Lessons from two (very different) Atlantic crossings…

21 Sep

Okay, quick intro. First, happy to be on SAILfeed! Mia and I are writing from Las Palmas, after just arriving this morning. We delivered the Saga 43, Kinship, down from Lagos, Portugal, the same boat we earlier sailed across the Atlantic with ARC Europe. I (Andy) initially wrote this article for my own website (andyandmia.net) a while back, and am re-printing it here, as I think it's fairly relevant. The two Atlantic crossings reference this recent trip on the Saga (BVI-Bermuda-Azores-Portugal), and our own crossing in 2011 on Arcturus (Annapolis-Nova Scotia-St. Pierre and on to Ireland). We completed that trip on our boat just a few weeks ago, arriving in Stockholm in early September (I'll have more here on that to follow). So what, exactly, have we learned after two Atlantic crossings? Here goes, in bulleted form…

  • There will be fear involved before starting out (particularly on your own boat). I used to lay awake at night on my parents' boat Sojourner, where we were living while working on refitting Arcturus in Annapolis. From the major centerboard redesign to the windvane and the new rigging, we had done all of the work ourselves. Was it done right? Did I really put those bolts back in the mast correctly? Are they tight enough? Is that hole in the keel where the centerboard goes going to leak? How good was my underwater fiberglass job on that old thru-hull? Stuff like that can drive you nuts. For the first week offshore I was in a major funk, my mood as grey as the weather we had on the Grand Banks. But eventually you get over it. It's part of the process. You've got to face your fears and overcome them. Like Matt Rutherford likes to say, 'reward lives in the house of risk.' He's right, of course.
  • The crew matters more than the boat (as long as it's well-found). We took one of my best friend's along on our trip last summer, Clint Wells, whom I was travelling with back in 2006 when I met Mia in New Zealand. Clint is a non-sailor (having only been on a boat once, in the Marlboro Sounds on the South Island, when we chartered a 28-footer for 4 days). He was always our first choice in crew, and for good reason. He's smart. He's strong and adventurous. And he's not a sailor. While it meant I was woken up more at night (he stood single-handed watches), it also meant that he listened to me and sailed the boat the way I liked to sail it. But above all, the three of us got along great. Likewise, on Kinship this year, Tim, Ursula, Mia and I were one big happy family offshore. We trusted each other to stand single-handed watches, and Tim and I got to the point where neither of us would even roll over when the other was making sail changes. Each of us knew the boat well enough to make trust the others decision making. It's kind of a given that the boat has to be well-found before crossing an ocean. Don't forget the crew does too.
  • The timing for an Atlantic crossing matters as much as the route. Mia and I went north on Arcturus, coastal sailing in 3-4 day hops up to Nova Scotia, through the Bra d'Or Lakes and over to St Pierre, before stepping off the deep end. We left Annapolis, MD on July 4, and didn't set out across the big ocean until July 31. By the time we made landfall in Ireland, it was awfully close to fall, and we only had 3 weeks to really enjoy the summer season there. The crossing was marvelous – we never saw more than 35-40 knots of wind (briefly, and behind us), and we were barefoot most of the way across. BUT, we had heard that only a few weeks before, sometime in May or June, a Freedom 40 had set out from Newfoundland and been turned back thanks to a few severe gales on the Grand Banks. And only 3 weeks after our arrival in Ireland, we had a 60-knot storm (the remnants of a hurricane) track right over where our course had been. Matt Rutherford, before he became famous for his Around the America's adventure, sailed his Pearson 323 to England in 2008 by the same route in the far north and experienced six gales en route.We timed it perfectly. On Kinship, we took the southern route, via Bermuda and the Azores, and left May 16 from Bermuda. Again, we had perfect weather, with the wind aft of the beam for all but 8 hours or so of the 12-day crossing. The wind indicator pegged at 37 knots, dead aft, and with the staysail on the boom, we surfed that weather making a record 13.7 knots on one particularly exciting run. From the Azores to Portugal, we had beam winds of 5-15 knots and bright sunshine for 5 days of the easiest 900 miles I've ever done. Study the pilot charts. Read Jimmy Cornell. The timing matters.
  • It's more fun up north. This one is obviously a personal preference, but given the choice, I'd go north again. The Canadian Maritimes are fantastic cruising, and a great little appetizer (and a good area to finish putting the boat together, in our case). St. Pierre, when we were there, felt like the furthest I'd ever been from home. Puffins surrounded the boat, and sailing in under the high cliffs surrounding the harbor in thick fog was challenging and exciting. Plus, the goal of reaching 50º north on the way to Crookhaven was pretty cool. It's the traditional sailing ship route after all, and was a no-brainer for us.
  • That said, the Azores are incredible. Part of the reason we went north on Arcturus was the notion that we'd probably be able to do the southern route sometime professionally. I never thought it would happen the next year, but we got lucky. I'd been to Bermuda a few times before, and St. Georges in charming in it's own right, a really neat little waypoint in the western Atlantic with lots of sailing boats coming and going, so it has a great atmosphere and beautiful water. None of us really knew what to expect in the Azores, and we were all completely blown away. Our first sight of land some sixty miles out was the tip of Pico, rising over 7000-feet out of the sea, poking up above a thick layer of clouds that obscured the horizon. The mountain looked impossibly high. Horta, if you can avoid the typical yachtie pattern of boat-Peter Cafe Sport-boat, is worth exploring, and the island of Faial can be circumnavigated in half a day on a moped. The climate is cool, the island is lush and green and the people are exceedingly friendly, seemingly living their own lives independent of tourism (in a good way), yet very hospitable. I don't want to say too much – we did little research on the place beforehand, and we all the more excited to arrive and explore the islands for ourselves.
  • You need a spinnaker pole to cross the Atlantic (efficiently). Our favorite setup on Arcturus up north was the 100% jib set on the pole, with a double-reefed mainsail set on a boom preventer on the other side, sailing goosewinged, fast and stable. Arcturus, like Kinship, is fairly easily driven, so we could make 5-6 knots with reefed sails in 15-20 knots of wind, and could carry that same combination in upwards of 30 knots, so long as it was behind us (it was). What most people don't realize is that using the pole (or the mainsail boom as a pole) for the headsails is actually far more stable than sailing jibing angles (and way easier on the crew). Usually the best setup is a small headsail sheeted flat on the pole – the sail will not luff or flog (the foot is sheeted tight, and the sail is flat), and the boat is easily driven by the autopilot or wind vane with such a nicely balanced sail plan. Plus, you can sail dead downwind, and therefore usually less miles in the course of a downwind crossing. Kinship is actually adding a symmetrical spinnaker for her ARC crossing from Las Palmas to St. Lucia in December so she can take advantage of the following Trades (update: it's been added, and we used it yesterday en route to Las Palmas. I spec'd it for him smaller and heavier than a racing sail; Tim, the owner, loved it). Jibing angles only work on super-fast racing boats, where the polar diagrams indicate a boat will actually be faster sailing more miles. Cruising boats need to be able to go dead downwind, and you need a pole to do that. Don't be intimidated by it – there is an old cycling saying, referring to a pedal stroke, that goes 'slow is smooth, and smooth eventually becomes fast.' The same holds true for learning to use the pole.
  • Get good weather forecasts – but skip the weather routing. Furthermore, don't trust those forecasts past 3-4 days. This kind of applies to ocean sailing in general, but I'll use our Atlantic crossings as an example. On Arcturus, our only source of weather was GRIB files my dad was downloading at home, then describing to us over the sat phone every 3-4 days or so. He'd simply tell us the coordinates for the centers of high and low pressure systems, I'd write them down, and we'd plan our route accordingly. Crossing the Atlantic, you want to stay south of the center of low pressure for the stronger following winds, and try to avoid sailing into the center of a high. It's that simple. Cruising boats are not fast enough to really take advantage of weather routing like the big racing boats can, so the goal should be to avoid the worst weather and take what you get otherwise. The chatter on the SSB during this last southern crossing was almost silly, with guys talking about what was coming some nine days later and where to sail to avoid it. They key to all this is planning your own route – take the forecasts, analyze them yourself, and see where you want to sail, not where someone tells you to go. And more than two sources of weather only clouds things. Keep it simple.
  • Sail a straight course. On Arcturus, our track had a big southern hitch in it after we left St. Pierre. We were trying to get south of the center of an approaching low, which was tracking further south than usual, so made a course SE off the Grand Banks. We only turned north several hundred miles later. But aside from that, we went straight, and made a fast crossing giving the conditions (light), and the fact we didn't motor (not enough fuel). On Kinship, we were the nothernmost boat in the fleet, following again the traditional route over the top of the Azores high, and stuck to it. Several other boats in the fleet kept changing their minds, with very erratic course changes, sometimes almost due north or south. Talisman, a sistership, took over 24 hours longer than us to make the same crossing, and analyzing the tracks of the fastest boats showed that the ones who sailed straight, sailed fastest. Don't overanalyze the weather – plan the route, and sail the plan.
  • It only gets easier from here. 'With more experience, you're less scared when things happen.' Mia just said that to me when I asked her what she thought she learned. She's right, of course. I never had that sinking stomach feeling on Kinship like I had at the start of the trip on Arcturus. You've got to get over that hump and get to the point where an ocean crossing is more fun than it is stressful. That obviously depends on a good boat and a good crew, but given those two things, the more experience the easier it will be. Hopefully this is obvious. It will be difficult the first time round, but it will get easier – and more fun.

Comments? I'd love to hear some feedback on this, and other people's experiences. Thanks for reading!





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