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An interview with Hank Schmitt on the 21st Annual NARC Rally

by David Schmidt 28 Oct 2021 08:00 PDT October 31, 2021
NARC Rally © David Lyman

If you've ever shoveled a driveway heavily laden with "the white stuff", you understand the allure of buying a cruising yacht (OK, maybe a performance-orientated cruising yacht) and heading to the Caribbean for the season. For many people, this represents the retirement dream. The only catch for some sailors, however, is that offshore ambitions can outweigh offshore experience. Afterall, the East Coast of the USA is a long ways from the Caribbean.

Enter the cruising rally, where likeminded sailors (or at least sailors with similar cruising itineraries) create a safety-in-numbers passage scenario. Each skipper is still in charge of his or her crew and vessel, of course, but—should troubles arise—the buddy system is at play.

As a results, rallies can help less experienced sailors earn some offshore miles, and—rally depending—they can also present opportunities for more experienced sailors to share their knowledge and experience.

The annual North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC) began in 2000, when Hank Schmitt, founder and organizer of NARC and the CEO of Offshore Passage Opportunities, was charged with delivering ten Swans (and their crews) from Newport, Rhode Island, to St. Maarten. Schmitt invited other Caribbean-bound boats to join, and the affair became an annual bluewater tradition.

Today, NARC includes both privately owned and operated boats, as well as boats in Offshore Passage Opportunities' "Swan Program", the latter of which provides opportunities for paying sailors to gain bluewater experience under the tutelage of experienced skippers such as Schmitt (who skippers the Swan 48 Acocation).

While Covid halted the 2020 NARC, the 2021 rally (AKA the "First Post Covid NARC Rally") is set to depart from Newport, Rhode Island, on or around October 30 (weather depending) with their bows aimed for Bermuda, with an expected arrival between November 5 and 6. The rally will regroup in Bermuda and will join with other NARC boats that departed from the Chesapeake Bay before sailing for St. Maarten.

I checked in with Schmitt, via email, to learn more about this now-classic bluewater rally.

Typically speaking, what kinds of sailors get involved with the NARC/Swan Program?

The NARC Rally stared in 2000 with mostly pro skipper and amateur crew moving a fleet of Swans from Newport to St. Maarten each fall. Crew paid to get offshore experience in challenging condition with a pro skipper on strong offshore boats. In 2000, we invited others to join and got a 50/50 mix of other pro crewed boats and amateur sailors who were not living full-time on their boats.

If you are a full-time live-aboard or moved aboard in the summer or fall with the intention of moving south, you do not want to wait in New England until it is time to leave at the end of hurricane season. You would move south in October and be in the Chesapeake Bay in mid-October for the Annapolis Boat Show and then depart from warmer climate.

That is why the NARC Rally started offering a feeder leg from the Chesapeake—to meet up with the Newport Fleet in Bermuda. It is almost the same distance from the mouth of the Chesapeake to Bermuda as it is from Newport. Plus, any boat that wishes to sail from the Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean in the fall needs to set a waypoint near Bermuda anyway if they wish to sail to the Caribbean and not motor sail into the southeast trades for 1,500 miles.

God put Bermuda there for sailors heading north and south, and I think it is a sin not to stop and enjoy this beautiful island. Since you are sailing so close to the island anyway why not stop. In fact, some years many of the boats in the rallies departing from the [Chesapeake] Bay end up in Bermuda for refueling, repairs, or to break up the passage into two legs with a break to wait for the next weather window.

What are the biggest benefits that the NARC/Swan Program offers to beginner cruisers? What about to much more experienced Bluewater sailors?

People without a boat: The fall Swan Program is not for beginners.

The passage from the U.S. East Coast to the Caribbean is one of the most challenging in the world because of the change of seasons and the Gulf Stream. The Swan Program is for experienced sailors who do not own an offshore boat and wish to plan an offshore passage on a well-found boat with a pro skipper and mate aboard.

We are the graduate school of offshore sailing where you learn by doing, adding quality sea mile miles for your resume towards your next goal.

Beginner Cruisers: Any Rally boat owner going for the first time should consider seriously the condition of their boat and the crew they have in place. You will want at least one person who has done the passage before at this time of year. If you need a seasoned hand, we can help get you crew for free through our Offshore Passage Opportunity (OPO) crew network.

If need be, we can find a qualified skipper to hire and make sure you get your new investment (home) to the Caribbean in good shape along with your plans to cruise the Caribbean.

New this year is a full week of fun in Bermuda followed by an extended welcome mat in St. Maarten. By joining the NARC Rally, we will introduce you to the islands of Bermuda and St. Maarten especially where you can re-provision, make repairs and find a new home to base out [of] for the Caribbean season.

The fall passage from New England to the Caribbean in the fall is not an easy passage because changing air temperatures and the challenge of the Gulf Stream and narrow weather windows. By using our OPO crew network we can provide free crew who will pay their own way to and from the boat and will depart soon after arrival in St. Maarten. We use the weather "Weather Routing Inc" WRI to help plan our departure window.

What are the typical weather conditions that NARC/Swan Program sailors see? Also, what are the best case/worse case weather situations for the rally?

Having made the passage between Newport and St. Maarten every year since 1998, I can tell you that about half the time we depart on schedule, [a quarter] of the time we have a one- or two-day delay and 25 percent of the time we will have a three- to five-day delay looking for the right conditions to first cross the Gulf Stream 36 to 48 hours after leaving Newport, and then needing two to three more days to get to Bermuda to await another weather window. It is very hard to get a nine- or ten-day weather window and make a straight passage from the U.S. to the Caribbean without a stop in Bermuda.

Obviously each boat is different, but what are the most common sail combinations that sailors fly on route to St. Maarten? Also, again recognizing the speed differences in boats, what are the common passage times involved?

Even the slowest boats should make it to Bermuda in five days. The second leg is 200 miles longer so takes five to seven days depending on size of boat. Most boats can do 120 miles a day. The first leg is 635 miles and the second is 835 miles almost due south of Bermuda.

One of the big mistakes boat owners make is leaving with a huge headsail bent on their roller furler. You did not need a big 155 or even a 135 genoa offshore in the fall.

Also, make sure your second reef is set up and skip the first reef when reducing sail. When it is time to reef, reef.

I don't like sending crew forward the first leg so we usually set up a second reef early and furl and unfurl the headsail as conditions dictate. Some boats will leave with a staysail or storm sail rigged and ready to hoist.

Usually no one flies a spinnaker the first leg and seldom on the [second] either as winds will be on the beam once you get to the East and Southeast Trades.

How many boats are you hoping to have on the rally this fall? Also, do you know if most boats will be NARC veterans, or are you expecting new faces on the docks?

Since the Rally is free to join; we have never spent a lot of money advertising the event. We also save by having no paid staff so less handholding and no seminars. The most boats we have ever had were 30 boats in two previous runnings.

This year we expect demand to be way up and we are for the first time offering a longer stay in Bermuda and in St. Maarten with a special schedule of activities for rally participants. People can look on or website to watch as activities are added as our teams in the islands secure venues. at www.sailopo.com/NARC2021

I would be happy to have 20 boats this year and grow to 50 or more in future years.

We all know what happens anytime two sailboats happen to be headed in the same direction. Is it common for rally participants to get a little competitive, or is the mindset at NARC/Swan Program different? Can you please explain?

I so much emphasize that this is not a race.

The fall weather can be gnarly enough without adding a race mentality to the mix. The idea is to get all the boats and crew to St. Maarten in one piece. While some rallies give prizes or trophies for finishes, we do the opposite and do not encourage pushing the boats or crew.

What kinds of logistical/governmental hurdles can vaccinated American sailors expect to face in terms of entering Bermuda and St. Maarten? And what about when they return to the USA?

This past spring it did not matter if you were vaccinated or not. Everyone still had to be tested before departure and upon arrival in Bermuda and St. Maarten.

We hope that being vaccinated will be enough to gain easy entry, but do not be surprised if we still need to get tested upon arrival and have to wait six to 12 hours for a negative result to be released from quarantine.

It is impossible to tell what protocols they will have in place next year. Two years ago, I did not even know how to spell 'protocols', and since the pandemic it has all been about who is open and who is closed.

We know all the islands want to be open and welcoming. The reality seems to be that while they want to relax protocols and rules within the bubble of their islands, they will tighten their borders (their bubble) at the first sign of numbers going up since they have limited capacity for treating Covid, and they have the same vaccination-hesitancy problem as we do.

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