It’s a much more challenging proposition to sail the Atlantic west to east than it is the traditional tradewind route the other way. Helen Fretter went to Horta to meet crews taking part in ARC Europe
It’s true that this is the most popular route – 260 yachts made the westward crossing on last year’s ARC – but it is not the only one. An eastward crossing offers a very different experience, which can be either highly enjoyable or almost overwhelmingly challenging.
For this year’s ARC Europe the fleet first headed north, from the BVI to Bermuda (or south, from Portsmouth, Virginia), then east to the Azores, before choosing the final stage of their crossing – an island hop through the Azores and a 850-mile trip to Portugal with the rest of the rally, or splitting away to elsewhere in Europe.
Some had sailed across on a previous ARC and wanted a sociable return trip, others completing a circumnavigation, or returning home after a World ARC. There were also crews from the US and Canada taking on their first transatlantic and seeking the reassurance of crossing in company.
Relief in Horta
In late May the fleet convened in Horta, capital of the Azorean island of Faial, and a traditional meeting point for Atlantic voyagers. Faial is a curiously intense place, a speck in the ocean just 13 miles long, separated by 900 miles of water from Europe and 1,800 from the Caribbean. It’s also famous for the accumulated art work on its breakwater, as the video below shows.
There is very much a sense that forces bigger than you are in charge here – from the volcano that looms out of the mist, marking the island’s perch on the collision zone of three tectonic plates, to the squall clouds that roll in over the mountain ridge, bringing torrential downpours.
Horta is a sailors’ town, but the crews gathering at Peter’s Café Sport are not those found in mainland yachtie pubs. To have arrived here under sail is to have earned your stripes, and while there are celebrations, there is also a sense of relief at having made landfall.
William Shaw, owner and skipper of Slipper 1, freely admitted that he was emotional and tearful on his first day on land. The family crew experienced 59-knot gusts and 7m swells on the crossing in their Bavaria 41, and were humbled by the experience.
The Shaws own Slipper 1 in a partnership, and after many years cruising in Europe took the yacht to the Caribbean with last year’s ARC. Following a winter touring the islands, they joined the ARC fleet in Tortola, and began the eastward crossing with five on board – William Shaw, his son Robert and daughter Joanna, and two friends.
The first stage, an 850-mile trip from the BVI to Bermuda, which started on 7 May, was relatively uneventful, the only surprise being an acceleration zone in the narrow passage between Tortola and St John islands.
The Bermuda to Azores leg, the longest passage at 1,800 miles, started on 17 May. From the outset the fleet had a real mix of wind speeds. They tacked out from Bermuda in a 15-knot north-easterly. After a moderate start, the wind faded and Slipper motored through the night before picking up a gentle westerly.
Most of the fleet experienced a lull and spent several days motoring in the middle of the crossing, and Shaw reports that by 25 May they were alternating between motoring and sailing in reasonable conditions, and were treated to the sight of a sperm whale surfacing 20ft away.
The following day, however, the pressure began to build.
“We started getting increasing wind because of a frontal system coming in. By Friday 27 it was blowing quite hard. And over Saturday, Sunday and Monday it was building all the time.”
The ARC Europe fleet receive weather forecasts from the World Cruising Club organisers, with the Atlantic divided into ‘zones’, each allocated a letter code. “On Saturday we were told that the weather in ‘KK’ and ‘MM’ would be good so we started to come south, and then we got a forecast the next day saying where we were was likely to be the least intense place. So we turned and went straight up onto 071°.
“We started off with 4-5m of main and a storm jib, but when we found that we were slewing round and getting taken off track, we wound the main in and took the storm jib down and just motored. It was evident as soon as we started that once we got the engine speed right it was the safest thing to do.
“The seas were so big that if you had any sail up, it would cause you to more or less broach. Looking behind you – which is always a mistake – the seas were towering 25-30ft waves. Fortunately the sea length was quite reasonable, but some of the crests were breaking and the remnants of the crest would break over the back of the boat.”
By the early hours of Tuesday morning, wind speeds had built to 50 knots. “I’ve been sailing for 35 years and I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was screaming. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.”
Joanna Shaw recalls: “It felt like a row of terraced houses made of water coming towards you.” With both her father and her brother on board, she says they were keenly aware of the potential devastation to the rest of their family if the worst happened.
However, the crew stayed calm. “We talked through all the options and how to keep safe, and nobody panicked,” says William Shaw. “There were a lot of people quietly looking at one another though. We had the washboards in, the top closed, so we were as ready as we could be if we did get hit and rolled. We didn’t take any risks. Coming on deck you’d be on your harness points, moving around very carefully.”
Shaw felt that they were on the edge of their boat’s capabilities. “This is a fairly lightweight cruiser and it’s really pushing it for what we did. I know people have done it in this sort of boat before, but if it had been any worse I’m not sure what would have happened.” However, Slipper acquitted herself well, tracking down the waves and with no gear failures under pressure.
The yacht is fitted with a Whitlock autopilot drive, in which Shaw has complete faith. “We’ve had it since the boat was new in 2003 and it’s brilliant, just unbelievable. It has a 12V motor, but it’s got really big windings so it’s a big proper chunky bit of kit. I’d never have anything else.” The yacht also has a 55hp engine and they had 150lt of diesel in tanks, and another 200 in cans, giving them plenty of fuel to motor when needed.
Shaw adds: “If the engine note changes I wake up, you’re in tune with it, you have to be.”
For other crews, it was gear failure that characterised their crossing.
Help at hand
Cliff Crummey joined the ARC Europe to take his Elan Impression 444 AWOL to the Mediterranean, having also sailed across with the 2015 ARC. On the westward crossing he had been joined by his wife, eldest son and brother. However, work commitments meant his crew could not do the eastbound trip, so Crummey joined the ARC online crew list and began to search for replacements.
“I made some good connections and got it down to about six people, all Yachtmasters or really well qualified,” he recalls. “Unfortunately I had numerous people drop out at the last minute. One guy even paid for his flights and then decided that he didn’t want to come.”
Crummey’s wife jumped on a flight back to the BVI and they completed the first stage together, before his crew search resumed. He interviewed one sailor and, having reassured himself of his experience levels, signed him up. With his new crew’s flight landing just a day before departure, the duo set out having never sailed together previously.
“It was quite breezy and we knew there was a low coming in that would catch us, so we all went quite south initially, then tacked and came north,” recalls Crummey. “Then overnight on that first night the autopilot decided to pack in.”
The difference between perception and reality of experience levels became obvious immediately, as Crummey’s co-crew struggled to hold a course on AWOL in the 30-knot winds and 4m seas. Crummey took the wheel for 12 hours to ride out the worst of the conditions.
Crummey was considering whether to retire, but the thought of heading back alone, into a following low, was equally daunting. “Do you do another 1,000 miles, or go back to Bermuda? It would have been pretty devastating if we had gone back, but I think, if we’d still been on our own, that would have been the only choice.”
Fortunately, he spotted fellow ARC entrant Hejira on AIS. “I knew Nick [Mines, owner] anyway, so I contacted him and he very kindly agreed to escort us across.” The two crossed almost the entire way in company, with AWOL staying within a couple of miles of their lead boat during the day, and within half a mile after dark.
“At night-time to assist us, because my crew found it very difficult to sail at night by the instruments, we put Nick in front of us with his anchor light on and his stern light on – so he could look and steer. We did that every night, which worked a treat.”
The pair adopted a two hours on, two hours off watch pattern, as they hand-steered across the Atlantic in Hejira’s wake. Crummey initially slept on deck, then left a fog-horn next to the helm so he could be awakened if help was needed on deck. Fortunately they had predominately light winds for ten days, giving Crummey a chance to retro-fit his previous autopilot, which worked for several days to earn the pair some respite.
However, Mines and Crummey had realised that the same low pressure system that caught Slipper was approaching, and decided to motor rapidly towards the Azores. The crew on Hejira transferred 100lt of fuel to AWOL to allow Crummey to motor without constraint, and both boats arrived safely before the severe winds struck.
If ever you were to find yourself relying on another yacht mid-Atlantic, Nick Mines and Hejira are exactly the sort of skipper and boat you would want to find. His Southerly 135 has been lovingly modified and prepared for all eventualities, including back-up systems galore with solar panels, wind generator and Watt & Sea hydrogenerators for recharging, and what Mines concedes are “spares of spares”.
Even though Mines admits that sailing in company with AWOL did compromise their crossing, he says he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. “It was ten days, the majority of our trip. But they were very grateful and they got here safely, and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience otherwise.”
Pushing the limits
Not every ARC Europe tale was one of woe. Far from it – for many of the larger yachts it was a trip with plenty of variety, made even more memorable by some exceptionally close encounters with whales.
Two Hanse 575s, Ximera and Seaside, were among the faster boats to enjoy smooth crossings. Will Downing, skipper of Ximera, sailed with a crew of six, several of whom had also been recruited through online crew searches, but rather more successfully.
Both Downing and his partner, Michelle Weeks, are Yachtmaster instructors, so were able to focus less on the sailing experience levels of the crew they took on and instead ensure the crew would gel in terms of personality. The multi-nationality crew had clearly enjoyed every minute of their Atlantic crossing, including an abundance of freshly prepared meals which Will jokes “became a bit like ‘Come Dine With Me’ at times”.
The first yacht home was George Gamble’s Testarossa, a Beneteau OC55, which arrived after ten days of sailing, an hour and a half ahead of Seaside. The reigning J/111 world champion has previously completed the ARC in full-on race mode and says that his current Testarossa is bought as a pure cruiser, an antidote to the VX One keelboat he races. But the Testarossa crew were certainly not taking it easy on the ARC Europe.
“We sail her real hard,” admits Gamble. “We keep the rail down and make the boat sail fast. We won’t reef until we absolutely have to. A lot of boats might reef and flatten the boat out. We don’t, we push 24/7.”
Then, they pushed a fraction too hard, and their boom crumpled during a gybe four days into the trip. The crew took the mainsail down and put the boom to one side, sailing under jib alone for the first night. The next day they set up the mainsail with a line from the third reefing point to a spinnaker block, and raised the mainsail until they could sheet it without the boom, sailing with it loose-footed.
Confident in this arrangement, they continued at a good pace to Horta. “We went north to get pressure in the next low, caught that and just reached in. We were still doing 9.5-10 knots. When we got in they were sure we had motored a lot because we had crossed so quickly.”
Although Testarossa may be a cruising yacht, Gamble sails with more performance-orientated routines than many bluewater cruisers. “We all take turns and drive for an hour a day, so we all get used to the boat and get a feel for what it’s like.
“If it’s a great upwind leg and we’re really going to weather then I’ll drive just for the fun of it, but for just reaching along I’ll let the autopilot work and I’ll trim. We do trim our sails constantly. That makes a huge difference. This boat just absolutely hauls when you get her going.”
While the camaraderie and onshore socials may represent much of the appeal of crossing with the ARC Europe for many boats, the position tracker gives a frisson of competition to Gamble.
“Oh, we do watch the boats around us. We’re a little bit competitive; we can’t help it.”