Our ultimate guide on things to consider if you're planning to sail across the Atlantic
The Atlantic crossing season occurs every winter. In the months leading up to Christmas, some 4-5,000 sailors will cross from Europe to the Caribbean on one of the biggest sailing adventures of their lives.
In most cases, the crossing is the culmination of years of planning and preparation. But if it’s your first time, are you missing something? You might be.
Here is a list of my top 15 tips for an Atlantic crossing, which I’ve drawn up both from my own ocean passages in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and from talking to hundreds of transatlantic sailors over the years. So what do you really need to consider when planning your Atlantic crossing…
1. You don’t need a special boat
Time was when a proper bluewater cruiser had chines, a ketch rig and self-steering gear at the stern. That was a perception, and perceptions change. Numerically, the most common transatlantic yachts these days are ordinary production cruisers with standard kit.
There’s no black art to sailing 3,000 miles downwind. Generally, the toughest part of an Atlantic crossing is getting across Biscay. So whatever boat you have right now, the chances are that with a bit of extra prep she’ll be fine for an Atlantic crossing.
As for a watermaker, generator, SSB radio, etc: they’re all useful, but every additional item adds complication and service cost/time. Apart from a sound boat, all you really need is water, food, fuel and a (paper) copy of ‘North Atlantic, Southern Part’.
2. Keep it simple
A smart crossing is all about consistent speed, 24 hours a day. The key is not to have downtime.
There’s no need to fiddle around with twin headsails, Twistlerig or expensive new asymmetric spinnaker; a main and poled-out genoa ‘barn doors’ set-up will do fine. In fact, me and my other half won the ARC rally overall one year after sailing wing-and-wing almost the entire way.
Just keep an eye out for chafe, and be sure to set up a preventer on the boom and a foreguy topping lift and downhaul when poling out the headsail so you can furl in quickly when that night-time squall hits (which it will).
3. Revise your energy equation
Whatever power you think you’ll use on an ocean crossing, add on another third. Nav lights, radar, radio scheds, autopilot, watermaker, fridge, freezer, computer, fans – you name it, they all add up.
Increase the means of generating electricity with a diesel generator, larger alternator, solar panels and/or a towed turbineandlook at means of making savings, such as fitting LED lights.
4. Get some extra training
Ocean seamanship is more about fixing things and managing problems on board than navigation or routeing. Diesel engine maintenance, sea survival, medical and first aid training and courses run by manufacturers on servicing and maintaining their equipment are all invaluable preparation – for crew as well as skipper.
5. Make the most of your time out
Don’t rush the opening stages of your year(s) off; enjoy the great summer cruising on the route down to the Canaries and other hopping-off points. The West Country, France, Northern Spain, Portugal and Madeira could be some of the best places you visit.
6. Take more crew for the crossing
Never underestimate how tiring ocean sailing can be and consider how hard-pressed you’d be two-handed if the autopilot were to break. Extra crew make life much easier and add to the stimulation.
You can find fresh new faces from Crewseekers , but do assess your compatibility first on a trial cruise.
7. Go the long way round
Some people spend thousands on routeing software, and that’s fine. But you don’t need it and if you’re not used to using Grib files and don’t have polars for your boat, it’s of dubious value.
The most reliable passage plan is the simplest and often the quickest: run your latitude down to around 20°N, 30°W before turning right, following the age-old advice to ‘head south til the butter melts’.
Here are three reasons to favour this route:
- You’ll pick up the tradewinds earlier. They often don’t kick in properly until halfway across on the rhumb line route.
- You’ll get nicer conditions. Sometimes the direct route is upwind after the start or there’s an uneasy cross sea from a depression to the north
- The extra distance is only between 200 and 300 miles
- You’ll tick off 2-3 degrees of latitude a day, so it will get warmer quicker
8. Take it steady
Don’t go all-out at the beginning of a crossing. It takes around three days for a crew to get their sea legs and settle down into a routine. Be kind to your crew during this time- and also your boat. It will be fully provisioned, fuelled and watered and that’s tonnes of extra displacement. The increased loads on the gear and rigging are significant, so throttle back and don’t push too hard too early.
9. Prepare for gear failure and carry spares
Be prepared for key equipment to fail, because sooner or later it will. If it’s gear you normally rely on, like an autopilot or watermaker, have a contingency or a workable plan to do without. Autopilot failure will start to put a small crew under strain by robbing everyone of rest time. For the same reason, it’s a good idea to make sure most or all of your crew are decent helmsmen downwind in following seas. If not, spend some time on passage tutoring them.
Similiarly, assume any piece of equipment that can go wrong will and plan your spares list carefully. Getting professionals to install equipment for you is not always good value – if you do it yourself you will have a better understanding of how to effect a repair.
These will be higher than you think regardless of your yacht. Everyone always asks about budget, but few people tot up theirs honestly. Eating out is one of the most expensive aspects of cruising, especially in the Caribbean, and gear service costs are high. Don’t forget, too, that your yacht will need a refit after you return to Europe.
11. Shore support
Logistics support from home makes life much easier. Tasks include co-ordinating crew changes and spares, and managing communications. Keeping a crew at sea in touch with the real world is as important as keeping those at home informed about life on board.
12. Keen an eye out for chafe
The real enemy at sea. Identify chafe points on sheet runs, the top of the halyard and through the spinnaker pole and protect as needed. If flying a spinnaker, move the halyard every few days.
13. Be smart with your provisioning
Involve the crew in the shopping list and the shopping, then they will have less reason to complain later. Cabbages last ages and are great in salad. Bananas go ripe all at once and you’ll soon be sick of them. For fruit supplies stick to apples, oranges and pears which all have a longer shelf life. Have a butcher vacuum-seal meat to help preserve it or get a machine and do it yourself before freezing. Take no cardboard packaging on board to avoid importing cockroach eggs.
Don’t be afraid to wear lifejackets and use lifelines and always use them at night and in bad weather. If in doubt, play it safe. Drum into crew never to leave the cockpit to go forward when no one else is awake. And think about safety below decks too; for example, the risk to crews wearing shorts while handling pans of boiling water. Discourage crew from peeing over the side: there are no recorded cases of men falling overboard while using the heads.
It’s difficult to have too much, even in a sailing boat. If going further than the Caribbean, carry some jerrycans – fuel is often a taxi-ride away from the shore.
And lastly….don’t fix your arrival date in the diary
In some seasons an Atlantic crossing is quick. In others it’s slow. The weather varies quite a bit, especially early in November and early December, when the tradewinds can be elusive. So if you are fixated on a certain arrival day, you’ll be set up for disappointment before you even leave.
A sailing passage is not a liner service, so kick back, enjoy the experience, bring a few books and maybe go on a digital detox to enjoy time out from the deadlines that shape daily life on shore.
Keep your plans open. Remember that the crossing is the adventure, not the arrival in the Caribbean.
And whatever you do, don’t let your crew book flights immediately after your estimated ETA – nothing sours the atmosphere on board more than a single stressed person who is on a deadline and champing to be on land.
Heading the other way? Leaving the Caribbean for cooler climates? Check out our 16 top tips on crossing back to Europe here
Take a read of our November 2014 issue featuring a 6-page report on planning your trip:
PLUS: Caribbean expert Chris Doyle shares his favourite places to sail in the Windward Islands:
Have your say:
If you have some tips of your own to pass on, add them to the comment section below.
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This article was first published October 7th, 2007. Updated March 24th, 2015.