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
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