How did an idea for a magazine article turn into a transatlantic rally for more than 200 boats?


Every year as the cruising season in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe comes to close, hundreds of boats prepare to leave on the long transatlantic voyage to the Caribbean.

The traditional point of departure has been the Canary Islands, ever since Columbus first provisioned there just over 500 years ago.

Whilst he had no idea what to expect on the other side of the ocean, the modern sailor knows that winter in the Caribbean beckons with perfect sailing, steady trade winds and fine weather.

In 1985 yachting journalist Jimmy Cornell went to the Canaries to interview skippers about their preparations for this transatlantic passage for an article commissioned by Yachting World magazine.

The people he spoke to were as diverse as their boats, representing various nationalities, ages, and incomes.

It was the atmosphere amongst these sailors as they prepared for their voyage – the excitement, apprehension, and camaraderie – that gave Jimmy the idea of organising a race across the Atlantic, but with an entirely different emphasis from other ocean races.

It was to be a race for the fun of taking part and one that would increase safety and confidence, especially among those making their first long ocean passage.

From the huge response to the idea, whether from cruising sailors or the editors of yachting magazines such as Dick Johnson, then Editor of Yachting World, it was apparent that the time was ripe for such an event. Thus ARC86, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, was born.

As soon as the idea was launched, entries began rolling in from all corners of the globe, and after a few months the list of entries had to be closed and a waiting list started.

On 25 November, when the starting cannon was fired from a Spanish Navy frigate, 204 yachts from 24 nations set off from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on the largest transocean race ever staged, and the ARC earned itself an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The aim of the ARC was to emphasise the amateur spirit as opposed to the professional nature of other ocean races. For this reason, rules were kept to a minimum.

Although one of the thoughts behind the rally was to add some zest and friendly competition to the long passage, another consideration was to increase safety. For this reason, one of the few rules stipulated was that every boat should carry a liferaft and also an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).

During the rally, a VHF listening watch is kept to deal with any emergencies that might arise. Over the years long range communications have become much more accessible and now most yachts taking part will have either SSB HF radio or satellite communications.

This greatly increases the safety factor and in every ARC, participants have been helped via the radio, either with technical or medical advice or by other yachts assisting directly in emergencies.

Although planned as a fun event, it soon became apparent that many crews took the event quite seriously. Thus, in 1989 a Racing Division using the Channel Handicap System (CHS) was introduced, so that those who wished to race could pit their skills against likeminded sailors.

Entries in this division, now run under the auspices of the Royal Ocean Racing Club using the IRC rating, form some 15% of the fleet each year, whilst the majority have remained in the Cruising Division in which limited motoring is allowed.

The organisers try to satisfy both sections, by providing prizes for performance either on speed or handicap, as well as other prizes, such as the best family performance, oldest boat, last arrival, and even one year a prize for the most troublesome skipper!

Every year the organisers try to incorporate suggestions most frequently voiced by participants and to improve the event, with the wellbeing of the participants being the prime consideration.

This was the main reason for a switch in the destination for the fifth ARC in 1990 to Rodney Bay in St.Lucia, where yachting facilities are superior to those available in Barbados.

For the first time if was possible to have all the participants in one marina at the end of the rally, as they were before the start, and this made for a splendid atmosphere.

From the first ARC the rally has developed its own special character. Over the last twenty years many friendships have been forged in the relaxed atmosphere and a profound sense of camaraderie has become the hallmark of the ARC and brings people back to participate in the event over and over again.

In 1999, World Cruising Club, organisers of the ARC became part of Sir Chay Blyth’s Challenge Business.

Since then, the ARC has continued to thrive, reaching a new record entry of 235 yachts, and now regularly exceeding 200 entries.

It has become a well established event on the international sailing calendar, celebrating its 20th Edition in 2005.


Future Dates (departing Las Palmas de Gran Canaria)
ARC2006 26 November 2006