Sailing Across the Atlantic – How to Do It ? When ? The best equipment. How to make the most of your experience ?
- The Atlantic Crossing is an Accessible Experience for Any Sailor
Crossing the Atlantic is one of the best sailing experiences a navigator can experience. Especially a European sailor doing an Atlantic Crossing in the middle of winter, to the Caribbean. Nowadays, more than 1.500 sailboats are sailing across the Atlantic from Europe every year. The main road and most appreciated course, is to sail from Europe to the Canaries Islands, usually from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. Some choose to leave from Capo Verde, a little bit more South, or from Madeira, a little bit more North.
On a well-prepared boat, with a well-prepared crew and at the proper season, you’ll find it easy and very accessible to any sailor, even a newbie, willing to learn. Sailing across the Atlantic for two weeks, with steady wind is a perfect occasion to better discover your boat, or even boating, to extend your sailing skills and to record lots of great memories. Many yachtsmen and yachtswomen choose to enjoy the Caribbean, Bahamas or Brazilian coasts for a few months after the crossing. All those places offer fantastic sailing destinations and dream moorings.
Such a crossing on a sailing yacht offers you a unique opportunity to really change your environment and quickly experience totally new sensations, a completely different routine, in a fantastic natural environment. I remain amazed at how fast we can take new habits or get read of others on such a sailing trip. 2 to 3 weeks is a very short period of time actually, but it always leaves an awful lot of good memories and quite a bit of nostalgia.
Here are a few tips and equipment recommendations. When it’s possible, I provide links to Amazon, for they offer fair prices, fast delivery anywhere in the world, security and allow you to save a lot on shipping costs, by grouping different product categories into one order.
- When to cross the Atlantic ?
From Europe, the best season is from the end of November to March. NE trades are quite stable between the Azores and the Caribbean, averaging 4 Beauforts and usually ranging between 3 and 6.
Doing the Atlantic crossing from Europe between December and March allows you to benefit from steady winds and currents, assuming you go for the conventional road, through the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, and avoid the Hurricane season that starts in May and ends in the end of November.
If you are serious about sailing across the Atlantic and about ocean cruising in general, I suggest you get your hands on the excellent “Cornell’s Ocean atlas : Pilot Charts for All Oceans of the World“, by Jimmy and Ivan Cornell. It’s an excellent source to understand the weather patterns on any major crossing (all the Oceans, the main seas) at any time. You’ll find for instance one chart per month on the North Atlantic, allowing you to compare the statistical weather conditions month by month. It’s based on the study of the last 20 years data and reports informations such as currents, dominant wind’s direction, force and frequency, frequency of storms, etc. and it remains easy to read. It’s a real must have for any offshore sailor or circumnavigator.
Alternatively, you can go for an even more precise atlas and still very qualitative, dedicated only to the Atlantic Ocean (but including Mediterranean and Caribbean weather Patterns too). It is the “Atlantic Pilot Atlas” by James Clarke. If you are sure your Atlantic crossing won’t turn into a circumnavigation, you should prefer this one to Cornell’s Atlas.
- The main distances from Europe to the Caribbean (Saint-Lucia):
|Gibraltar||Canary Islands||Saint Lucia|
|Southampton||1284 NM||1630 NM||4330 NM|
|Brest||980 NM||1377 NM||4077 NM|
|La Rochelle||1030 NM||1520 NM||4220 NM|
|La Corogne||632 NM||1020 NM||3720 NM|
|Cascais||310 NM||765 NM||3465 NM|
|Gibraltar||X||788 NM||3488 NM|
|Almeria||156 NM||944 NM||3744 NM|
|Palma||467 NM||1255 NM||3955 NM|
|Barcelone||550 NM||1330 NM||4030 NM|
|La Grande-Motte||702 NM||1490 NM||4190 NM|
|Marseille||718 NM||1506 NM||4206 NM|
|Toulon||777 NM||1560 NM||4160 NM|
|Portofino||918 NM||1706 NM||4260 NM|
|Ajaccio||794 NM||1582 NM||4282 NM|
|La valette||1052 NM||1840 NM||4540 NM|
|Bodrum||1710 NM||2498 NM||5198 NM|
|Las Palmas GC||788 NM||X||2700NM|
“At a 7 knots average cruising speed, crossing the Atlantic between Las Palmas and the Caribbean will take you 16 days. The record for the Atlantic Crossing belongs to the Maxi Trimaran “Banque Populaire V”, that crossed the North Atlantic in 3 days and 15 hours, averaging 32,94 knots !!!”
The best starting point for an Atlantic crossing with the trade winds is without any doubts Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, it’s kind of the best entry on the Trade winds Highway.
Las Palmas offers all the services any offshore sailor might need. There are plenty of shipchandlers and yards in the main marina and the major brands have teams stationed in Las Palmas during October and November to help their customers prepare the Atlantic crossing.
The ARC, the well-known Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, has chosen Las Palmas as a starting point, and Saint Lucia as a destination. The ARC leaves Las Palmas at the end of November, just after the end of the Hurricane season. There are dozens of possible landing points; the ARC usually goes for Saint Lucia. Clearly, arriving to Saint Lucia and its spectacular pythons is a great momen but you can choose any Caribbean Island, the Bahamas or even Brazil. Fernando de Noronha is also a great choice to land.
To fully benefit from the Trade Winds, most yachts choose to sail South to 20″ North, 30″W. This is the place where you’ll catch the steadiest Trade Winds, both in direction and force. From here, they sail West to the Caribbean.
From The North Bahamas and North American continent; choose to cross the Atlantic on a northern route between the end of April and August. This is a less frequent way of crossing the Atlantic, but arriving in Europe in May and heading straight to the Mediterranean Sea for a great summer of sailing must be at least as memorable as the classic trade winds crossing and Caribbean sailing. To prepare a trip from the US to Europe, I recommend the book: “Atlantic Crossing – A Sailor’s guide to Europe and Beyond“, by Les Wheatheritt.
- Personal preparation – What to pack for this ocean passage ? Communication devices:
First of all, know that sailing offshore does not necessarily means going dark, with no phone, no mail and no connection at all from your friends or company. That was true 15 years ago, that’s not anymore. It is now possible to live in a sailing yacht, as you live in your home, with broadband Internet access, Wi-Fi and a modern dose of comfort. Of course, communication on sea still costs much more than inshore, where we now benefit from unlimited access for a very reasonable price. The Sat installation (antenna and modem) on the boat is the most expensive: 8.000 to 15.000 $, but after that 1 MB (broadband speed) costs around 1$, and it’s easy to adapt your system to download less images or unnecessary data.
You can also choose to go with a simple iridium phone or a yellowbrick (both tracking device for those who stay ashore, sms sender/receiver and text e-mail). In that case, it will cost 700 to 1200$ to get the device and the first month of communications. My point here is to underline that offshore cruising is no longer reserved for people that can cut the bridge for months.
There is even a new alternative that is very exciting: an Iridium module you can connect wirelessly to your smarphone. You just type your sms (150 characther max), connect your phone to the device and send it. You can also receive sms and post Facebook updates !
The device is available for 265€, or 197£ or 290 US$. It is the DeLorme AG-008449-201 inReach Two-Way Satellite Communicator for Smartphones. Once you have the device, you need to choose a communication plan. There is a possibility to purchase, for instance a single month plan (no annual contract) for 65 US$ that will include:
- Unlimited SOS calls (emergency)
- Unlimited text messages
- Your location will be tracked, and a ping sent, every 10 minutes allowing your family and friends to know where you are at any time.
A new version with a colored screen is available and has a great reputation already. It is the Delorme inReach SE.
You don’t have datas or internet access, but you can communicate at any time by text messages, from anywhere on the ocean, for a total investment under 400US$.
FIY, this nReach device is buoyant, waterproof to 3 meters, and impact-resistant to military standards.
All in all, it will cost 15.000USD$ +1000USD$ a month to get broadband Internet and voice calls. This is perfect for a (wealthy) entrepreneur or independent to stay actively in touch with his or her business while at sea. I do it using software like the excellent “Basecamp”. For someone who only wants to give news to close ones, the price can be as low as 300$ + 65US$ per month (without annual subscription).
- Useful Guides
Plan on leaving for at least one month if you do only the crossing, 6 weeks or more are ideal if you want to enjoy the arrival and enjoy a stay in the Caribbean…
Pay attention to where you land and whether you will need visas or not, or if you should prepare local currency (for instance, landing in Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, you might be happy to have already prepare Brazilian Real, as there is no currency exchange office).
“A good preparation is the key to success”
With the good info, you’ll make a good preparation to make the best out of your Atlantic crossing experience and you’ll save yourself administrative, logistic and technical troubles, administrative. Get the good navigation library, starting with the compulsory and really great “Atlantic Pilot Atlas” written by James Clarke I mentioned earlier. It’s the best resource I know for Atlantic crossing, with detailed and easy to read Monthly Pilot Charts for both North and South Atlantic.
Other good resources are “The RCC Pilotage foundation Atlantic Crossing Guide” by Jane Russell, which details how to prepare the boat, the crew, organize the routine and be administratively prepared. Once you have chosen the destination and stopovers, this book contains all the links and contacts to prepare any eventual visa request, or administrative obligation to fulfill.
Finally, “A Sailor’s Guide to Europe and Beyond», by Les Weatheritt for those who are starting from North America or the Bahamas.
Get paper and electronic charts, a lot of brands offer packages including wide range and short-range detailed maps.
- Useful Personal Equipment:
To enjoy the 2 to 3 weeks crossing, you must have a well prepared boat, but also the proper personal equipment Here is the most valuable equipment, in my mind, to take with you on your Atlantic Crossing (a list of mandatory Safety equipment for the boat and the crew is available for download later in this article):
- Your personal drugs or specific medicines (head-hake, back-hake, possible allergies treatments, serum for your eyes, etc.). Also think about warning the responsible for supplies purchasing if you suffer from allergies.
- Your passport, sailing licence (if applicable) and radio licence, first-aid certificate.
- An iPod or MP3 player with your Top 100 Albums on it, and maybe audiobooks. Audiobooks are excellent ways to go through a watch, and if you are not the novel type, you can learn a lot about pretty much everything (business, science, hobbies, history, etc..),
- Books or eBooks on Ipad or Kindle. If you have an iPad with wifi, it means it can geolocate you via GPS. With a navionics chart (buy on the Navionics app for 49€) you will turn your iPad into a safety chart plotter. Think about how useful this can become !
- Don’t forget the earplugs, chargers, and take a international plug adaptator.
- A USB external battery, to charge your electronic devices while you’re on watch.
- If you are a smoker, pack one storm lighter.
- A Leatherman. Security wants you to always have a sharp knife on you. While you are at it, you might want a few other tools. Leatherman tools are the best ! I always carry a Leatherman Freestyle with me. There are only two functions, pliers and a knife, but it’s the most compact one.
- A good headband lamp, with leds and a descent autonomy (rechargeable batteries is mandatory). Petzl is the reference, the tikka + for instance. Try to take one with a red filter that you can put when you’re not alone (the red filter makes the lamp less dazzling)
- Take a good pair of polarized sunglasses,
- You should take Foul Weather gears (vest, hi-fit trouser, boots) and technical clothes (synthetic t-shirts, fleeces, synthetic sockets). Remember that cotton is the worst fabric to wear in a (very) humid navigation night, it absorbs moisture, while technical clothes (100% Polyester) evacuate it. I recommend you bring at least 2 fleeces, as it will be cold at night.
- A pair of sailing gloves,
- City clothes, shoes and swim wears.
- An app (Android or iPod/Ipad) to study the stars (Skymap for instance),
- A navigation app like Navionics.
- Some Wrist bands to prevent seasickness if you are subject to it.
- The boat
The usually recommended boat’s size is over 40 feet for a minimum comfort, ideally 50 feet for 2 to 4 sailors.
Monohull or Multihull ? This is a passionate debate. Usually monohull sailors would not consider switching to multi (though I observed, while working with Catana Catamarans that women more often want), and multihull enthusiasts would not consider switching to monohulls.
The light multihulls (Catana, Outremer or Gunboat catamarans for instance) are usually faster; some people prefer the stable horizon it offers. An Atlantic crossing on one of those, with the appropriate equipment, offers a great deal of thrill.
There are also heavy multihulls but I can’t say a lot about those, as I would really not consider sailing on those houses on water, my interest for sailing being mainly driven by a search for thrill.
I prefer monohulls…well fast and modern ones. Knowing what technology and naval architecture can now offer, I would not consider an Atlantic crossing or offshore sailing at all on anything but a light displacement sailing yacht using carbon fiber and infusion process. If I’m going for long range sailing, I want to sail fast and almost every time without having to use the engine. Only a light sailing yacht can offer that level of performance at least under 65 feet. And since I want to be very well equipped, only a very light structure, like carbon/epoxy or pre-preg can do the job. I want a sure yacht but I’m OK with getting wet in the heavy times, with Gore-Tex gears, when steering in an open cockpit, as long as it is well designed and conceived for safety. Actually, I even like it as those are sensational and thrilling moments when you know your boat well, when you get to understand her character and when you see how well she sails!
Others are OK with using the engine a lot and not being able to sail to a descent speed (over 5 to 6 knots) in light winds conditions. They like to take their time. They usually go for medium to high displacement yachts with central cockpit, and feel safer with a big closed cockpit and a rigid cockpit shelter.
Though I’m sure all of these can deliver great moment, this post might be a little oriented towards the “Atlantic Crossing on a light monohull”.
A brief analysis of the ARC 2012 edition’s participants gives a good idea of the repartition of the offshore sailors when it comes to choosing their boat’s philosophy and type.
- 250 boats were engaged
- Less than 10% of them were multihulls, and 90% monohulls
- Among monohulls, it looks like it was 50/50 between “light to medium displacement” and “Medium to heavy displacement”.
- The average length of the boats was 48 feet
Most of the boats over 30 feet will do the work if you make sure they are properly maintained with an operational engine, a working autopilot, a GPS, controlled rigging and mast, and a set of descent sails (and lots of jerricans to carry extra water if there is no water maker).
In any case, you should make a complete check-up of the rigging, the sails, the engine, the electrics and electronics. Make sure everything works and do some preventive maintenance. You should also make checking those key parts a habit, at least once a day, while at sea, just for a visual control.
- Zoom on the energy consumption and production
You’ll need to produce a lot of energy, starting with the energy that will be necessary to supply the autopilot, but also fridge and night lighting. That’s a minimum. Today, it’s possible to have, even on a fast sailing yacht other pieces of comfort, such as microwave oven, water maker, washing machine, air-conditioning and heater, a “urban” TV Hi-Fi system, broadband internet, bread machine, dishwasher, etc.. We had pretty much this equipment on the Aureus XV Absolute on this year’s crossing. Enjoying the Atlantic desert while feeling as comfortable as in a modern condo is a pretty cool experience, but luckily none of those comfort equipment are mandatory to enjoy the passage.
You’ll need a lot of energy, whatever the on-board lifestyle. This is why paying attention to the electrical power system is essential. Start with making a factual “energy balance” of your system putting together all the energy you’ll need each day, based on the average number of hours you’ll use each electrical consumer. For instance, you’ll use 20 to 24 hours of autopilot, but probably only 1 or 2 hours of TV each day. Get the consumption data for your equipments and add the consumptions. It will give you the amount of energy you need to create on a daily basis.
Now you must match this amount, in Amp, with electricity production:
- How many amps per hour does your engine produce via its alternator ?
- Do you have an extra alternator ? How much does it produce ?
- Do you have a generator ? How much does it produce per hour ?
- Do you have a wind generator ? How much will it produce per hour (you can consider 90% of windy conditions)
- Do you have solar panels ? How much do they produce hourly ?
- Do you have an hydro generator ? How much does it produce per hour (at your average speed) ?
For instance, on the Aureus XV Zig Zag Wanderer, we have a consumption of 18 Amps if we use the electronic, the autopilot, fridge and freezer. We have a hydrogenerator that produces 500W at a speed of 8 knots. The boat being in 24V DC, it means that we produce 20 Amps (500W/24V= 20,8 Amps). With that, I know that when we are sailing at 8 knots or above, we will be able to sail in autonomy. If we want to use the dishwasher or water maker, then we will have to match the consumption with an hour or so of Generator for every extra 150 Amps we consume (outside the essential functions that are covered with the hydrogenerator).
If you don’t do that energy balance properly, chances are you’ll find yourself frustrated at one point, not being able to use some pieces of equipment when you’ll want, or need, to do so. One possible output of this study is you might realize you will need lots of extra Gasoil to produce the energy you need (keep in mind you must save at list a full jerrican for your arrival).
- Alone or as part of a Rally
Well, the great advantage of a rally is the professional tips and help with preparation that the rally offers, with courses on safety procedure and weather forecasting. Basically, if the rally organizers lets your boat cross the line, then it really means your boat is ready for the crossing, and has the appropriate equipment, a checked rigging and a long list of safety equipment.
Rallies are also a good occasion to meet other sailors, from many different countries and share experiences. Those are usually really friendly events.
The main Rallies are the ARC (for Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) and the Atlantic Odyssey, here are the basic info about those rallies:
The ARC exists for almost 30 years. Nowadays, it gathers every year more than 200 boats for a crossing between Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to Saint-Lucia (2700 NM). The cost for a 50 footer and 4 crew members is approximatively 1,550£ (1,975€ or 2,480US$). The inscription includes 2 weeks of harbour fees in Las Palmas and 1 week in Saint-Lucia, plus an invitation to 2 parties for crews, a full safety inspection and briefings and trainings. The ARC starts from Las Palmas at the end of November. Check out the ARC’s website to learn more. Additionally, the ARC organizers (World Cruising Club) has secured special deals with local businesses and also discount in a few European marinas that might be on your way to Las Palmas.
The Atlantic Odyssey is a much younger rally, created (as the ARC 30 years ago) by Jimmy Cornell. It’s a smaller event, with less than 50 yachts in 2014, divided into 2 groups. The first group will start their crossing from Lanzarote at the end of November. The second group starts from Las Palmas in January. The entry fees are a third of the ARC’s entry feeds (from 500 to 700€) and the list of mandatory safety equipment is slightly less expensive to purchase. The fees include 4 days of free docking before the start and one week of free docking in Martinique, safety inspection and briefing.
- Safety equipment
Safety is especially important offshore. You should carefully prepare the first aid kit, medicines and drugs with your family doctor. Do you or your crew have known allergies or medical conditions?
Also think about seeing your dentist before you leave. There are few worst sailing experiences than having a raging toothache in the middle of an ocean crossing.
Concerning the safety equipment, the best is to go with a heavy inventory, which is much more than the inventory required by regulation. I won’t detail this inventory since the World Cruising Club has already done the job, and greatly. Look at the mandatory and recommended equipment to participate to the ARC, organized by the World Cruising Club.
This helpful list shows the tremendous experience of the World Cruising Club when it comes to offshore cruising. Generally, the ARC organization sends to every crew a complete Rally Handbook that contains everything you need to prepare for a good Atlantic Crossing. It’s another good reason to participate, as you will most likely gain a precious amount of time thanks to the ARC handbook.
A man overboard is the worst fear for a skipper, but today, great personal beacons and MOB individual alarms are available.
On “Zig Zag Wanderer”, every crew member carried constantly his personal AIS device, to be localized and a “LifeTag Wireless Man Over board system” that launch a sound alarm instantly if a crew member fall overboard. He or she would then be easily retrieved thanks to his or her personal AIS device (we used a McMurdo Smartfind S10 AIS Beacon). Also, we had one AIS device fitted in the Jonbuoy recovery module attached to the buoy in case we loose sight of the MOB at a given moment during the recovery maneuver.
After that, you need to check your boat and identify the spare parts you’ll need:
- Engine filters, belt and oil, plus an impeller kit and oil
- A set of spare stainless steel bolts, screws, rings, axes, pins, circlips, o-rings, etc…
- 2 or 3 spare valves, 4 meters of plumbing hoses in different diameters, 2 or 3 hoses adaptators (to switch diameter)
- A spare bilge pump with it’s electric (12 or 24VDC) sensor (switches the device on when it detects water)
- Appropriate tools, including metal saw and adjustable oil filter wrench.
- Filters for the Wate rmaker if you have one,
- Light bulbs and Leds for your interior lights and navigation lights
- ATC Fuses: 1A, 2A, 3A, 5A, 7,5A, 10A, 15A ( for your pumps and electronic). I strongly recommend the use of ATC fuses with LED indicator wherever you can. The “EasyID Fuses” will shine if broken, making it easy to spot a problem as soon as you open the technical comportment (where they might be 5 to 20 fuses, maybe not all marked).
- Glass fuses in 5mm x 20mm (0,1A or 100mA, 0,25A or 250 mA, 0,5A or 500mA, 0,75mA or 750mA, 1A, 2A, 3A, 5A)
- Glass fuses in 6×30 mm in 10A, 15A and 20A for shower pumps),
- ANL Fuses 80A, 150A, 200A, more if you have bigger ones on board (check the chargers, bow-thrusters, electric windlass, general protection, alternators…),
- A wide range Mini-fuses (mini ATC) for electronic boxes.
- WD40, to clean, protect, lubricate and penetrate, creates a shield against moisture,
- PTFE spray, to reduce friction in rails or rollings (ex: to put in the mast),
- Grease for your winches and furlers,
- Shackles, ropes, pulleys, etc,
- A descent Multimeter,
- A fish tape,
- An Epoxy composite kit (West system sells some) with a few different fibers (Uni directional, Bi-Axial and Quadri-Axial). Epoxy works fine on polyester if you sand it properly, in case you wonder,
- I also recommend the multi purpose “Stay Afloat”. It’s a fantastic instant water leak plug and sealant. It’s a must have product. If you have never heard of it, and if you’re serious about safety, take a look at this video,
- I also recommend a “Composite Patch” kit. for it can save a boat that has hit a floating hazard. It’s a prepared composite patch that can be used to patch areas of the hull or deck, with epoxy and fiber, even under the water. Anyone can use it. See that video of a repair under water:
- A Sails repair kit, built with your sail maker or the boatyard if they care for their customers. If you don’t have this type of kit, search on the web for descent kits. Alta Sails does some pretty complete kits, with the Altabox. You’ll need an automatic sewer, needles, a splicing kit, and of course some spinnaker repair tape matching your sails. I also recommend to have a few meters of different types of Dyneema Rode, without cover. For instance 5 meters of 16mm (can replace almost any heavy duty rope with a breaking Load at 19T), 10 meters of 10mm (Breaking Load: 9T), 5 meters of 6mm (breaking Load: 4,3T), and five meters of 3mm (Breaking load 960 kg). They are easy to splice; you can do a textile shackle in less then 5 minutes and it will hold as much as a stainless steel one, weighting only a small fraction of it.
- Everything else you could need for a specific piece of equipment you have on board (mechanical spare, lubricant, electronic board, electrical relays, fuses and connectors).
- I recommend having a spare autopilot. I know that autopilots are quite reliable but if it brakes during a crossing and you don’t have spares, the whole thing will immediately become painful.
- I also recommend an emergency kit, such as a Sta-lok deluxe rigging spare kit, just in case. (but obviously, you have carefully checked you’re rigging before leaving for such a trip).
Finally, you must be able to use the tools you have to detect a default, a broken fuse or a sudden death of your impeller. There is an excellent collection of “Practical companion” to help you with diagnostic, efficient use and maintenance/reparation. They present all the information you need to keep all your systems in a tip-top condition (diagrams, pictures, step by step process). Each companion presents diagrams, pictures, step by step interventions in a set of aspiral-bound splashproof cards. They cover the diesel engine, electrics, vhf radio, first-aid, sails trimming, cockpit companion, etc. Highly recommended on any offshore cruising boat.
Electronic is an incredible comfort. With a good level of equipment, you can make a lot of things easier, such as avoiding collision, thanks to AIS and radar, or knowing instantly where you are on an electronic chart. Some people like it the old way, I can understand. Autopilot and AIS are mandatory to take the best out of any offshore navigation. The rest depends on your philosophy and your budget. For instance, on the Aureus XV Absolute, we chose to have the following electronic equipment:
- A good Computer Process Unit to analyze collected data. We chose A B&G H3000 for it’s very adapted to offshore cruising, their outside displays offer maximum viewing in all conditions and the instruments are fitted and embraced by a majority of offshore sailors and crews.
- A chart plotter, with electronic charts.
- 4 big display screens 20×20 on the mast base. And one general display on the chartable. This way, you can get the information from any point behind the mast.
- The autopilot is the central piece of your navigation, and one of the most frequent causes of bad experiences. We chose to stick with B&G and went for Hydraulic ram and an ACP2 pilot with excellent sailing algorithm to steer well in any condition and wind angle. You’ll spend two weeks out there; you want your autopilot to work fine. The best security is to embark two pilots, but oversizing a little bit the pilot (going for an auto-pilot suitable for a little bit longer and/or heavier boats). Hydraulic works fine when mounted the proper way. The autopilot data are displayed both on the chart table, and on each helm station.
- Broadband radar, connected to a B&G Zeus Multifunction Chart plotter, especially designed for sailors. You can easily upload and display GRIB files for weather forecasting and set all kinds of alarms.
- Having an AIS Class B device is a great and safe option, to automatically share your position and reduce risks of on water collision. Many rallies will make this mandatory. Of course, it does not make a constant visual surveillance optional. An advantage of AIS is your folks will be able to follow your trip on sites like Vessel Finder, thanks to your AIS emissions.
- Other brands such as Raymarine, NKE or Simrad also offer complete and reliable solutions. The important thing is to be consistent and use compatible modules.
- Man Overboard: Prevention, alert and recovering
Man Overboard is probably the worst fear for any skipper. Since crossing the Atlantic will most probably mean solo watches, have the topic well covered before leaving.
- Attending a 2 to 3 days ISAF course will bring you more than a simple certificate. You’ll have the occasion to launch a life raft, fire flares, wear a survival suit combination in action and learn more about Search and Rescue operations and regulations. Events such as the ARC ask for at least 2 crew members to have a valid ISAF certificate (ISAF stands for International Safety At Sea).
- Choose modern inflatable life jacket, with integrated harness. 150 Newton is usually OK for an average adult wearing no heavy tools. The lighter the better, so that wearing them can become a habit. The best safety lines are fitted with two or three shackles so that you can move being always attached. Example of good models are: Spinlock Deckvest and Ocean Safety Kru Sports life jacket.
For a fast reaction and retrieving:
- “Lifetag Raymarine” Alarms. Sea Belt .
- Personal AIS beacon in Life Jackets.
- The Jonbuoy recovery module is the best recovery module I know.
- Useful Phone Calls
Now that’s we’ve been through the safety aspects, and if you’ve decided to make your Atlantic crossing, I strongly advise you to take a few minutes to make 2 or possibly 3 very important phone calls.
If you don’t own the boat you’ll be sailing on, whether it is as the skipper or a crew member, give a call to the owner to ask for the insurance policy of the boat. Check the insurance policy papers thoroughly and make sure you understand clearly the level of protection you’ll have and your responsibilities too, together with potential limitations (such as restricted areas/countries/seasons). It’s typical to have restricted countries in insurance contracts for sailing yachts.
Once you have in mind the protection and risks covered by the insurance policy attached to the boat, call your insurance company to expose your project to your advisor and make sure you have the appropriate risk coverage. Though it’s unlikely you’ll need them, it’s always good to know that you are prepared should you face an accident and for instance require a repatriation.
Before asking about the proper protection, you should tell your advisor about:
- the route you intend to follow and a “guestimation” of the planning.
- tell him or her about the boat, the safety equipment you’ll have, who it belongs to and possibly share with him a copy of the insurance of the boat.
- tell him about the rest of the crew. How many members, are they experienced sailors, who is in charge ?
The last important phone call is to your bank.
- What if you loose your card abroad ?
- Do you need to raise the limit of monthly cash withdrawal ?
- Make sure fees won’t go through the roof when you pay in other currencies, or withdraw cash abroad. Sometimes the banker can do slight temporary adjustments on your contract terms and make things easier/cheaper.
Also, you probably don’t need a phone call for that one, but check you Smartphone plan for abroad communication and, above all for the price of data downloading (per Mb) abroad.
I’m not sure about US people, but I can assure you that there has been a considerable amount of European people that have been shocked to discover there cellphone’s bill after a trip abroad, and even more after an Atlantic Crossing going through many country.
With the navigation apps, GPS on our phones, various leisure apps, it became a habit for a lot of us to consume a lot of data through our phones (checking the news, the weather, downloading our mails, sending pictures, updating apps, etc.). Some companies charge up to 5$ per Mega downloaded outside your country or continent. If you’re not aware of it, the bill can quickly reach 1000$ or more.
- Progress is good. Navigation software is also good for you.
Now, software like Adrena or Maxsea allow virtually any sailor equipped with a laptop to sail like pros and take the best routing and tactical options. They are affordable, and really simple to use. Moreover, they gather and store all the information from your navigation to help you improve your skills, set of sails and weather tactic.
On “Zig Zag Wanderer”, we use the Adrena Pro Offshore, in which we set our VPP and sails. This way, the software not only helped us choosing the best route regarding the winds, but also recommended us the sails combination to use. It can help any sailors, even very experienced ones. It was developed in collaboration with Michel Desjoyaux and is now used by most offshore sailors, in the Vendee Globe for instance.
In a word, if you are concerned with speed (and comfort, when it comes to choosing a route that will keep you outside the biggest depressions), this is really one of the best investment you can make for your boat, I would say even before fancy sails.
- The sailing part of the experience:
Now let’s talk about what it’s like to sail across the Atlantic from Europe to the Caribbean. Sailing the trade winds provides a lot of excitements. A steady wind, downwind most of the times, it makes the trip both faster and more comfortable.
Some choose to make the crossing in a racing spirit and will be trimming all the time, choosing their route depending only on the performance aspect.
Another, easier, way is to go for comfort and speed on the traditional road (passing by the 20″ North and 30″ West waypoint), and choosing to stay at an angle of 150 to 160° most of the time, with an asymmetric spinnaker, or gennaker or a parasailor (a sail that has a flying wing in it that allow a better stability and more control in the gusts, but is slightly harder to take in). This kind of sailing, together with the possibility to get fresh gribs at sea, will result in a much more comfortable cruise. It will not put your speed down, on the contrary but you will have to make a few tackings. In this configuration, I strongly advise you to use the “Wind Mode” on your autopilot rather than the “Compass mode”. This will allow the boat to remain perfectly trimmed and balanced on long tacks, staying at the very same angle relative to the wind.
Some sailors choose to go with a pooled-out genoa, to be able to sail full downwind in wing-wing. That’s a choice made to reduce the work. If you have a spinnaker furler, I think it’s much better to go with the asymmetric spinnaker. And if you don’t, you have a choice to make with your crew. it’s useless to sail full throttle down the first day, just to realize when the first watch comes that your crew don’t feel like keeping that much sails out at night. Rather, find a sail configuration that provides comfort and confidence to the crew and make the most of it, especially with the wind mode, that can prevent chinese gybe. Your sails and your boat will thank you for that. A boom brake or “preventer” might still be a good. On such a long trip, it’s wise to equip your boat with one. It will cost between 300 to 800US$ depending on the length of your sailboat.
Here is a video of a boat gybing in 25 knots of wind with a Walder Boom Brake:
The closer you’ll get to the Caribbean, the more squalls you’ll encounter. They are very localized and sudden gales, with variable direction, and come very often with a heavy rain. On a day with normal visibility, you’ll be able to spot them miles away and maybe go around them. At least, you will have time to prepare (take one or 2 reefs on the main and reduce your foresails).
At night, it’s a whole different story. You can either be very vigilant on your radar (it spots the dense clouds of the squall) or chose to reduce the sail area for the night, so as not to be overpowered if you encounter a squall you did not see coming.
Though storms are really rare in the best season (from Early November to March), it’s wise to be prepared for one.
- Becoming a true “Shellback”
If you are among the few who choose to sail directly to the Brazilian coasts, rather than the Caribbean, this Atlantic crossing will probably be the occasion for you to sail across the Equator for the first time…This is another good reason to go sailing across the Atlantic, as this is the occasion to become a true “Shellback”.
A true what ?
Better explained in video…but of course you don’t have to adopt the same haircut, you might just celebrate this new “Shellback” status your own way. It’s also common among superstitious to make an offering to Neptune for the safe passage, a glass of fine wine for instance.
- What sails to bring ?
The ideal combination, in my mind, is:
- One Mainsail with a minimum of 2 reefs (ideally 3) or mounted on a furling mast or boom (less performing).
- One genoa (ideally on a furler). A genoa pole is strongly recommended, both to preserve your genoa and to keep a better balance. A heavy Geneoa will be used when the breeze gets too strong to hold a spinnaker.
- One medium asymmetric spinnaker, ideally on a furler, or with a spinnaker sleeve (or sock).
- A staysails, or storm sail just in case
In option, if you have some extra space:
- On heavy asymmetric spinnaker (smaller, heavier)
- A gennaker, mounted on a furler for sailing between 90 and 140° relative to the wind.
- Living on-board
The first day of the trip will be very emotional. The result of a long preparation and a lot of expectations. If you cross as part of a rally, this days is fantastic, with hundreds of people attending the start of the rally, full pontoons and dozens of boats hoisting their sails together.
Then come the adjustment period. You’re switching from the land mode to the “Sea Mode”, in which your rhythm is totally different with night watches, lots of naps and a relatively tiny, and moving living space. You’ll probably experience dizziness and fatigue, but your body will adjust in 48 hours both to the new rhythm and the constant movement. You’ll find your “sea legs” and enjoy the rest of your Atlantic crossing with new perspectives.
The Atlantic produces large and long waves, that will, most of the time, not be aligned with the wind direction, meaning they’ll come from the side. The boat will therefore roll most of the time and you’ll probably regulate your activity depending on the conditions.
Be warned, it gets very humid out there, especially at night. Try to get some air in when the sun is out and close everything when comes the night. Synthetic fabrics will help a great deal in keeping the air dry as humidity won’t be trapped in the fabric. Since I first used a microfiber (polyester made) sheet, I never got back to cotton. It’s so dry ! As I told earlier, wearing microfibers will also keep you much drier.
A little tip to sleep better, use Sheets Fasteners, they’ll maintain your sheets on the mattress. If you don’t have any, there are real chances you’ll wake up on a naked mattress, for the combination of your weight and the boat’s constant movement will make the sheets slip away.
It will also get very sunny, especially when you’ll get close to the Caribbean so pack a hat or cap and some sunscreen.
Depending on the weather and sea conditions, it’s sometimes difficult to prepare proper food, because it’s difficult to stay in the galley (too hot, too chaotic, etc.). It’s a good idea to prepare a few meals that you could microwaved in such conditions. Also rely on a lot of snacks for people have a tendency to eat more often at sea, where days are splitted in more sub-parts. But don’t worry, if you are a passionate chef, you’ll find many occasions to cook, maybe even to cook some very fresh fish. Dinners will become the real event of the day, maybe the only time when everybody will be awake at the same time. It’s usually a moment everyone looks for.
Very soon, you’ll feel natural in this whole new environment, with much more contact with the nature. You’ll naturally listen to every sound of the boat, even at night. Your brain will put you on a constant vigilance mode.
Then there are the watches. Depending on how many people form the crew, they are between 2 and 5 hours of watch. I think 3 hours is a good compromise. It’s relatively easy to stay awake and concentrated for 3 hours. For instance, on a boat with a crew of 4, I usually set a night watch between 10 PM and 7 AM. Every night, there are 3 watches of 1 person for 3 hours each. The fourth crew member is sleeping. We turn shifts every day so that every 4 nights, each one of us get a real 9-hours night.
Of course, if you are 3 or under, everyone will have to participate each night and watches will probably get to 4 hours, or 2 times 2 hours. Some skippers do not allow single watch. I do it because my crew is well prepared and we agree on the obligation to wear life jacket and harness with life line attached during all the watches. The organization of the watches is crucial and, if not handled properly, is one of the main sources of dispute (with the supply repartition of course). So get things clear prior to leaving for the Atlantic crossing, or any passage.
The main reason for keeping a watch is to avoid risks of collision. In that sense, a radar, an AIS and a chart plotter are precious help for the crew member on watch, who will look at them regularly.
The second mission of the crew member on watch is to eventually adapt the sail trimming (or the course) to changing conditions. He or she must be briefed by the captain or skipper, thanks to a pre-night briefing. It’s the occasion for the skipper to expose the plan for the night:
- Expected conditions for the night,
- Expected tacks during the night,
- What to do if the wind gets low ? At what speed lower limit should we start the engine ?
- What to do if the wind goes high ?
After each watch, the crew member going to sleep should debrief the new watcher and tell him what he saw (or what he heard), how the conditions evolved. Ideally, each crew member makes an entry in the logbook after his or her watch.
One piece of advice: while you’re at it, make the most about every watch (read audiobooks, listen to new albums, study the sky with an app to learn how to recognize stars and constellation). It’s much easier to stay alert when you are stimulated.
Your living rhythm will be quite different from your normal rhythm, hence the frequent naps. You’ll also be quite disconnected from the world (less or no e-mails, no TV, etc.) and you might find this quite pleasant (though it will be a real thrill when you’ll find them back on the other side).
You’ll enjoy loneliness and find time for meditation, and a lot of time to observe the sky, the stars and the sea (that changes all the time!). You’ll rediscover simple pleasure and realize how much we take for granted our modern comfortable lifestyle, like a hot shower, or a cup of espresso.
It’s a little bit out of nowhere, but if you are an espresso lover, you don’t have to settle for bad coffee, even if there is no espresso machine on-board. There is a very smart manual system, the Handpresso that only requires hot water and a coffee pod (ESE). The pressure is actually created via a hand pump. For an espresso fanatic like me, it’s such a luxury to be able to drink a real espresso, even in the middle of the Atlantic.
All day long in your tiny boat in the middle of a huge ocean, you’ll see and experience a few magic experiences. Wonderful sunsets, different each night, sometimes facing the moon rise, an escort of dozens of dolphins. You’ll see a dolphin fish jump on a pray, or flying fish flying hundreds of metersto end up…in the middle of your cockpit. By the way the world record for the longest fly of a flying fish seems to be a 45 second-long fly at an average speed of 30km/h…this is 375 meters !
At night, you’ll observe the lights of fluorescent plankton, that light up in the wave of your boat. Sometimes you’ll even see birds, right in the middle of the ocean.
- What to do with all this time ? A few ideas:
There are many things you could do during this passage:
- Play a lot of chess games (a magnetic one !).
- Take your first 15 electric guitar lessons, with the excellent Rocksmith learning game. Of course you would need one electric guitar, a cable and a computer PC or MAc (or Playstation PS3 or X-Box) with one version of Rocksmith. You plug the guitar to your computer via USB and you can tune your guitar, learn riffs, etc. I’ve tried it and it’s really a good way to learn. It’s like playing Guitar Hero but with a real guitar, and a really efficient learning process, divided in very gradual difficulties.
- Listen to audio-books. Ideal for the long watches (2 to 4 hours alone, at night, watching around). You’ll find pretty all the successful novels, Business books, travel books, history books on audible.com. You can download a book in 2 minutes with most of the internet connections and listen to the books on your smartphone, your iPod, etc. If your watches are 3 hours long, you can read the entire “Moby Dicks” in 7 watches. You can also read 5 or 6 business books during your watches. I find that it is a good way of learning and a good way to keep you stimulated during long watches.
- Observe the wild life, learn how to recognize the different species of dolphins, whales and fishes you’ll see.
- Lear the art of splicing, become an expert in splicing, with a beginner’s set, a good splicing kit, and a few meters of uncovered dyneema.
- Fishing is also a good way to keep busy while making something useful, but please fish only what you eat.
- To Fish or not to Fish. The material to fish during a passage:
Between 4 and 9 knots, you have every chances to catch something if you decide to fish. It’s virtually impossible not to catch a fish on such a long distance.
If you want to fish, just get a stand-up rod (30-50 lbs is good), and adapted reel that you fill with 60lbs nylon or dyneema line, and a few lures. Here is a selection of good material. Choose a solid (preferably stainless steel) rod holder and protect your pulpits with a slice of rubber hose. A butt pad will make the whole thing much easier.
Once you’ve caught a fish (tuna or dolphin fish most often, but you can also catch king mackerels for instance), and take it near the boat, you’ll need something to hoist it. The best is to use a telescopic fishing gaff, but you can do without it (it will be much easier if you find how before the fish is here). Here is a selection of good material.
- Christmas under the Caribbean sun ? and then ?
Spending christmas under the Caribbean is a great reward for those who crossed in December. Touching land is always a great moment after a long sailing passage, but it’s even better here. You’ll take disproportionate pleasure over little gesture, like walking straight for more than 10 meters, or eating an ice-cream, and you’ll be surrounded by beauty.
So enjoy your stay !
After a well deserved rest, you’ll have to think about getting back home (if you are not into circumnavigation). To sail back in good conditions, it’s recommended to wait until May, and to take a route more North, through Bermuda and the Azores. You can wait and cross back, or hire a skipper to sail the boat back, or even pay to put your boat in a cargo ship (we call that a “barge” in French, I’m not sure about the english translation). It’s an expensive solution and you’ll probably get better fees if you are part of a Rally.
This is the end of this article. I hope this will convince you to give the Atlantic crossing a try. Sailing on such a beautiful passage is a lifetime experience.
Thanks for reading, have fun sailing !
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