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USA Rally draws criticism after fleet havoc in Gulf Stream

by Sail-World round-up/Des Ryan on 11 Nov 2013
Salty Dawg Rally - it’s meant to end like this, and maybe it still will for most yachts in the rally SW
The Salty Dawg Rally has been setting sail from Hampton Roads in the USA to the warm weather of the British Virgins in the Caribbean each year for the last three years. This year the woes of some of the participants crossing the Gulf Stream during stormy weather has drawn both critics and defenders in the East Coast American sailing community.

In any rally there is no doubt that each skipper is required to make his or her own call as to their departure and all other decisions during a rally. However, some of the stories coming back from the US Coast Guard accounts and even from the sailors themselves makes one wonder whether some sailors were less than well prepared for the conditions, with several sounding a distress and then withdrawing their call.

Two of the survivors, Bruce Grieshaber and Becky Meinking, who had sold all their worldly possessions to purchase a boat and sail away to the Caribbean, told media outlets that they had 'they trained extensively with the Salty Dawg Rally organizers before setting sail', implying that they were inexperienced sailors and hence ill-prepared for such a first journey.

They, with two other crew, were aboard the 41ft sailboat, Ahimsa. They sent out a distress signal via a satellite tracking device, stating they were taking on water 230 miles east of Virginia Beach and were in need of assistance. At approximately 0130, all four crewmembers were rescued by a Jayhawk helicopter and taken to Air Station Elizabeth City.

The skipper Grieshaber later told Wavy.com how the boat was 'taking on too much water' and seemed to have a 'structural problem', caused by the waves. They radioed the rally network and then called the Coast Guard for help.

They were seasick. They were tired.

'Death did cross my mind,' said Meinking. 'But I was determined to do everything we could do to stay alive.'

Hope came in a helicopter. The Coast Guard lowered a swimmer, Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Watson, into the water with a harness. The couple and their two friends on board had to swim to the harness. Meinking went first. Grieshaber watched the current take her toward the rescue swimmer.

'He found her within seconds,' Grieshaber said, fighting back tears. 'It seemed like an eternity. It was not easy.'

One by one they were pulled into the helicopter. Like a true captain, Greishaber was the last to leave the vessel.

'When that diver grabs you...there is nothing like it,' he said.

They are staying with friends in Smithfield because all of their worldly possessions were on the 41-foot sailboat they left behind. No-one is asking whether they could have saved their boat by staying on board.

The Caribbean 1500, another rally also planning to travel from Hampton Roads to the Caribbean, departed ahead of schedule last weekend in a single pack to get out ahead of bad weather. Social media posts and online forums in the US East Coast sailing fraternity have been full of questions about the wisdom of Salty Dawg's setting sail with such a narrow window to beat rough weather.

Andy Schell, in charge of planning the Caribbean 1500, described how the threat of back-to-back cold fronts prompted event organizers to set sail a day early from Portsmouth. Each of the 30 boats participating in that event crossed through the Gulf Stream without issue, Schell said.

'Nobody wants to see this happen,' Schell said. 'It's really a shame. That's why we use the sailing model that we use - to minimize the risk as much as possible and keep everyone safe.'

The Caribbean 1500, which charges a participation fee and adheres to International Sailing Federation safety standards, has long required each boat to submit to pre-event safety checks and strongly suggests that its participants set sail within a certain window. If the boats hadn't left a day early, Schell said, forecasts suggested it would be at least a week before conditions improved enough to begin the event.

Roughly 115 boats participated in the third-annual Salty Dawg Rally, some leaving early to avoid the worst of the weather. Most serious problems occurred late Thursday as those who left on schedule sailed into strong crosswinds and choppy seas some 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina.

Two boats lost their masts; four others had serious rudder problems. One sailor lost his footing and broke an arm. Crew members from other boats reported intense seasickness.

In all, the Coast Guard responded to five distress calls from Salty Dawg participants.

By Thursday evening, the 41-foot sailboat Ahimsa had foundered, its crew rescued.

Other boats let off distress signals, only to reverse their decision that they needed rescuing.

The crew of the 38-foot sailboat Nyapa sent a satellite signal indicating they had lost their mast and were taking on water. A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane that had been circling above the Ahimsa was diverted toward the distress signal. The boat's crew later reported that the vessel was fine - minus the mast - and that they were continuing the journey by motor.

The crew of the sailboat Aurora also sent out a distress signal when conditions turned ugly, but they later contacted another sailboat, which passed word to the Coast Guard that the crew had decided to head for Bermuda.

The fourth vessel in distress, the Braveheart, was about 50 miles southeast of Ocracoke Inlet when the crew reported that a 67-year-old man had a serious arm injury. The Coast Guard Cutter Block Island arrived, intending to accompany the Braveheart back to shore. Instead, it was diverted to help yet another disabled sailboat, Zulu, so Braveheart successfully sailed to Morehead City, N.C. on its own.

The Block Island found the 54-foot sailboat Zulu adrift about 100 miles east of Oregon Inlet. The cutter crew was actually able to assist this time, towing the boat to shore Friday morning.

The Salty Dawg Rally started three years ago after a core group of mariners from the Caribbean 1500 broke away. Linda Knowles and her husband founded the rally 'for seasoned mariners who desired a less rigid experience'. The group doesn't charge a participation fee, and the responsibility for deciding when to set sail is entrusted to each skipper.

'It's not as if we're just a bunch of wayward sailors who leave when we want and do what we want and don't pay attention to forecasts,' Knowles said, noting that her group provides 'training opportunities' and daily sailing forecasts. 'We give them advice, but the decision as to when they go is totally up to them, and they're responsible for that decision.'

Though the official start date of the Salty Dawg Rally was November 4th, the philosophy of the rally holds that each skipper is responsible for their own schedule, so boats departed beginning November 2 on through to November 8.

Though the Rally’s renowned weather router, Chris Parker, warned of a strong front passing over the mouth of the Chesapeake November 4 and 5, he couldn't have predicted the way the front slowed and grew more intense as it passed over the bulk of the fleet on Wednesday night and Thursday.

Many of the Salty Dawg fleet are headed to Bermuda to lay over until the weather improves while the rest are carrying on to their final destination, the British Virgin Islands.
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