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Tim Metcalf on the Salty Dawg Sailing Association's Homeward Bound Flotilla

by David Schmidt 1 Jul 08:00 PDT July 1, 2020
The crew of the S/V Vilja celebrate their U.S. arrival © Image courtesy of the Salty Dawg Sailing Association

Plenty of sailors dream of taking a season (or several) and cruising the Caribbean, enjoying tradewinds sailing and beautiful cultures while meeting friends new and old in spectacular locales. But what happens if a global pandemic wreaks havoc with the best-considered plans? Sadly, the 2020 cruising season was marred by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the fast-moving spread of COVID-19. As a result, many island nations began either restricting the number of vessels and visitors that could enter or remain, while others closed their borders entirely. And this, of course, created massive headaches for cruisers who were caught out by this fast-moving disease in a part of the world that takes pride in living slowly.

While some of these sailors simply hoisted sail and pointed their bows for home, others needed a bit more help.

Recognizing that safety often exists in numbers, and in regular radio (or satellite) checks, the Salty Dawg Sailing Association (SDSA), a non-profit educational and charitable organization that promotes bluewater sailing, stepped up to help. The SDSA regularly organizes rallies—including rallies to (and from) the Caribbean, Maine, and Nova Scotia—giving them the right experience to quickly organize a rally back from the Caribbean.

But given the speed at which the virus was moving and the rapid pace that different governments were changing their immigration and visitation rules, the SDSA organized their Homeward Bound Flotilla as a series of rolling waves that allowed different boats to depart as they wished while still affording each boat safety in numbers, regular check-ins with onshore SDSA officials who were monitoring their progress, and weather-routing updates.

I checked in with Tim Metcalf, SDSA’s communications and tracking coordinator and lead shoreside coordinator, via email and the phone, to learn more about the group’s successful Homeward Bound Flotilla.

What was the impetus for organizing a rally home from the Caribbean? Also, was this something that you and the other organizers came up with, or did the sailors reach out to you guys with requests for help?

As the Salty Dawg management team monitored the situation in the Caribbean with some islands closing borders due to Covid-19, we anticipated that the closures beginning there would eventually leave a lot of sailors stranded with no safe harbor or storage during hurricane season. When the BVI closed their borders, we cancelled our usual Spring Rally from the Caribbean that would have departed from the BVI, but did not want to abandon the sailors in the Caribbean.

We felt our organizing skills in doing large rallies to and from the Caribbean made us uniquely qualified to structure a safe approach to assist all sailors getting home safely. Although the SDSA typically charges a minimum fee to cover costs for weather predicting and routing and some administrative support, we did not charge a fee for the Homeward Bound Flotilla, but accepted donations.

We understood there would be considerable anxiety amongst the cruising community, with uncertainty on undertaking a long, offshore passage. Many boats were not prepared for that, anticipating they were just going to store their boat for the summer in Grenada or Trinidad. And quite a few boats had short-handed crew, unable to fly crew in.

So, we developed an approach to be as inclusive as possible, charging no fee and setting no minimum qualification or equipment requirements. Boats could depart from anywhere in the Caribbean. We knew boats had to travel with what they had. And, it was better to have them travel with us than on their own.

Our Board approved the approach. Consistent with our theme of sailors helping sailors, many of our Members across the U.S., and some on boats in the Caribbean, stepped forward to volunteer without hesitation to support the cause.

Where in the Caribbean were most of the boats stranded? Or were they located up and down the island chain?

Boats were stranded without normal resources throughout the Caribbean chain of islands, including the Bahamas. Many countries implemented strict quarantine procedures and, in some cases, prevented sailors from entering or leaving their territorial waters. Sailors were at a loss to find a safe harbor, anchorage, or dry storage options for the coming hurricane season, and would not have insurance coverage if the boat was left in the Caribbean. Most island airports were closing, one by one, preventing departure or arrival on the islands.

Boats that participated in the Homeward Bound Flotilla departed from numerous islands and countries including the US Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Martin, Guadalupe, Martinique, Puerto Rico, and Grenada. The boats left the Caribbean headed for ports along the U.S. East coast, and up to Canada.

Am I correct that the boats left the Caribbean in a series of three or four waves? If so, did you and the other organizers help set these up, or did they happen more organically?

Because boats were coming from many locations in the Caribbean, and [because] we wanted all boats to do a 14-day quarantine before departing offshore, we realized we had to set things up so boats could leave in different fleets. Dividing the participants into fleets also made it easier to manage our interaction with them as their departure date approached.

Some captains waited until the May 20th fleet, hoping that Grenada and Trinidad would open up for storage during the hurricane season. We encouraged all boats to arrange “buddy boats,” and we facilitated that for some of the less experienced boats. Consistent with our educational focus, we should note that our organization stresses flexibility and independence. Our fleet departure dates were set as a general reference, and we don’t force captains to depart on any specific date. We encouraged captains to depart when they felt conditions were best for them, and their crew were ready for departure. Some of our more seasoned sailors in the management team provide input and suggestions, and Chris Parker provides routing suggestions, but captains decide. We provide the resources and support for them when they are ready to depart.

Because of the dynamics of the situation, with changing island and U.S. restrictions, and the challenges facing the crews, we issued numerous “advisories” to keep everyone up to date, and in many cases to help educate on health issues, short-handed sailing, heavy weather tactics, advantages of different routes to the U.S., such as the Old Bahama Channel. These were eagerly received and well-complimented after the event in helping boats be prepared and to handle offshore challenges.

What percentage of the boats had to stop someplace and use the right of Innocent Passage to acquire food and fuel? Also, did these boats have to request Innocent Passage themselves or was this something that you and the other organizers helped them with?

With the Bahamas declaring an Emergency Powers situation, their borders were closed and boats did not have access to Bahamas waters. Our team worked out a process with Bahamas authorities on a boat-by-boat process to obtain an exception to the Emergency Powers for that boat to pass through Bahamas waters for safety reasons, because of the long passage our boats were undertaking with short-handed crew.

We secured approximately 155 Innocent Passage Exceptions and 85 Fueling Stop Exceptions. And, eventually the Bahamas authorities allowed our boats that were granted an exception to also be able to anchor and not depart their boats, for an emergency overnight safety, rest or repair stop.

We are grateful to the Bahamas government for granting innocent passage, fueling stops and emergency overnight anchoring privileges which enabled our fleet of sailors to navigate safely home. This was a gracious benefit during a time of worldwide crisis and numerous lockdowns.

Am I correct that you and the other organizers provided the sailors with weather-routing? If so, how was this done? Did your weather-service provider deliver general weather synopsis’s for to you guys, which you shared with the fleet, or was this weather routing done on individually for each boat? Also, if it was the latter, how was the information shared with the cruisers? SSB? Spot/inReach?

Chris Parker, at the www.mwxc.com, provided our weather forecasting and routing. Chris provides custom weather services for vessels in the Caribbean, Bahamas, and U.S. East Coast.

In our case he provided semi-customized weather predicting and weather routing to our participants based upon their locations throughout the Caribbean. The method varied, depending upon the communications equipment on the boat, and included SSB, email, Iridium Go!, inReach, SPOTX, and sat phone.

With the challenges of this situation, Chris worked extremely long hours to help these boats, with many nights working on only one or two hours of sleep.

Did you and the other organizers also set up regular radio checks or other “safety net” services?

Yes, we had established an SSB radio net for AM and PM communications amongst boats that had SSB. We established volunteer net controllers in each group. But, only about 40% of the boats had SSB. Also, we are in a period for very poor propagation so these were not as effective as normally.

But we also set up a tracking map and a strong shoreside support team to communicate with all boats via email, satellite device text messaging, and sat phone voice.

Our communications and tracking coordinator contacted each participant as they registered for the flotilla to understand their ability to communicate and report position while offshore, and to familiarize them with PredictWind tracking. In some cases, we helped them acquire a device, such as a Garmin inReach or an IridiumGo.

We asked our participants to report their position at least twice each day and, preferably four times. The method varied, depending upon the communications equipment on the vessel, and included SSB, Iridium GO!, inReach, SPOT, and email. Positions for our SSB-only boats were collected by an SSB Net Controller, and by Glenn Tuttle on his daily www.ssca.org SSB net.

All the position information was collected by Predict Wind (www.predictwind.com), a leader in wind forecasting, and displayed on the flotilla tracking map. Our shoreside coordinators monitored the map; when a vessel had not reported a position in 36 hours, they started trying to locate it. If a vessel went missing long enough, and depending upon the last known position and the local weather, we would have asked the U.S. Coast Guard to initiate a search.

Fortunately, this was not necessary in this flotilla.

We had a shoreside coordinator (SSC) team of six people, who worked three day shifts in teams of two. The primary SSC handled communications with the boats offshore, answering their questions, and providing guidance when necessary. The primary SSC also sent a daily report, listing departures and arrivals, and summarizing any issues. The supporting SSC monitored the tracking of offshore boats, and sent standard departure and arrival responses. If a boat wasn’t tracking, the supporting SSC would contact the tracking and communications coordinator for further investigation.

At the end of a three-day shift, the supporting SSC became the primary SSC, and a new supporting SSC moved in.

There was also a three-member emergency response team made up of very experienced bluewater sailors. The shoreside coordinators referred any situation deemed an emergency or needing technical assistance to them for management. During the flotilla they assisted several such situations.

I imagine that the sailors reported some interesting sea stories—do any yarns stand out in particular? If so, can you share one or two with us?

The boats that come to mind are: Altair (broken upper shroud, but secured with guidance from the Emergency Response Team, made Norfolk just ahead of Tropical Storm Arthur), Sea Ya, Tupelo Honey, and Nalu (loss of engine – needed tows once they eventually made the US), Windflower (various issues, with help from the emergency response team and other sailors in the fleet once anchored in the Bahamas), and Aventyr (volunteer nurses aboard who worked St. Thomas hospital during the pandemic and could not make the May 20th departure, but we helped them home anyway).

Logistically, what were the highest hurdles to helping get so many boats home safely? Also—and let’s hope this never comes to pass—what would you and the other organizers do differently if called upon to organize a bluewater rally against the backdrop of a pandemic or other international disturbance again?

The sheer size of the flotillas presented a big challenge to the registration and administration team. We collect a lot of information from each participant, including information about the boat and its equipment, the crew, and their intended departure point and destination. We also obtain a liability waiver and emergency contact information from each skipper and crew member.

Another challenge was getting each fleet ready for offshore communications and tracking. We interacted with each boat captain/owner to collect relevant information, such as offshore email addresses, phone numbers, inReach or IridiumGo contact information, and more. We worked with each boat to ensure that it showed up on the flotilla tracking map, and could regularly report their position.

Yet another challenge were the changing restrictions of various countries, including the USA. It was difficult to provide accurate U.S. Customs and Border Protection and clearance advice when local authorities were adjusting procedures daily to an unannounced worldwide crisis. Of particular note was the procedure required for clearing foreign-flagged boats into the USA would change from one field office to the next. Additionally, numerous Bahamian Innocent passage requests needed to be amended due to weather and safety issues.

What would we do differently? We are now much better prepared to handle a similar situation due to this experience. Many of the logistic and administration processes have been streamlined to make the entire process more efficient for sailors, government authorities and our staff of volunteers.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

Acknowledgements:

—Governments of the USA, Bahamas, Turks and Caicos

—The USVI, for providing sanctuary and a departure point when all other countries and islands had closed their borders

—The U.S. Coast Guard, for their overwatch

—Our team of 20 volunteers who made it all happen

Flotilla Statistics:

—252 boats contacted us, including sail, power, motor-sail and trawler, registered, and received all our Advisories

—184 boats participated and all safely made landfall in the U.S. or Canada

—31 non-U.S.-flagged boats

—473 sailors

—Three tropical storms

—155 Exceptions approved for safe passage through the Bahamas

—85 fuel stops approved

—Eight approvals for Emergency Anchorage in the Turks and Caicos

—A Shoreside Coordinator Team of six

—An emergency response team of three

—Various admin and other support staff

—Several boats with breakage, steering issues, seized or failed engines, and communications problems

—11 weeks of excitement

—82 Salty Dawg Advisories

—63 Salty Dawg-specific email forecasts from Chris Parker, and countless more by sat phone, text message to InReach and SPOT-X, and SSB

—27 rotations from the shoreside coordinator team - 19 in the shoreside coordinator role, and eight in a coordinator support role

The Salty Dawg Sailing Association is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and charitable organization that hosts rallies, rendezvous and blue water sailing seminars.

Our goal is to provide high quality events with the greatest possible value at the lowest possible entry fee – all made possible by the support of over 60 industry-leading sponsors and dozens of experienced cruisers who volunteer their time. www.saltydawgsailing.org

Many thanks to Hank George, Sheldon Stuchell, Tim Metcalf, Rick Palm, Ken Gelao, Jo Ella Barnes, Tatja Hopman, Barb Theisen, Lynn Hoenke, Mindy Piuk, Ros Cheetham, Howard Cheetham, Joan Conover, Dorothy Mammen, Lydia Strickland, Brian Murray, Russ Owen, Dave McKay, and Nancy Magnine for their help organizing the return rally and for theirt input on this interview.

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