An east-bound Atlantic crossing via Bermuda and Horta was a voyage of contrasts for Vivian Vuong

We tacked for the first and only time on our 13-day crossing. The view off Ultima’s bow revealed the alluring sight of not only an approaching landfall but elevation too. Pico, one of the nine Azorean islands of Portugal, jutted out from the Atlantic. The volcano’s crater and base were exposed, while swirls of cloud encircled the entire midsection. “We can hike to the top,” Nathan suggests.

My legs yearned for a stomp after two weeks on the boat. I know that while my husband is fuelled by the deep ocean and passage making, it’s the exploration of new places, foods and culture that is my motive to sail. So with these and a love for adventure in mind we designed an itinerary for crossing the Atlantic with Bermuda and the Azores as our waypoints.

Before we owned our Compass 47, we’d managed a sail charter business, living in the beautiful Grenadines but working long hours with only rare days off. I would stare at beaches and peaks, daydreaming from my office desk, and seldom got a chance to truly explore the island we lived on. We also delivered sailing and motor yachts for a living while saving up for our own boat.

Our routine would be to arrive at an airport, taxi to the marina, provision and prepare the yacht, then shove off. Any desire to explore the exotic locations each boat was in had to be satisfied by a day or two ashore, usually eating at restaurants within walking distance of the marina or going for a short swim, if time allowed.

We bought Ultima three years ago, eager to start our sail training company Ocean Passages, hoping to voyage the world at our own pace. But running a travel business during a pandemic was not sensible, so we delayed our international trips and instead sailed as far up and down the US east coast as we could from Florida to Maine. We became true snowbirds, migrating from north to south with the seasons, then were finally able to indulge ourselves by exploring the Caribbean more fully.

Leaving St Lucia with the Pitons in view. Photo: Vivian Vuong

Caribbean winter

One by one, countries dropped entry requirements for vaccinated travellers and our training passage plans expanded to sail through the Lesser Antilles. We often design passages our clients may one day take on their own boats, giving them an opportunity to get familiar with customs procedures, anchoring, mooring, navigating, and sailing offshore.

The tradewinds were a great way to island-hop south in the prevalent north-east to easterlies winds. Ultima was happiest on broad to close reaches, particularly since her hatches were becoming leaky and any upwind sailing meant a dose of salty water inside the boat.

In between training passages we spent several weeks in Grenada, taking the opportunity to go beyond the marinas. We practised our freediving at the underwater sculpture park, ran through the bush every Saturday with the growing and active Hash House Harrier running group, caught up with old friends – and made new local acquaintances – and spent time with visiting family.

The natural flora of Grenada was rich in vegetation, the jungles of South America spread by winds and currents to the islands. Bright bougainvillaea and tropical flowers bloomed wild, spilling out over one another, unaffected by concrete and streets. Nicknamed the Spice Island, Grenada is covered in a wide variety of edible plant life. Papayas, coconuts, mangoes, trees of nutmeg, turmeric, and cocoa were found all along the island’s winding roads, the air fragrant with ginger and cinnamon.

Skipper Nathan Zahrt trims the sails. Photo: Vivian Vuong

We took advantage of affordable yard rates to haul Ultima out of the water and spent time preparing her before our extended travels offshore, adding more layers of antifouling paint to her bottom and thoroughly inspecting her through-hull fittings. We were happy to become part of an awesome community of expats and cruising sailors. Communication on the Cruiser’s Net was broadcast daily.

Every morning at 0730 on VHF Ch66, boats offered spare parts for free or trade, answered each other’s questions, organised trips into town to visit the hardware store or for provisioning, and set up events like free yoga, trivia, and billiards tournaments at local restaurants. Achieving a good balance between boat work and exploring the island was easy and attainable and both of us were happy we spent time there.

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But, inevitably, hurricane season looms by late May and all of us had to make the decision whether to stay or go. For those who wanted to stay put, Grenada is the perfect place to sit out the hurricane season, below Latitude 12, so deemed safe by most boat insurance companies. Some full-time cruisers made plans to head east towards Europe, west to hurricane holes in the Caribbean, or through the Panama Canal. Others headed north, on the snowbird route to spend their summers further back in the Americas, while our part-time sailing counterparts jetted back to life on land.

For those of us that were planning to cross the Atlantic and head east, first we headed north, to the French West Indies. We sailed to the picturesque Îles Des Saintes in Guadeloupe with plenty of steady wind in between each island. But once in the lee of St Lucia and Martinique, their tall green mountains and peaks cast a long wind shadow and we had to work hard using our ‘iron genny’ to make miles.

The route

The French islands were also a chance to stock up, with wine, food, and even canned goods available in great variety at subsidised prices, and we piled food into our dry stores. By May, we found ourselves in Marigot, St Martin, where my friends at Le Gout de Vin boxed up 94 bottles of wine between Ultima and our mentor, John Kretschmer’s boat, Quetzal. Our $25/day rental car was stuffed to the brim, the three of us crammed between clinking bottles.

We drove back to our boats and unloaded our stock with the promise of what soon would be many days at sea and the routine of opening a bottle at sunset to each enjoy our one glass before dinner. Besides the wine, we stocked up on salty French butter aux cristaux de sel, dried meats and cheeses, neatly packaged frozen seafood and dry goods.

Our layover in St Martin also gave us enough time to take advantage of duty free shipping and my family flew in, suitcases packed with our brand new hatches bought from the States. For two weeks, we had just enough time to work on replacing our leaky hatches by day, then hit the beach before sunset.

Next stop Bermuda

Many yachts at Fort Louis Marina were preparing for a longer voyage straight to the Azores, loading up on jerry cans of fuel and water for a passage straight through the big Atlantic highs.

Keeping moving in light airs under spinnaker. Photo: Vivian Vuong

We planned a route that would hopefully avoid the centre of the highs, allowing for more sailing and a little respite on the pink, sandy beaches of Bermuda. Ultima and her crew of six left St Martin with 25 knots of wind fast reaching. With a reef in the main we left Anguilla to starboard and the Caribbean islands quickly disappeared astern. Making 180 miles a day for a couple of days, this was tradewind sailing at its best.

Sailing in one of my favourite parts of the Atlantic, I contemplated the deep cerulean blue of the Puerto Rican trench which plummets to depths of more than 20,000ft, my imagination filled with thoughts of what might lie beneath. As night fell a swollen full moon hung on our horizon – our crew, who had never stood watch at night before, more at ease with natural light reflecting off the waves. We sailed out of the trades and kept moving in light airs by hoisting the asymmetric spinnaker for one glorious full day and then poling out the genoa to sail deeper downwind on others.

Nathan and I have a fondness for Bermuda that goes back to the beginning of our offshore sailing careers, as it was where we made our first landfall. Six years later and I was on the helm as Ultima turned to port into Town Cut then on to Ordnance Island and the customs dock.

Each year, in November, during our southern migration, we’d stop in Bermuda for an often dreary, wet and blustery layover. So we were excited that when we decided to cross the Atlantic this year, we’d be stopping in Bermuda at the height of spring. We timed our arrival perfectly: the crowds from SailGP were thinning and Bermuda Day was around the corner.

Hurricane-damaged St Andrew’s church, known as Scots Kirk, in St George’s Bay, Grenada. Photo: Vivian Vuong

Residents celebrate the end of ‘winter’ and welcome warmer days by marking the last Friday of May as the date for fisherman and sailors to head back out to sea. A parade runs through bustling Hamilton, and crowds line the streets to see dancers and drummers of all ages. The main attraction, the Gombeys, are a troupe of performers dressed in brightly coloured hand-sewn traditional costumes dancing to the beat of drums.

The vibe in Bermuda is of tropical England where British accents are spoken with a beautiful Caribbean twang. We hired a two-seat glorified electric golf cart to drive across the island to provision. For exploring nearer the boat, we hired electric bikes in St George’s to visit the many forts overlooking craggy cliffs and clear blue bays. But our favourite beaches were on the sandy south shore, home to the largest parrotfish we have ever swum with.

Out to Sea

We celebrated Nathan’s birthday by leaving Bermuda on 2 June along with four crew members, Andrew, Eugene, Jim, and Ken. We raised the main and poled out the genoa as we headed back out of Town Cut into the wind and waves for the 1,800-mile passage to the Azores.

Colourful and fresh tropical fruit for sale to cruisers in
Rodney Bay, St Lucia. Photo: Vivian Vuong

We were treated to an easy start, sailing downwind with 12 knots of breeze from the south-west, even catching a tuna with our hand line a few hours after leaving St George’s. As soon as Nathan brought the fish aboard, I cooked fresh rice and after some careful filleting and a bit of concentration, served sashimi and tuna rolls for our first lunch at sea.

Before departing Bermuda we were alerted to news of the first big storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. It was still too early to tell exactly where Tropical Storm Alex would track so we opted for a more southerly route that would keep us well clear of NOAA’s modelled pathways for the storm.

The decision to stay south proved to be the right call as we kept a close eye on the weather, downloading GRIB files via OCENS and their iPad app Saga Explorer on our Iridium GO. We also texted our weather router, Trevor Richards, via Garmin InReach.

Trevor, who runs Star Weather Routing, is an experienced solo circumnavigator and it’s rare we go on passages or deliveries without his shoreside support. GRIB files are updated every six hours and each download brought a more organised and predictable path for Storm Alex, although it was not the only weather system in the North Atlantic.

Ultima alongside the wall in St George’s harbour, Bermuda. Photo: Vivian Vuong

We had a couple great days of sailing in moderate conditions on a beam to broad reach at speeds consistently above 6.5 knots. With very little height to the waves, Ultima glided perfectly across the water. Puffy white cotton balls appeared on the horizon, but as the day progressed, the clouds became darker and more ominous. Our wind speed gradually progressed from a perfect 15 knots to 25. Suddenly, a barometer watch beeped. “Uh oh, the pressure dropped,” Andrew announced.

In short order, we tucked in another reef in the main as a small low pressure disturbance bore down on us. Later that night Nathan writes in our log: ‘Squall after squall after squall after squall…’ With lightning in the clouds behind us, we took our three-hour watches through the night clipped into the cockpit as gusts of 30-35 knots blew outside and made sure the Hydrovane kept course and the boat was not overpowered.

We ended up getting more wind from this small disturbance than we would from Storm Alex a few days later. Fortunately, it was also localised enough that it only lasted for 15 hours and the sea state never picked up above 2m waves. This little low eventually overtook us, heading north-east, and left us with no wind. So we motored for a day, still working to get east as Alex was now heading our way.

Approaching Faial with a view of Montanha do Pico. Photo: Vivian Vuong

Knowing the storm was tracking east and growing, we dipped our course to head south-east. By day five we were 500 miles due south of the eye of Alex. The bands of the spinning system stretched for miles. As far away as we were, the tropical storm still brought 20-25 knots of wind with rolly 3m swells from the south, a favourable direction for us to keep an easterly course while making good speed toward Horta. As the bands of Alex passed over us and the wind dropped from 20 knots to 10, we shook out each reef trying to keep our 7-knot average; we were now racing a front trailing the cyclone that would leave us with headwinds.

Ultima won the race making over 7 knots for most of the day as the front stalled, so we began to head north once more, hoping to avoid the windless centre of the Azores high. For the next week we skirted the edge of the high in light to moderate winds on a more direct course to the Azores, Ultima sailing happily on calmer seas.

Crew practice celestial navigation. Photo: Vivian Vuong

With the heaviest weather behind us, the crew spent sunny days practising celestial navigation, plotting our course to improve accuracy, and reading seafaring books. Nathan and I busied ourselves turning out three meals a day from the galley. As the weather grew cooler I began to bake bread and prepare steaming spicy curries while Nathan cooked his favourite soups.

As we grew close to the Azores passing ships became more frequent, then gave way to playful dolphins and mysterious whales that barely showed themselves in the waves before spouting and diving back to the deep. Our last dawn at sea arrived with another passing warm front that surprised us with an almost instant 180° wind shift but also a shift in temperature as the overcast skies cleared to unveil the rocky cliffs and green rolling hills of Faial, and the looming cinder cone volcano of Pico behind it.

The busy, bustling little harbour of Horta is one of the iconic landfalls for cruising sailors. However, most cruisers stop for just a few short days before continuing on to Europe. We planned to spend some time here, getting to know the island and the people.

Where possible, we enjoy experiencing life in the various ports we visit, and getting to know the locals and their community. Our Atlantic waypoints voyage had given us the best of both worlds – an adventurous crossing, and characterful islands to explore. But after hiking to the top of Pico, I’m now ready to shove off again, legs sore from climbing and aching to rest during another week at sea. Off to mainland Portugal we will go, where we’ll complete our transat.

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