspection and had to meet equipment requirements. PAE also had mechanics on lead and chase vessels to provide technical support for en-route repairs, and their services were needed on several occasions.

“The slower group had some major issues,” says Williams. “A Nordhavn 40 took a wave that knocked out its inverters. This led to a variety of electrical problems, and clobbered its stabilizers. Fortunately, a Nordhavn technician from another boat was able to reach the boat in distress and do some rewiring on the electrical system.”

He says another boat fouled its prop in a fishing net, and a diver had to remove it in heavy seas. “Without Nordhavn’s service managers along, there were some boats that would have had really bad days, and several that would have been stuck in port for weeks waiting on repairs,” says Williams.

The journey had its highs and lows — from water balloon fights between crews to coping with boredom on the final leg — but Williams says the cruise was one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life. After the rally he and his wife pressed on alone and cruised from Gibraltar to Mallorca, Spain. “We felt we had really graduated as boaters,” he says.

Though Williams says he has “tremendous respect” for cruisers who cross oceans on their own, he says he wouldn’t make such an ambitious passage outside the security of an organized event.

“If you are 1,000 miles from shore and have a problem — medical or mechanical — it is going to take a long time for help to come in your direction,” he says. “There is also safety traveling in numbers. In some parts of the world pirates can be a factor. Multiple boats traveling together are less likely to be a target.”

Depending on the size of their boats, skippers paid between $5,000 and $9,000 to participate in the rally. For more information, visit www.nordhavn.com .

Grand Tour 2006

Grand Tour 2006: Inside Passage is part of Grand Banks’ 50th anniversary celebration and sets off May 14 from Poets Cove Resort in Bedwell Harbor, British Columbia.

Following the Puget Sound Grand Banks Owners Association annual rendezvous, 18 to 20 Grand Banks yachts will cruise 850 miles to Wrangell, Alaska. Participants then can return to Seattle with the group or continue cruising Alaskan waters on their own.

“I remember when my husband and I began cruising up north, we started seeing different types of boats, especially Grand Banks,” says cruise organizer Bland. “It was great. We began pushing our envelope as boaters and haven’t looked back.”

The tour was organized much like the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally, and each boat must pass a “Ship Systems Checklist” in which a mechanic and the skipper review all systems. And Grand Banks employees and mechanics will be on hand during the cruise for support.

Weather permitting, the itinerary includes stops in such locations as Sullivan Bay, Bella Bella and Klemtu in British Columbia, and Ketchikan, Alaska. At each destination the more than 60 cruisers will participate in organized activities ashore. For instance, in Wrangell, Alaska, participants will be able to take a jetboat cruise up the Stikine River, where Bland says they’ll see glaciers, hot springs and wildlife. In Klemtu, they’ll meet members of the Kitasoo-Xaixais First Nation tribe.

“A lot of people can stop in Klemtu but won’t have the chance to meet the people living there like we will,” Bland says. “This cruise provides a lot of insider opportunities, and a lot of chances for us to get to know each other better, too.”

One person looking forward to getting to know fellow Grand Banks owners is Blake Cowan. “Any time on a boat with good people is a good time, right?” says the 51-year-old from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Cowan is no rookie cruiser, having co-skippered a 48-foot cutter-rigged Maple Leaf from Vancouver to Hawaii in the mid-1980s. “I always figured I’d do Alaska,” says Cowan, who upgraded from a Grand Banks 36 to a 42 Classic, Chataway, just for the cruise.

Cowan, who co-owns a radio station in Vancouver, will be making the passage with his wife, Caroline, and was “frantically” preparing Chataway for the long haul in the weeks leading up to the Grand Tour. He replaced hoses, filters, batteries and more. “When I heard about the cruise I thought, Hey, why not?” he says. “Plus, I figured it’s a good way to get everyone together and just do it.”

The Grand Tour is exactly the kind of inspiration that Alaskan dreamer Petrait needed to finally cruise the Inside Passage. In addition to the support provided by Grand Banks, Petrait also is looking forward to the camaraderie.

“These are similar boats that will be traveling at similar speeds — about 8 knots or so — that are owned by people with similar interests,” he says. “We don’t plan to spend every night with the same group, of course. We’ll meet as many people as we can and spend a few nights on our own, too.”

Although this will be Petrait’s first extended cruise he says he’s not worried about things going wrong. “The idea of going someplace I haven’t been to before really gets me excited,” Petrait says. “I see photographs of places along the passage, and that gets me going, too. I think being on the boat for so long might be a challenge, but it’ll be worth it. And I have a feeling that everything will go fairly smoothly.”

If it doesn’t, Petrait adds, “I think we’ll figure it out.”

The cost for a skipper and first mate to participate in the Grand Tour was $3,500, with a $1,000 fee for each additional passenger. For more information, call David Hensel at (206) 352-0116 or visit www.grandbanks.com .

America’s Great Loop

America’s Great Loop is not technically an organized event, but Ron and Eva Stob think the route is perfect for first-time cruisers and a great way to meet people.

“The networking, the sharing of information, sharing of goals and ‘holding hands’ when you do the Gulf crossing” are all benefits of cruising the Loop with others, says Ron Stob, 73, a writer from Greenback, Tenn. “When you’re in trouble, it’s nice to know you’ve got a buddy that can rescue you,” he says. “When we crossed the Gulf and caught a crab pot, and I nearly severed a finger, other boaters doing the Loop were nearby and assisted us in a critical situation.”

Also known as the Great Circle Route, America’s Great Loop basically circumnavigates the eastern United States and portions of Canada, including the Atlantic and Gulf ICWs, Hudson River, Great Lakes and inland rivers. Five years after the Stobs completed the Loop aboard their 40-foot Spindrift trawler, Kha Shing, the couple wrote “Honey, Let’s Get a Boat … A Cruising Adventure of America’s Great Loop” (Raven Cove Publishing, 1999) and created the America’s Great Loop Cruisers Association. Today there are more than 1,700 members.

“When we did the Loop back in 1994 there was nowhere to go for information and no group to tie into,” Stob says. “We met up with a few others who were also circumnavigating and boated short stretches together, but we were really out there doing it all on our own.”

He says association members now can make the Loop with more knowledge and an established group of cruising friends in addition to the friendships they make along the way. Another benefit of membership is attending the association’s annual rendezvous. Its Spring Rendezvous was held April 10 to 13 in Beaufort, S.C. The Canadian Summer Rendezvous will take place July 17 to 20 in Penetanguishene, Ontario, and the Fall Rendezvous is scheduled for Oct. 16 to 19 at Joe Wheeler State Park on the Tennessee River in Rogersville, Ala.

“The rendezvous are designed primarily for the doers, the people who have dropped the lines, left loved ones behind, and are on the cruise,” says Stob. “Scheduled events include seminars, afternoon Looper Crawls [where people visit each other’s boats], sightseeing, fun and games, and breakout sessions on specialized topics. The seminars are presented by experts who know the road ahead.”

Stob says people who have yet to do the Loop also attend the rendezvous to gain information from the “doers” and “veterans.”“They wonder what kind of boat they will need, how to deal with the absence of family, and how to meet family and friends along the route,” he says. “I’d say more than half of the association constituency are people who have the dream and the vision but who need to learn from others.”

Frank and Rona Bany sold their home in Bay Shore, N.Y., last summer and are cruising the Loop for the first time aboard their 42-foot Chris-Craft, Crazy Horse. They attended the AGLCA Spring Rendezvous. “The best part about this trip is that you get to meet a lot of good people at the rendezvous and along the route,” says Frank Bany, 58, a retired sheet metal contractor. “We cruised along with and became friendly with a couple of other boaters, one from Chicago, the other from Kentucky. The guy I met from Kentucky, we’re going to be friends for life. There’s security in numbers, too, no doubt, especially when you’re crossing the Gulf.”

Jean and Garrett Mulder of Holland, Mich., have cruised the Great Loop 2-1/2 times, and although they’ve sold their 40-foot Marine Trader, Morning Star, the couple still attends the rendezvous to speak with people planning to do the Loop.

“First-timers want to know things like what to do with their pets and how to get their mail while under way,” explains Jean Mulder, who is 60. “These are topics my husband and I have knowledge of and can help these people with. Plus, at the end of a rendezvous, people will know that they can stop in at Holland any time. We can take them around to get supplies and be more to them than just a marina stop. When you think about it, we’re all like a big family.”

Membership in the America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association is $33 annually, with additional fees for attending rendezvous. For more information or to order a copy of the Stobs’ book, visit www.greatloop.com .

Fundy Flotilla

Bernie Wideman and Sandy Marsters started the Fundy Flotilla in 1999 to promote camaraderie and educate cruisers. A couple years earlier the pair was making a passage to Nova Scotia via Grand Manan Island when a fall gale came through the Bay of Fundy. Stuck for days in Grand Manan waiting for the weather to break, Marsters and Wideman thought it would be nice for cruisers to have access to outside support before having to deal with the “inherent unknowns” of a Down East cruise.

“Many flotillians have learned all they need to know after one or two flotillas and then regularly visit distant ports on their own, often in company with other boats they’ve become friends with on the flotillas,” says Wideman, who with Marsters started and runs Points East magazine.

Since then, Points East has hosted six Fundy Flotilla events, with about 25 boats participating per year, both power and sail and averaging 34 to 48 feet. This summer’s flotilla begins Aug. 19 at the Robinhood Marine Center in Georgetown, Maine, then heads north to Saint John, New Brunswick. The cruise will turn back and end Sept. 9 — about 300 miles later — in Eastport, Maine. Stopovers in Maine will include Tenants Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Cutler, where there will be organized onshore activities.

“In Georgetown, before we get started, we’ll charter a bus and go to the Maine Maritime Museum,” Wideman says. “In Tenants we’ll charter a bus and tour the Lyman Morse Boatbuilding Company. There should also be plenty of time for us to get up to the Saint John River in Canada, go explore the river and the city. It’s one of the highlights of the trip.”

Points East also arranges for moorings, dockage and meals, and provides weather forecasts. However, participating boats aren’t inspected.

“The less-experienced boater is looking for some reassurance in making this passage, and that’s what we give them,” Wideman says. “A lot of people need that extra bit of comfort having everything organized and from having others around in case they need help.”

Again, there’s the safety factor with cruising in numbers. “During one flotilla a fellow blew the engine on his Pearson 36 ketch,” says Wideman. “He was in the Lubec channel, which is narrow and notorious for strong currents — a place you wouldn’t want to be without your engine. One of the trawlers, an experienced skipper, tied a line to the boat and towed it to Saint John Harbor, where it was towed to a marina and serviced. Things wouldn’t have worked out that way for that boat if he hadn’t been part of a group.”

Ed Manuel, who is 74 and from Danbury, Conn., will be participating in the Fundy Flotilla this summer with his wife, Cathy. They’ve sailed their 34-foot S2, Intimidation, on Long Island Sound, Nantucket Sound and around Cape Cod, but have never done an extended cruise.

“I’ll be relying on the more-experienced boaters for advance information on harbors and tides,” Manuel says. “It’s a safety thing. When you’re in unfamiliar waters its comforting to know there are other boaters out there.”

Registration fees for the Fundy Flotilla range from $350 to $400. For more information about this or other Points East flotillas, call (888) 778-5790 or visit www.points-east.com .

Caribbean 1500

For Steve Black, creating a safe, comfortable and especially fun cruise is his main objective. Black founded the Cruising Rally Association in 1990 and offers at least three extended cruises every year for sailors and some powerboaters.

“A friend of mine had started a cruising event in Europe, and it got off to a flying start,” says Black, an ex-racing sailor and former director of US Sailing. “What I did was realize the need for a similar event here for Americans. The rest is history.”

The association’s flagship event is the Caribbean 1500, led by Black. This year’s cruise — its 17th year — departs from Hampton, Va., Nov. 6 and ends in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Participating boats must measure at least 33 feet overall and be crewed by at least two people. Black’s other events are the Atlantic Cup, which kicked off April 29 from Tortola and headed to Bermuda — with informal fleets continuing to Hampton and to Newport, R.I. — and the Bermuda Cup/Trawler Trek. This combined cruise will have sailboats and trawlers setting off June 20 from Hampton and traveling 640 miles to Bermuda.

Before each cruise gets under way Black hosts an Offshore Sailing Symposium, a two-day workshop to help first-time cruisers prepare themselves and their boats for a bluewater passage. A panel of experts shares tips and advice, and a question-and-answer session follows. Topics of discussion include weather and weather information sources, understanding the Gulf Stream, diesel troubleshooting, and emergency repairs.

“We want to help establish a standard for what a boat should have in terms of safety equipment, and how a boat should be inspected,” says Black, who is 62.

Skippers in each cruise have the option of participating in the Cruising Class or Racing Class, Black says. “More people wind up doing the racing class, but they know it’s low-key,” he says. “If it was more of a cut-throat competition I don’t think people would want to do it. People have enough stress as it is from their jobs and everyday life. This is an escape from all of that.”

Black says the Caribbean 1500 is an ideal passage for first-time bluewater cruisers. “So many boats are heading south for the winter already; it’s the natural fall migration, except this is organized,” he says. “The 1500 is perfect for someone’s first long offshore cruise. It’s an open passage where you can learn about and experience the conditions of the open ocean while being in a group of other boaters who are doing the exact same thing, and are facing the exact same challenges.”

Skippers generally do a lot of problem-solving on the Caribbean 1500. “One year I remember we had five motors fill with salt water,” says Black. “We had a diesel mechanic along, and he walked each skipper, model by model, on how to get the water out and get the engines restarted. Problem-solving on these cruises saves a lot of time and money, for sure.”

“If it weren’t for these rallies I’d still be a bay sailor,” says Tim Szabo, 60, an attorney from Woodbridge, Va. This year will be the third time Szabo has participated in the Caribbean 1500 aboard his Saga 43, Kinship. “Most sailors have the desire to go on an extended cruise but just don’t do it,” he says. “These rallies, especially the 1500, were attractive to me because they help me prepare, get my questions answered by experienced people, and help build confidence. If your keel drops off in the middle of the pack, there’s someone behind you who’s probably interested in your fate who can pick you up. They can help you, and you, in turn, can help them. It’s an adventure.”

Black says he considers himself fortunate to have started the Cruising Rally Association. “It takes a lot of work to get a person to the point at which they feel they’ve cruised enough and want to move on to something more challenging,” he says. “With cruising, the troubles of everyday life become insignificant. You start to see the world differently. Your resourcefulness is tested. Your confidence is boosted. Once you make that first ocean passage your life is changed forever.”

Registration fees for the Caribbean 1500 range from $850 to $950, with a $60 per person charge. For more information, call (757) 788-8872 or visit www.carib1500.com .