Essay by John Guy

Shall we rally to the flotilla?

Group sailing is here to stay, to the detriment of many sailors, perhaps to most.

Long-distance group sailing is flawed at its core. To the degree that an ocean-passage rally, flotilla or any professionally organized group of boats attracts many participants, by the same degree a group sail detracts from the classic time-proven spirit of sailing, the personal independence, the self reliance, the common sense, the reality that a captain and crew form a unit around a unique set of personalities and circumstances, experiences and goals. Forming these units, working within the small and "delicate" social fabric of an autonomous crew, is the challenge from which personal satisfaction is derived. However, when these singular units coalesce into a larger dynamic group such as a sailing rally or flotilla, independence and learning are sacrificed. Even the most experienced captains, professionals who have delivered boats for years, subtlety delegate critical thinking to the organizers, and to the professionals hired by the organizers, such as the weather router.

Thousands of sailors endorse group sailing events. Thousands speak glowingly, thereby creating magical words of mouth that attract more and more sailors every year. These endorsements come from people who had "a wonderful time," the sailors whose five, ten or fifteen day experience was untouched by the hazards of weather and the vagaries of mechanical failure. These fortunate apostles of group sailing would have had a similar experience sailing independently. With moderate effort, they would have made as many new personal friendships, and as many radio contacts, but they would have learned more, done more, thought more, by going alone. Each captain/crew would have designed a trip, without delegating the planning, the navigation and the interpretation of weather.

The most important element of a group sail is designation of a common departure date. No matter how you shake it, some sailors are not prepared to leave at the designated time. They are not fully provisioned, and they have not completed required maintenance. Still, to keep up with the group, to enjoy the benefits, everyone must leave at the same time. Everyone must pass the start line at 10:30 a.m. so that the magazine photographer can get his prize winning shot. "Sure, the storm sail has not been delivered," says the captain. "But I won't need it, will I?" The desire to leave on time is greater if the rally is called a "race."

Another advertised benefit of some group sails is a pre-departure boat check by professionals.
The plan is that another person, perhaps a delivery captain, will stop by each boat, and will review the condition of the boat and its level of preparedness. The boat reviewer will use a check list, or the organizer will give each participant a printed check list. Unfortunately, this advertised benefit fails on its face. No rally can attract enough professionals to conduct numerous reviews in two or three days. In an eight hour day, a professional boat-preparedness consultant should conduct no more than four reviews, or about two hours each. In a rally composed of 50 boats, five consultants cannot get the job done in less than two days. Adding to the difficulty is that many boats, often the least prepared, arrive at the rally start site only one day in advance. Also, the professionals in a rally need time to prepare their own boats. They do not have unlimited time to consult. Another problem is that a consultant does not want to destroy the enthusiasm of a sailor by pointing out that a boat/crew is deficient with less than 24 hours to remedy the deficiency. The human instinct is to give a positive message, even to those who do not deserve it. I have not met anyone who experienced a thorough professional pre-departure review, though suggested in the rally literature. The concept is not practicable unless fees increase to pay for the service.

Group sailing promoters hire weather routers who speak to all captains, gathered around coffee and pastries, three hours before departure. These routers present a general weather synopsis and a suggested sailing strategy to deal with predicted weather events. The proposed strategy is delivered by a public speech and by a document distributed to all participants. Sounds good, right?

Wrong. The problem is that each listener hears a different message. The listener can interpret only to the limits of his/her personal experience. If the router forecasts 50 knot winds, and one possible way to avoid those winds, the message is adequately received and interpreted only by those few in the group who have experienced 50 knot winds. Everyone else has only a vague text book notion of what 50 knots means. In groups, we do not ask questions that might appear dumb to everyone else. We are human. We want to be part of this glorious trek. We do not know that the professional delivery captains in the group, who need to make a schedule, are running 65 foot boats with saunas and washing machines and four other crew, while we are a cruising couple aboard a 42 foot sloop that never has been out of The Chesapeake.

Listening to a weather briefing while seated in a group is different than listening one on one. At various points during a public presentation, listeners are distracted by spilled coffee, by a message whispered by a colleague, or by day dreaming. Hence, persons rise to ask the question that was asked and answered a moment ago. They missed it. They were distracted, or spaced. I space all the time. When I do, an offspring is likely to say, "Houston calling Dad, Houston calling Dad." No one need be ashamed of spacing out. It is human. However, listeners to a crucial presentation need to accept the probability of either missing an important point or misinterpreting the information and its effects. For a subject as important as weather, no one should delegate to a group understanding. Everyone should watch the flow of weather systems starting at least a week in advance. Many rally members do this. Many don't. The only effective procedure is the private weather evaluation away from the group, with time to think, to consider, to talk it over with crew.
The professional weather forecaster is not hired by one sailor. He or she is hired by the rally organizer, and the presentation is tailored to the needs of the organizer and his professional colleagues. Hence, this opening statement: "since none of you wants to sit around here in the cold for another week, here is the strategy for avoiding the worst parts of the storm." Wait a minute. I don't mind sitting here for a week. I don't have a schedule. I am sailing for fun, not for adventure or endurance. But, you have told me in public that I don't want to sit in the cold. So, I guess I won't sit in the cold. Instead, I'll join the group, and be on my way with everyone else. The group dynamic causes us to temporarily forget our purposes, and to misjudge our capabilities.

In a twenty-five knot breeze under blue skies, with sails set and an autopilot working perfectly, what do we do each day? We listen to the daily net, and check in when asked. We give our position, our weather (which is identical to everyone else's weather), and we are delighted to speak to other cruisers, especially to the couple we met the night before departure. In good times, this is fun. In bad times, it engenders worry as we listen to reports of broken equipment and worn out crews. What is the point? The others cannot help us. We cannot help them. If one does not report in on time, should we worry, or is it merely that her antenna broke? We don't know.

During a tough sail, we need continuous weather information, but the organizer provided only a departure briefing, and that was five days ago. Listeners on the daily net want information. They ask, and they hear something like this: "we understand that Herb said that winds will moderate north of 35 in about twelve hours. We also hear that Joe and Steve have taken shelter in Cape May (later found to be inaccurate)." Informal, indirect information is not useful. The information might have passed through several hands, some thoroughly schooled in weather interpretation, others not. Each listener is in a different situation, with different stresses and concerns. Without the ability to directly hear a professional weather statement from a person sitting comfortably in front of a weather chart and a satellite image, the data we get is tainted. It is tainted by the first repeat, and by each additional repeat, as is a Johnny Carson joke whispered to person one and later repeated by person 10.

In exchange for rally fees, organizers offer benefits, such as a day or two of free dockage, waiver of foreign harbor fees, a free meal or two, and the weather briefing. The benefits are real, but moderate. The benefits do not compare to services provided by professional business travel organizations. For example, a company providing group travel services always has a full-time representative (at the airport and in the hotel) to anticipate and to resolve problems, to lubricate the bureaucracy. A well-run group sail should have a similar service, an individual stationed at the intermediate and final destinations whose only job is to help participants, whose role is not diluted by personal responsibilities for his/her own boat. This person should conduct the daily radio net from a cool, dry and stable office. She should have weather reports. She should make sure that promised dock space is available without hassle or disagreement with the non rally boat that occupies the dock or with the dock master who is not aware of the special deals. He should help with lines, direct people to super markets and restaurants, assure availability of clean fuel and good water. In some rallies, the organizer attempts to handle these responsibilities. However, the task is too much for such a person, and the job is impossible if some boats arrive before he does.

I remember feeling relief when we joined a rally. Decisions were made for us. Prior to learning of the rally, we were not certain where we would travel for the winter. When the rally literature arrived, and I sent our check, the decision was made. We no longer had to think, to plan the best time to leave, to look for a weather window, to extend ourselves to make new friends at marinas, to learn the experiences and plans of those new friends. Upon sending the check, all was done for us. While the burden of decision was taken from our shoulders, we also gave up the opportunity to perform these functions. We gave up the chance to independently plan our first ocean passage. Had we done the work, we would have made mistakes, and we would have learned from the mistakes. We also would have formed new direct and private relationships with persons who can assist such as volunteer forecasters (like Herb), professional weather routers, and experts on The Gulf Stream (such as Jane Clark). Because the rally proposed to perform these functions for us, we did not create personal relationships with advisors who talk directly with us, who maintain a continuous record of our passage. The lessons of the experience have led us to behave in a new way: never again will we give up our independence to a group. The cost is too high.